SOUTH BEND, Ind. — USC fell 31-16 in its return to Notre Dame Saturday night for the 92nd edition of this classic rivalry between two historic powerhouses. While USC has won 14 of the last 25 matchups, Notre Dame has now taken eight of the last 11 and each of the last four.
The Trojans did very few things well in the first half. USC’s defense came out especially flat from the jump, as the Irish were able to get basically everything they wanted on the ground or through the air over their first two drives. High-percentage passes for short but consistent gains were instrumental in Notre Dame’s methodical game plan in the first quarter against a Trojan secondary that looked as lost as it did against Utah before the bye week.
All parts of the field were full of holes for Notre Dame’s graduate quarterback Jack Coan, who completed 20 of his 28 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown. Midway through the first quarter, a second consecutive 70-yard drive was capped off by a four-yard touchdown pass to a wide open graduate receiver Avery Davis all alone in the back of the end zone to give the Irish their first lead of the game. They would not surrender it for the rest of the night.
One aspect of the mental game the Trojans have not excelled at this season is responding to their mistakes and their opponents’ big plays. A critical moment Saturday night was the first play of the second quarter. As the Trojans looked to even the score at 7-7, the Irish nearly made it 14-0 with an interception returned 79 yards to USC’s 4-yard line, but junior quarterback Kedon Slovis was just able to chase down Notre Dame graduate linebacker Bo Bauer to save a touchdown.
USC’s red zone defense, perhaps the lone bright spot through much of the first half, held strong, and the Irish settled for a field goal. The defensive stand following a near-pick-six, however, was not enough for the Trojans, as they were incapable of putting points on the board and made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball.
On its final drive of the first half, USC failed to stop the clock in order to kick a field goal on the last play. The Trojans ran the ball as the clock ticked down and didn’t have time to spike it before time expired, missing a critical chance to cut into the deficit.
“I wanted the ball spiked the play before,” head coach Donte Williams said. “They were trying to hurry up, and Kedon hurried up and called a play.”
“Some miscommunication from the sideline. That’s my fault. I thought we would get the first down and the clock would stop, we’d have three seconds left, we should be able to spike it,” Slovis said. “But that’s my fault as a quarterback. I gotta get everyone on the right page.”
The Trojans have been plagued by penalties and big plays throughout the season, giving up 65 yards on nine flags Saturday night, including two costly false starts on a second-quarter drive that resulted in a field goal, rather than seven points. A defensive pass interference and an unsportsmanlike conduct in the fourth quarter helped Notre Dame seal the game with a late touchdown after USC had brought it back to a one-possession game.
Williams was more focused on the mistakes made by the team as a whole, but defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was disappointed with the penalties.
“Hopefully this will be one of these things that hurts so much that we can start getting this stuff cleaned up,” Orlando said.
“Penalties happen for different reasons,” Williams said. “I’m talking about mistakes like just a blown coverage, missed tackles, not blocking properly. Those are mistakes that need to be corrected, sometimes through personnel things.
“We made way too many mistakes against a really, really good football team … Whether it was special teams, offense, defense, coaching, we all made mistakes, and we took turns making them.”
Offensively, the Trojans struggled to get the ball into the end zone, as they have all season, although offensive coordinator Graham Harrell felt like the offense operated efficiently.
“I don’t think moving the football’s the issue. I think scoring points is the issue,” Harrell said. “We just gotta finish drives and get points out of drives.”
The Trojans’ main standout performer was junior Drake London, who shined brightly in an otherwise dull and stagnant offense — something that has become a theme in USC games this season, or at least in losses. He racked up 15 catches for a career-high 171 yards on 20 targets, while no other receiver was targeted more than four times, but his impact wasn’t a difference-maker.
The run game opened up for the Trojans as they clawed their way back to an eight-point deficit with just under nine minutes left in the game. Senior Keaontay Ingram turned in a strong performance, rushing for 138 yards and a touchdown.
Ultimately, it would be too little too late, and Notre Dame’s touchdown with around five minutes left put the game out of reach.
Williams was complimentary of Ingram’s performance after the game, as were his teammates. “I saw a guy that ran hard ... and got the tough yardage. At the same time he made some guys miss one-on-one.
“He made some things happen. That’s what we expect out of him. Big time back.”
USC is now 3-4 and needs to go 3-2 the rest of the way in order to be eligible for a bowl game. The Trojans have a break in the schedule next week against 0-7 Arizona but will have to turn the offense around in order to go .500 this year.
“The frustrating thing is it’s not like we’re going out here and having 50 yards of total offense. We’re moving the ball really well,” Slovis said. “Again, just some mistakes here, not executing here, and you end up with  points on a day where you feel like you should have a lot more.”