On an idyllic humid evening in an iconic venue, Notre Dame football players might have viewed a nearly full moon floating high and just to the left of the Olympic flame at the peristyle end of the Los Angeles Coliseum late on Saturday night.
Instead, they tended to their business that basically concluded when Miles Boykin cleanly recovered an onside kick with less than a minute to go.
Moments later the Irish headed to the southeast corner of the stadium to sing the alma mater one more time, arm and arm in front of their fans. One prescient fan in the front row brandished a yellow banner that read, “Playoff Like A Champion Today.”
The Irish hadn’t allowed themselves to think like that as they traversed through a heavy-duty, late-season road fest — or, as Irish coach Brian Kelly described it later, “coming soon to a city near you.”
The final record will show that the Notre Dame football team ended its 2018 regular season Saturday night the exact same way it began it nearly three months ago — with a 24-17 victory over one of its biggest rivals.
Those two victories over Michigan and USC, combined with the 10 triumphs in between, comprise something special, if not spectacular.
“It’s hard to win 12 games,” said Kelly.
Yet the Irish did that — and so this morning they sit pretty as the college football postseason now begins to build a bracket.
Maybe the hardest part about being 11-0 with one game remaining is that you want to reach out and touch that 12th victory — and yet you’ve still got to find a way to make all the plays that turn that quest into reality.
And so Kelly made sure his charges understood what awaited them on the Coliseum turf Saturday night:
“We’re not taking any blows from them. We’re not out here to feel this thing out. We’ve been on this journey for 11 weeks. We are not about to pull up at the finish line. We are running through the damn line.
“We don’t get to this point by accident. It’s by the work and the commitment by everybody in this room. And we do not stop a few feet short. We go take it.
“We do not wait for USC to determine how they’re going to play the game. We decide how this starts and how it finishes. That’s all I want. I don’t care about anything else tonight.
“I want to know that we start fast, that we have an attention to detail, that there’s effort and enthusiasm and we finish strong. Four quarters of Notre Dame football. That’s who we are. That’s all we know about playing this game. No waiting around to see how the first quarter goes.
“You either give games away in November or you take ’em. We’re taking this one.
“We’ve come too far and sacrificed way too much to do anything else.”
Maybe Kelly had a sense that the Trojans — desperate themselves for a victory to allow them to retain bowl hopes — would not easily accede to the visitors’ intentions.
And give embattled USC coach Clay Helton a blue ribbon for crafting a plan that worked in the early going — and had at least a few of the Trojan fans thinking of 1938 and 1964 and 1970 when previous Irish teams came to Los Angeles with perfect records to end the regular season. And then lost.
Rookie Trojan quarterback JT Daniels threw the football again and again and again — 14 plays in a row over one stretch. After one period he had flung it 17 times and completed 16 for 138 yards. Few of those were big gainers — but they proved effective in playing keep-away with the football.
Notre Dame had less than four minutes of possession time in that opening period. Daniels at one point built an in-game quarterback efficiency rating of a gaudy 165.5. By the time Michael Brown’s 30-yard field goal put the Trojans on top 10-0, the home team held a 14:35 to 3:34 edge in time of possession.
Then the Irish went to work for real.
On a mirror-image second-period possession, the Irish threw the football nine times times in a row themselves — only to come up empty after reaching the Trojan 39.
The next Notre Dame drive saw Ian Book begin to make the sort of plays that win football games. Three times he converted on crucial third downs — first on an 18-yard throw to Chris Finke, next scrambling for 11 yards (the exact number he needed for the first down) and finally finding Finke again for nine more yards.
Book put the visitors on the board on a picture-perfect 24-yarder to Finke who planted one foot inbounds and flew over the top of the pylon. With Trojan cornerbacks blanketing Chase Claypool and Boykin in the early going, all seven of Finke’s receptions (for 86 yards) came in those first two quarters.
The Irish had only 32 rushing yards at halftime. So whatever UCLA had done to run for 313 yards the previous Saturday against USC, Notre Dame couldn’t replicate.
Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long laid it out for his charges:
“It’s about who wants it more. Who is gonna dig deep?
“It’s gut-check time. How bad do you want it?
“We’re gonna find out a lot about ourselves now. Find a way.”
