Oct. 22, 2017
By John Heisler
Give the Notre Dame football team an extra week to prepare and get healthy.
Give the Irish a plus-three advantage in turnovers.
Give Brian Kelly’s squad another dominant performance up front, resulting in an amazing 377-76 edge in rushing yards.
Give the Irish an opportunity to reacquire a rivalry trophy, this time the jeweled shillelagh.
Give Notre Dame all those things and the end result turned out to be a three-hour party for Irish fans Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.
The Irish manhandled old rival USC, the 11th-ranked team in the country, blowing out to a 28-0 halftime lead and scoring the most Notre Dame points in the series in 40 years.
The final score on a perfect evening in South Bend was 49-14 in favor of the home team, as Notre Dame knocked off its highest-rated opponent at Notre Dame Stadium in Kelly’s eight seasons on the sidelines.
And the effort from start to finish was every bit as impressive as the score indicates.
“As we go out on this field tonight, let’s understand who we are,” Kelly told his team before kickoff. “We are the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. You are part of an incredible tradition of football players who have dressed in this locker room, who have played for Notre Dame and represented Notre Dame.
“To be part of the Fighting Irish you have to have these traits we’ve talked about. You have to have heart and courage and grit and toughness. And, guess what, you can’t buy those on an app. You have to build it from within. It’s been built within you as members of the Fighting Irish.
“Tonight you welcome USC to the Fighting Irish. You know how to play the game. You are the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. You represent all those who have played before you and who will play after you. That is your why — why you are here — to represent the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
“Instilled in you are those traits that you can’t buy, that you have to earn. You’ve earned them. Now show them tonight against USC.”
Maybe USC’s one glimmer of hope came on the first series of the game. With Notre Dame backed up on its own 10, Adams was stuffed for a loss of a yard, Wimbush’s deep throw to Chase Claypool was long and wide and then his screen pass attempt to Adams fell short on third down.
The Irish went three and out in a minute and one second and the Trojans began their first drive on the Irish 43.
That’s when it first blew up for the visitors.
USC’s all-star — but lately turnover-prone — quarterback Sam Darnold couldn’t find the handle on the very first snap from scrimmage. Te’von Coney separated Darnold from the football and recovered it — and momentum swung.
Three plays later, Wimbush threw perfectly to a wide-open Equanimeous St. Brown for 26 yards and a 7-0 lead barely two minutes into the action.
After a Trojan punt, the Irish drove 79 yards, the final 23 of those on a scoring pass to Kevin Stepherson.
Hidden in that drive was a play by Wimbush where he lowered his shoulder and initiated the contact against Trojan cornerback Isaiah Langley. It resulted in a few extra yards on the carry — but more than that it sent a message that the Irish had every intention of being the more physical football team.
Midway through the opening period, Notre Dame already had USC on its heels — and it only got worse. The Irish already led 139-11 in total yards, and those numbers only ballooned.
After three possessions, USC had 15 total yards (one rushing). The Trojans’ best chance to score early resulted in a missed 22-yard field goal. From there, Notre Dame punted after a 10-play possession, only to have the ball slide right through Jack Jones’ hands and into those of Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill at the Trojan nine.
Three plays later, Adams made it 21-0.
On USC’s second play Darnold was intercepted by Nick Watkins — and Notre Dame marched 59 more yards, with Wimbush skittering in from the four. It was 28-0.
Darnold, with three interceptions and six lost fumbles in his last four games, led his team to a net production of 23 yards in the second period.
The Irish merited a standing ovation at halftime from a crowd that stood most of the opening two periods while watching the home team outrush USC 190-17.
Kelly had to love just about everything he saw from his football team in the first 30 minutes, yet his tone at intermission was emotional and cautionary:
“Mental toughness requires everybody to understand what that means. What that means is you put your opponent away. Do not mess with this group. They were down 21-7 to Utah and they came back and beat them. If you let this team believe and give them hope, they will get back into this football game.
“They have no reason to believe they can beat Notre Dame. You take it away from them. If you don’t go out there with the right mindset, this will be a ballgame — I’m warning you. Understand what we’ve worked for — it’s a dominant mindset for four quarters. Do not let this team up for one second.
“This is your rival, this is USC. You don’t get many chances to get a ranked team in your stadium and to put them away. Let’s go do that.”
Darnold needed five minutes to put his team on the board — then Notre Dame responded with a 65-yard drive of its own. Wimbush carried for 23 yards and then the final seven for the TD (tying DeShone Kizer’s season mark of 10 for TD runs by a quarterback), giving him two passing scores and two rushing touchdowns. The Irish ground advantage bulged to 257-21.
Darnold gutted out another USC scoring possession — this one of 73 yards. But Adams needed one play — an 84-yard dash through the heart of the Trojan defense — to effectively end the drama.
Darnold tweaked his ankle on a Jay Hayes sack late in the third period, threw one last incompletion on fourth down on the first play of the fourth period — and retired for the night.
Wimbush connected consecutively to Stepherson for 23 and then 12 yards and Adams finished it on a crafty 14-yard run.
Notre Dame led 49-14 and it was over except for the end-of-game singing of the alma mater that in this case happened in as celebratory fashion as longtime Irish observers could recall. The start-to-finish Irish effort and production had been that significant and more.
Those 49 points had to be music to the ears of the 1977 Notre Dame title team, in town for its 40th anniversary reunion — since that was the same number those Irish scored in a major-league home win over fifth-rated USC that season.
Darnold finished with 20 completions on 28 throws for 229 yards and two TDs — certainly not shabby figures. Wimbush accounted for 120 passing yards and 106 more on the ground. Yet there was little doubt which signal-caller made more heady plays to help his team’s success.
“I challenged you when I told you this game was going to be won by the team that was most physical,” Kelly said in a joyous Irish locker room. “Physicality was how we were going to win this football game. We rushed for over 370 yards to their 70 — that’s physicality. Games are won with physical play.
“So congratulations — everybody understood the process. It was total preparation and focus and you took it to your rival, USC, and beat them in the fashion you did today. It was total dominance. Congratulations.”
Then Kelly paid tribute to what his team has accomplished since last November when it finished the 2106 campaign in a loss at USC.
“Many of you may not remember, but after that game I told you that the build-back would happen right here and right now. It would happen right after that game. I am so proud of all the players that were there at that time and took hold of that and made a decision to bring this football program to the level it is at today.
“Because it was your decision, it was your decision to say, ‘That’s not Notre Dame football.’ You made that decision. You could have chosen other ways to go about it. I’m so proud of all those players that have restored the pride in Notre Dame football by going out and dominating your rival on a Saturday night on national television.
“This isn’t going to be the pinnacle of this season. There’s too much in front of us, too many things. So let’s act like we’ve been there before and that there are going to be bigger events ahead.
“It doesn’t get any easier. We’ve got North Carolina State at 6-1 after a week off. There is no room for error. We embrace the grind — it’s hard and difficult, but we do these things. Let’s not just celebrate occasional victories. Let’s do the hard things.”
When Kelly produced the rivalry trophy — the jeweled shillelagh — the scene looked like lions feasting on raw meat.
Irish senior lineman Mike McGlinchey summed it up succinctly: “Pretty good one, huh?”
Notre Dame, now ranked ninth in the Associated Press poll, appears determined not to make it the last.