Somehow the University of Notre Dame football team had come too far, worked too hard and focused too long to let its 2018 season come to a halt on one Los Angeles night.
But that didn’t mean there weren’t a few nervous moments Saturday in the Los Angeles Coliseum, as USC fought to squelch Notre Dame’s postseason plans and give itself a shot at a bowl game.
Early on, the Trojans did just about everything they wanted to do. They eschewed the deep passing threat the Irish were most worried about and concentrated instead on a quick-throwing game that temporarily negated the potent Notre Dame pass rush.
Freshman quarterback JT Daniels completed 18 of his first 19 throws, including 14 in a row through one stretch from the first period into early in the second quarter.
The Trojans dominated time of possession early (including 11:26 of the first period), at one point led Notre Dame 30-9 in plays run and 206-27 in total yards.
USC did something no one else had done in 2018 in building a double-digit lead over the Irish at 10-0.
But it wasn’t enough.
Untimely Trojan penalties (eight for 71 yards) and turnovers (two first-half fumbles ended possessions that had reached into Notre Dame territory) proved costly — and the home team simply did not find enough ways to transform yards into points.
USC ended with 443 total yards — most allowed by the Irish all year. Yet, after the Trojan field goal four minutes into the second period made it 10-0, the home team didn’t score again until the last minute.
And Notre Dame’s grit in responding to that deficit with 24 unanswered points paved the way for a satisfying finish to a perfect regular season.
Irish senior wide receiver Miles Boykin had no intention of thinking the Irish would not ultimately prevail.
“At halftime we’re down three and I’m thinking, ‘This is not how our season is ending.’ We knew we had two more quarters left, and the will of this team is incredible,” he said. “How we fight for each other, the love we have for each other is ridiculous. We’ve got a lot of playmakers in this offense. You’ve got to be patient.
“We were playing hard, we just weren’t as sound in our details. And USC is a good team, so throw the records out. It’s a rivalry game. Emotions are high. We knew it was going to be a battle for four quarters.”
Veteran Irish defensive tackle Jerry Tillery appreciated what the home team wanted to accomplish:
“We understood what they were trying to do,” he said. “We just had to make some adjustments and force them into a different offense. We changed what we were doing to fit it better and cover down out there.”
Added Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love, “They had a rhythm going, they had their script going. That made them successful early in the game and we were playing top down coverage. In the second half we played tighter coverage.”
Despite the 10-7 deficit, Tillery had a good feel about his team at intermission.
“I had zero doubt,” he said. “I knew we were going to win the game. I was excited to get back out there. We weren’t going to be denied.”
Added Love, “We were fired up. We knew what was on the line. We knew what we had to do. We knew we had to come out with fire in our hearts and we did that.”
It was mainly Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s job to diagnose what the Trojans were doing and find a way to counterattack.
“They came out with a plan to get the ball out of his (Daniels’) hand quickly,” he said. “Our concern coming in was the number of balls that they’d hit down the field. We had designed a lot to take those throws away, but it was all short early.
“So it was a matter of identifying what their plan was and trying to resource our package to find some answers. You just have to focus in on what the next strategic thing is that you have to do.”
Lea loved the response he saw from his defensive charges at halftime.
“The players were awesome,” he said. “When I walked in after meeting with the coaches, they were ready. They were ready to hear the adjustments, they were ready to go out in the second half and play hard.
“It’s not an easy thing. There’s no way they don’t feel a little swallowed up by the (first) half. Human nature is maybe to be a little overcome in those moments.
“But I walked in and they were enthusiastic, they had energy and they had a look in their eye. They were sending me a message, and it was, ‘We’re ready to go do this.’ And that builds your confidence.”
The Irish defense then set the tone by forcing punts on the first five USC possessions of the second half, allowing only 87 combined yards on that quintet of drives.
That permitted big plays from running backs Dexter Williams (a 52-yard touchdown run) and Tony Jones Jr. (a 51-one yard scoring pass from Ian Book) to carry the day for Notre Dame.
When it was over, the Irish players had to think back to the message head coach Brian Kelly left with them at the team hotel just moments before they boarded their buses to head to the Coliseum.
“How exciting is it for us to be here, to play our final game on national television?” Kelly posed to his squad.
“If you even thought about it back in January you couldn’t have dreamed of this situation. And here’s the great part about it. You’ve studied for the exam. You know those days when you haven’t. You walk in there and you say, ‘I’m going to get my brains beat in today.’ We’ve all been there, right? You’ve got no chance.
“But you’ve built traits of excellence, an attention to detail, everything we asked you to do. It’s all the little things that matter — laser focus, making good decisions, being smart, having a great attitude and being gritty. Those traits are with you today when you take the final exam.
“You understand how important it is when you take the final exam, that you can’t take a shortcut to this. Knowing that your thoughts affect all the things that are going to happen today — and your mindset to dominate your opponent.
“You are prepared to go out and play at the highest level today. So why wouldn’t you be excited? You get to play on national TV, prepared to be at your best today. That’s exciting.
“So go play, don’t hold it back. There’s nothing to hold back today. Play fast, play free, play aggressive.
“But here’s something I’m going to tell you. It’s a rivalry game, so that adds something to it. Your opponent will play with great emotion today and you’ve got to match that. You’ll determine how long they fight — you’ll determine that by your physicality.
“You must tackle with physicality — when you have a chance to tackle, you’ve got to tackle today. Bend ’em back — they’ve got to feel you when you tackle today. And you’ve got to block ’em. We’ve got to control the line of scrimmage today.
“That’s not high science, is it? This game of football boils down to its fundamental principles of blocking and tackling. This is the easiest game in the world.
“You’ve got the traits, you’re prepared. You’ve put yourselves in this position. Now go play the game you’ve played since you were a kid. Go block and go tackle.
“Meet your opponent with the same kind of emotional desire to go win a football game. It’s that simple.
“And enjoy this opportunity. This is our last regular-season game together. Who knows what happens after this? It’s out of our hands. After this we have no control over what happens to us. What we can control is what happens today. Let’s control the day.
“Enjoy it. Relish it. Play with your brothers. You’re prepared and you’ve worked for it — man, did you work for it all year to get to this point.
“So go ace the final exam.”
The craziness of the postgame Notre Dame locker room at the Coliseum gave way to sleep for most of the Irish as they headed east through the night on their Delta charter.
By the time they landed about 5:30 a.m. ET in South Bend, the events of the night before had had time to sink in.
And there was no denying 12-0.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books (one a New York Times bestseller) and editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.