Kelly was more succinct:
“We’ve got to start doing. There’s no more talking.
“We’ve been down this road before. Lock in, one play at a time.
“I don’t need to hear a lot of rah-rah. That’s not who we are.
“We play with a sense of urgency on every single play. We’ve got to tighten down in everything we do.
“There’s got to be a greater sense of urgency and precision. One play at a time.
“Play the game the way we’ve played it all year. We know we’ve got to tighten up. That’s not how we’re going to win by playing the way we did in the first half.
“You heard the adjustments. Trust them! Trust the adjustments!
“Take care of business. We’ve got two quarters left together.
“Let’s go do it.”
And then the usually mild-mannered Alohi Gilman delivered a challenge of his own:
“I refuse to leave this locker room without a win,” he admonished his teammates.
On Notre Dame’s second possession, Dexter Williams swept wide left in front of the USC bench and dashed 52 yards to pay dirt on the second play. Just that quickly the Irish had gained a lead.
Late in the third period, Book connected on a critical fourth-and-three call for a 12-yard gain to Williams down to the USC 26. That set up Justin Yoon’s 46-yard field goal that barely cleared the cross bar and made it 17-10.
By now the Irish had made up those early huge deficits in plays run and total offense. And Notre Dame’s offense in the third period produced 141 total yards of its own.
Kelly’s crew had one chance to double the margin, driving 58 yards deep into Trojan real estate, only to see Book throw a third-down interception in the end zone.
But after an emphatic Jerry Tillery third-down sack, the visitors went right back to work. This time, Book flipped a swing pass in front of the Irish bench to Tony Jones Jr. who raced 51 yards down the sideline, with a big Boykin block helping finish the scoring play.
Running backs coach Autry Denson hoisted Jones into the air in satisfaction. The Irish held a two-score lead with only 3:09 remaining.
USC added one last touchdown with 48 seconds left — its first points in more than 41 minutes — but it wasn’t enough.
The postgame scene on the field was comparatively mild-mannered and respectful.
Quarterback coach Tom Rees had a fitting hug for Book, who ended with three more passing yards than Daniels on 15 fewer completions. (Daniels’ 37 completions set a USC record.)
Once the Irish reached their tight Coliseum locker room, more than a few primal screams rang out, as did the sounds of hip hop music.
At one point, Kelly stuck his head into the scene and said, “Keep playing. I’ll be right with you.”
The Notre Dame head coach began by producing the jeweled shillelagh that goes to the winner of the Irish-Trojan clash each year.
“It stays in South Bend again,” he emphasized.
“Number two, 12-0. Every game they put in front of you, wherever it was, you went out and you attacked it.
“Every game we played had a different feel to it. In this one we grinded it out. You needed grit and sustained effort over a long period of time. You did not back off. Nobody turned away from what needed to be done today — you kept doing your job.
“There were games where you didn’t need any grit, where we overwhelmed our opponent. Today we needed it.
“Congratulations to everybody. You earned it. This is a special team and a special group of guys that found a way to win every game that was put in front of you.
“I don’t know that you can really understand the significance of what you accomplished, but I can tell you this. This is really, really hard to do. It’s special and it can be shared by everybody in this room.
“This is about the players. This is your victory, this is your team that says, ‘We’re undefeated.'”
Kelly handed the game ball to strength and conditioning guru Matt Balis, who made sure the Irish were optimally physically prepared for their November slate, after a tough slog in that aspect a year ago this time. The Notre Dame players lifted Balis nearly to the ceiling in acknowledgment.
Some share of the postgame questions from media reached back to the Irish response to the 4-8 campaign in 2016.
“We had a strong corps of young players that needed to be developed,” said Kelly. “We just needed to stay the course.
“We’ve won 22 of (our last) 25 (games) on the backs of players making plays.”
Then he paid tribute to the way his Irish went about their business in 2018:
“Our guys stayed in the lines. They didn’t get outside themselves.”
Offered Book, “It’s something I dreamed about.”
Added captain and linebacker Drue Tranquill: “A lot of teams have the pieces and don’t make it happen. We made it happen.”
And so they did.
It may take some time for it all to sink in.
Even Kelly acknowledged it was a little early to think about big-picture stuff.
And that’s because the Irish now can say they are not done yet.
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.