14th-ranked Notre Dame was given a scare but C.J. Prosise and the Fighting Irish defeat the USC Trojans in the biggest intersectional rivalry game in college football.
“Our theme all week was the mental toughness that we wanted to exhibit today, it was the one question we wanted to answer,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “I didn’t see anything on the sideline that resembled our guys not believing they were going to come back.”
Mentally tough indeed, the Irish scored 40 points or more points against the Trojans for the first time since 1977. 17 points were scored late in the game to overtake the Trojans while holding them to no points in the fourth quarter. Running back C.J. Prosise ran for 143 yards on only 19 carries for a 7.5 average and 2 touchdowns. Quarterback DeShone Kizer completed 15 of 27 for 227 yards and 2 more touchdowns with no INTs. Receiver Will Fuller caught 3 receptions for a whopping 131 yards and 1 touchdown.
If interim coach Clay Helton is to ever secure a head coaching position it will be due to the education of games like Saturday’s rivalry between his USC Trojans and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where the bottom line began to surface in glaring neon not long after the fourth-quarter play clock expired. Loosely translated, the neon reads, YOU GOTTA WIN THE BIG ONES. PERIOD. END OF STORY. Put in a more professional yet less openly-honest manner, it tones downs to multiple sources running with what was first reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport that Sean Payton and Chip Kelly headline USC’s Sarkisian replacement project, a list that reportedly has several NFL coaching prospects on it (See below).
USC’s Juju Smith-Schuster, one of two star receivers, led all receivers with 6 receptions for 139 yards and 1 touchdown. Quarterback Cody Kessler threw for 365 yards, completing 30 of 46 passes and 2 TDs but threw 2 INTs late in the game when they needed him most. It wasn’t the Cody Kessler of 2014 that threw 6 touchdown passes, but overall, he had a good day, and as debuts go, coach Helton and staff did a decent job of getting the Trojans to play fairly well and make a game of it, all things considered.
FIRST QUARTER: The Trojans fired right out the box, driving down field to score on the first possession. Highlighted by a 37-yard Cody Kessler-to-Juju Smith-Schuster completion that landed put them on the 6, Kessler ran it in two plays later. Before they could stop congratulating themselves, the Fighting Irish struck back on a 75-yard pass play from Will Fuller to DeShone Kizer. USC drove to the ND 25-yard line but had to settle for a 42-yard field goal by Alex Wood. Led by the running of C.J. Prosise (31-yarder/25-yarder for a score), ND scored again, then again on a 5-yard return of a blocked USC punt. Score: Notre Dame 21, USC 10
SECOND QUARTER: Notre Dame drove down the field to the USC 15 but settled for a field goal of 32 yards by kicker Justin Yoon for the team’s third score in a row without a reply. USC then connected instantly after the kick-off with trickery as ex-quarter-turned-receiver Jalen Green hit Juju Smith-Schuster for 75 yards. After a ND punt, Cody Kessler struck again two plays later, hitting Adoree’ Jackson for another 83 yards. ND would punt again, while USC would miss a 40-yard field. Halftime Score: Notre Dame 24, USC 24
THIRD QUARTER: Following a third straight punt by ND, USC running back Ronald Jones II would break for 65-yards, leading to a 4-yard pass from Kessler to Taylor McNamara for the Trojans third straight score without a reply. Both teams would punt out with no further scoring. Score: Notre Dame 24, USC 31
FOURTH QUARTER: Highlighted by the running of C.J. Prosise and a USC pass interference call, ND took it in on a 6-yard Prosise run up the middle for their first score of the second half. USC punted and the Fighting Irish followed with another score on a 10-yard pass to Corey Robinson to cap a 7-play, 91 yard drive led by bursts of 17 and 25 yards from C.J. Prosise, and a 35-yard completion to Alize Jones. Cody Kessler would throw his first of two late interceptions, and Notre Dame kicked a 52-yard field goal to score for third and final time in the quarter. Late in the game, the Trojans had no choice but to throw and Kessler’s second interception would be the nail in the coffin. Final Score: Notre Dame 24, USC 31
It was an exciting game to watch overall, and with momentum switching like it did, you got the feeling the lead would continue to change throughout. Credit Notre Dame for the USC goose egg when it counted, but USC’s play selections seem suspect at times, especially after they had the lead and looked like the game was swinging in their favor for good.
Coach Helton will not be USC’s head coach selection for next season, but there are no doubts this game did nothing to hurt his resume for future opportunities. Athletic director Pat Haden has heard the calls for his job as well—not only behind of the Sarkisian incident, but arguably, because the program has been in worse shape than when he arrived—and he will need to save his future there by making a coaching splash between now and soon after the season, preferably with a “name.”
The names that are reportedly on the list of candidates for the vacancy are or include:
Sean Payton: Current New Orleans Saints head coach and the newly-reported front-runner for at least a few good reasons, the main ones being he’s considerably more experienced where it counts, he’s extremely more recruiting-friendly, and because his daughter attends Pepperdine University, a mere thirty-minute drive from Trojanland. Additional reasons include the rumors circulating that he may be leaving via trade deal with another NFL team or as the Saints began to rebuild post-Drew Brees.
Chip Kelly: Current Philadelphia Eagles head coach, reportedly the first big name guy brought up when the news broke of the firing. Kelly has said that he’s not leaving Philadelphia unless he’s fired (50/50 chance of that should this season reclaim that sour taste of the Eagles off-season…but that’s just my opinion). It’s also been reported that Chip does not like the recruiting part of college football or being in the spotlight, which is a huge Los Angeles market no-no.
Mark Dantonio: Current Michigan State head coach. A Nick Saban understudy, he led the Spartans to 4 seasons of 11 or more wins, 6 wins over the rival Michigan Wolverines in seven years, plus 2 Big Ten Championships. A former D-back, he’s said to be a defensive-minded coach on the conservative side offensively.
Jon Gruden: This ex-NFL Super Bowl-winning head coach’s name seems to always pop-up on the coaching vacancies lists nationwide. USC certainly has the money to do what others (pros and colleges) haven’t been able to do, lure him from Monday Night Football where he’s reportedly ESPN’s highest paid personality. The head coaching position at USC is said to be the best job in football, but a year ago Gruden publicly showed much interest in his dream job, the one filled by Jim Harbaugh. With Harbaugh probably there for awhile, he might reconsider.
Jeff Fisher: Current St. Louis Rams head coach and ex-USC Trojans defensive back. Fisher grew up in southern California and is probably the most experienced in the knowledge of the USC fabric. He is happy in his current job and to whom he works with, and doesn’t want to leave his current project incomplete, but some think he would do so for the USC position and would be a perfect fit mentalitywise after what they’ve just experienced. Considering the Rams are nearly set to move to Los Angeles anyway…
Other names include: Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M head coach), Ed Orgeron (LSU assistant coach), Tom Herman (University of Houston head coach/former OC of Championship Ohio State Buckeyes), Justin Fuente (#18 Memphis head coach—probably the highest stock-riser of the smaller schools).