SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame was expected to pummel USC — a recovering USC roster should have stood little chance to the No. 9 team in the nation, especially on its home turf. But the game was far from a blowout. The Trojans showed fight for the first time in the last two years, keeping the game close through the final minutes but ultimately fell 27-30 in a fourth-quarter thriller.
“Notre Dame’s a good football team, we are too,” head coach Clay Helton said.
The first half was rough for the Trojans. A three-point lead in the first quarter was promptly negated by 17 unanswered Notre Dame points in the second quarter. USC had trouble getting within striking distance of the end zone or even field goal range. Four of USC’s seven first-half drives ended between the Notre Dame 40-yard line and midfield.
“We were just one guy away a lot of times in the first half,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said.
Despite edging out Notre Dame in time of possession 17:12 to 12:48, USC’s offense failed to execute drive after drive. Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis posted a 58% completion rate and passed for 74 yards. Meanwhile, the running back trio of redshirt freshman Markese Stepp and juniors Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai notched a combined 84 yards on 15 carries.
The defensive side didn’t look great either. The Trojan defense allowed eight plays for a gain of 10 yards or more. This included a 51-yard screen pass to sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy that resulted in a touchdown late in the first half.
“They had a couple long drives where they hit some explosives in the first half that got them the two scores up,” Helton said. “We weren’t hitting the explosives.”
Heading into the second half, USC trailed by 14 with little offensive production. It seemed as if the Trojans were on the road to a blowout loss, a familiar sight to USC’s last meeting in South Bend when the Trojans lost 14-49.
But Helton came into the second half with an entirely different team. Touchdown Jesus must have walked into the USC locker room and performed a miracle on the Trojans.
Slovis improved his completion percentage in the second half, posting 78% in that half alone. He also tacked on 181 passing yards for a game total of 255. USC looked methodical, moving down the field much more effectively. Sophomore wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown recorded 112 yards on eight receptions, including a 38-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
“I think the tempo really just opened up things for us on the offense,” St. Brown said.
That tempo helped the Trojans rack up 24 points in the second half, outscoring the Fighting Irish 24-13. USC scored on each of its second-half drives, leading with a field goal and closing with three touchdowns.
“In the second half, we were hungry to do what we know we can accomplish,” Slovis said.
But Touchdown Jesus’ second-half miracle wasn’t enough for the Trojans to edge out Notre Dame. A six-minute and 54-second Notre Dame touchdown drive ate up a significant portion of the second-half clock leaving USC with little time to close out the comeback.
“If we take a couple plays away, we’re winning this game,” redshirt sophomore safety Isaiah Pola-Mao said.
Although the Trojans were bested by the Fighting Irish, they improved in several areas in the narrow loss.
USC only suffered two penalties — an offsides foul on a kickoff and a questionable roughing the passer call on sophomore linebacker Palaie Gaoteote — a massive improvement over their 2019 average of 7.2 penalties per game.
The Trojans didn’t allow a turnover for the first time since their contest against Washington State last September.
If USC comes out with the intensity it displayed during the second half in South Bend, Helton believes the team can bounce back from its 3-3 start.
“It’s our job over the next six weeks to make sure [we can close out drives] so we can win a Pac-12 title,” Helton said.
The Trojans return home for their homecoming matchup against Arizona on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 14, 11:46 a.m. - A previous version of this article stated that USC and Arizona will play at 5:30 p.m. It has been corrected to 6:30 p.m. Annenberg Media regrets the error.