Photos by Ralf Cheung.
If a USC football team can’t beat both, it must beat at least one of USC’s longtime rivals for its season to be a success in the eyes of some Trojan fans.
Though USC looked outmatched against crosstown foe UCLA in a 38-20 loss last week, the Trojans redeemed themselves to some degree with a dominating 49-14 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday. The bipolar highs and lows of the last two games are indicative of both the first season under head coach Steve Sarkisian and the careers of the seniors playing in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum for the final time.
“I’m happy for this [senior] class,” Sarkisian said. “Their last game in the Coliseum is something they’re obviously going to remember for a lifetime.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler threw six touchdowns to five different receivers, and the Trojan defense held a Fighting Irish offense that was averaging about 35 points a game to only two touchdowns.
“All three phases were just tremendous,” Sarkisian said.
The Trojans started the game on a 35-0 run. After punting on their first possession, the Trojans found the end zone on their next five. Kessler finished the day 32-40 with 372 yards and no interceptions. He at one point completed 16 passes in a row and set a career record for completions.
Kessler said the team planned on running a particularly up-tempo style and said the team executed the game plan excellently.
“Today, it was obvious how tough it was for them to get lined up against us,” Kessler said of the fast pace. “It really played to our advantage.”
Notre Dame did not advance the ball into USC territory until the second quarter. The Irish did not score until the 4:11 mark in the second half, when backup quarterback Malik Zaire replaced starter Everett Golson.
Golson finished the day 7-18 with 75 yards and one interception in the air. The dual-threat signal caller came into the game with 291 rushing yards on the season but left the game with a net -14 yards rushing after being sacked three times. The Trojans also forced one Golson fumble and finished the day with two caused turnovers.
Senior linebacker Hayes Pullard said the key was for the linebackers to get pressure on Golson, something they didn’t do the week before against UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley.
“We learned from last week, us linebackers weren’t going,” Pullard said. “We had to get after it and help our D-line. We prepared all week, [defensive coordinator Justin] Wilcox had a great plan for us.”
Trojan fans also got to see a backup in at quarterback, but under slightly different circumstances. Redshirt freshman Max Browne relieved Kessler with about 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter but did not record a passing attempt. On the Trojans’ final drive, senior Anthony Neyer, the fifth quarterback on USC’s depth chart, subbed into the game as the signal caller. He also did not record a passing attempt but did rush for five yards on two attempts.
“It was awesome,” Neyer said. “It was such a blessing to be able to come into this Saturday against Notre Dame in my last game in the Coliseum and see everybody do so well.”
As the final home game for the careers of the 13 seniors on the roster, the Trojans celebrated Senior Day by honoring each one before the game. The 13 seniors were announced individually out of the tunnel before the game and were met by family members at midfield.
The seniors honored included Neyer, Pullard, tight end/defensive end Teddy Baker, safety Gerald Bowman, linebacker Lamar Dawson, center Giovanni Di Poalo, offensive tackle Nathan Guertler, kicker Andre Heidari, cornerback Josh Shaw, linebacker J.R. Tavai, tight end Randall Telfer, guard Aundrey Walker and tight end Chris Willson.
Bowman recorded an interception and seven tackles, Pullard recorded three tackles including one for a loss and a fumble recovery, Shaw recorded a tackle and Telfer caught Kessler’s sixth touchdown pass.
The win concludes a tumultuous first regular season for Sarkisian as USC’s head coach. The Trojans were in contention for the Pac-12 South championship until losing to UCLA in their final conference game. In addition to a big defeat against UCLA, the Trojans lost convincingly out of conference to an unranked Boston College team then fell on the final drive against both Arizona State and Utah.
Sarkisian said the Arizona State loss stings particularly strongly, as the Sun Devils won the game on a miraculous hail marry pass as time expired, and Trojans would have made the Pac-12 title game if they had successfully defended that one play with all else being equal over the season.
“Those are some gut wrenching losses,” Sarkisian said looking back on the regular season. “It’s my job to figure that out so that doesn’t happen again.”
One more win in their bowl game will leave the Trojans just short of 10 wins on the season, but Sarkisian said he would nonetheless be proud to see the 8-4 Trojans finish with nine wins. Though he said he was looking forward to next year to some degree, saying, “our future is ridiculously bright,” the focus was on finishing off the season with a bowl win.
“I’m proud of the way we played,” Sarkisian said. “I think it gives us a chance to head into bowl prep with a lot of confidence.”