With rain drizzling on the Coliseum late in the first half, it seemed like USC could have a legitimate game on its hands. A Notre Dame side with nothing to play for besides pride was nearly matching the Trojans shot-for-shot on both sides of the ball. Only a missed Irish field goal had allowed USC to hold onto its 10-7 lead.
“You looked up and it was a close game,” head coach Clay Helton said. “Rain’s coming down, wind’s blowing and it’s one of those ball control days. You’re just hoping and praying for a big play.”
It did, as with less than two minutes to go before halftime, Adoree’ Jackson happened. The Trojans’ jack-of-all-trades gamebreaker caught a punt around midfield and raced into the end zone. 17-7. The junior’s third return touchdown of the season set the stage for redshirt sophomore cornerback Ajene Harris, who scored a pick-six on the ensuing Irish drive. 24-7.
Less than a minute had ticked off the game clock, and the Trojans had more than quintupled their advantage. That first-half swing helped propel No. 12 USC past rival Notre Dame, 45-27, on Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum.
“It’s just one of those feelings you can’t describe,” Jackson said. “We were just having so much fun out there. This has probably been the most fun game I’ve ever been a part of.”
The Trojans weren’t at their clinical best, coughing the ball up once on a punt return and taking occasional bad penalties on defense, but they still had the star power to beat down the Fighting Irish. Sophomore tailback Ronald Jones II scampered 51 yards into the end zone during the first, and redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold was his usual elusive self, throwing for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Jones rushed over the century mark for the fourth time in five weeks.
But even among a roster of stars, it was Jackson’s whose shone brightest this weekend. In addition to his punt return, Jackson took a screen 52 yards for the score early in the third quarter. Then, with Notre Dame refusing to roll over, he took a kickoff 97 yards to the house for good measure to give USC a 38-21 lead.
Jackson finished with three touchdowns — a kickoff return, a punt return and an offensive touchdown — in what could have been his final game in a USC uniform at the Coliseum. He tallied 291 all-purpose yards, spread across receptions, rushes, and returns.
But entering the game, Jackson wasn’t feeling entirely on top of his game. Emotional over senior night, Jackson devoted his last game in the Coliseum of the season — and possibly of his career — to his senior teammates.
“I was in my feelings a little bit,” Jackson said. “I’ve been with them three years and then to see them go, I was a little bit emotional and sad. I wanted to do something for them, make sure they didn’t go out with a bitter taste in their mouth.”
Things arnoldidn’t start as smoothly as the scoreline suggests for the Trojans. Despite scoring a field goal on its opening drive, USC allowed a 74-yard run from tailback Josh Adams in its opening defensive play, which took the Irish to the one-yard-line. Quarterback DeShone Kizer punched it in to give Notre Dame a 10-7 advantage.
Jones responded with his long touchdown run to give USC the lead back, but neither team was able to take control of the game through most of the first half–until USC dropped the double whammy of Jackson and Harris. Against the run of play, the Trojans took a commanding 24-7 lead at the half.
The momentum brought into the locker room at the half was a necessity for USC. It required players to step up with clutch plays at key moments, something that Darnold says has become a brand of this Trojan offense.
“Every single game, it’s great to have our athletes come out here and make their plays,” Darnold said. “Whenever guys can make their plays when they’re called upon, that’s something special, and that’s really the culture we’ve established here.”
But Notre Dame came out firing in the third quarter, recovering a Jackson fumble during a punt return and putting up seven points off the turnover. USC, in turn, responded immediately with a Jackson touchdown. This became a trend throughout the second half, with the Trojan lead bouncing between ten and 17 as the teams traded blows.
The final nail in the Irish coffin finally came in the fourth quarter, when a red-zone fumble from sophomore running back Aca’Cedric Ware was overturned thanks to a targeting penalty. Darnold found junior JuJu Smith-Schuster for the Trojans’ sixth touchdown of the day, opening a 24-point advantage and icing the game.
Putting a game away is certainly easier when you have a host of weapons through the air and on the ground, be it Jones, Smith-Schuster or Jackson. USC finished with almost an exact balance between receiving and rushing yards: 205 to 207.
“There’s an overall chemistry of the offense right now that I really like,” Helton said. “There’s not one thing that the defense can take away. The balance right now speaks volumes to me.”
That consistency has been the source of constant improvement for a team that started in the worst way in September. After a blowout loss to Alabama, a heartbreaker last-minute loss at Utah and a blow against rival Stanford, the team that jubilantly crushed Notre Dame seems completely transformed.
And that’s what Helton takes the most pride in.
The Trojans don’t know whether they’ll play once more or twice more, in a major bowl game or in a Pac-12 Championship. But at the end of a regular season that started with disaster and ended with celebration, Helton seems confident that a new era of Trojan football is beginning to make itself heard when it matters the most.
“I look at us from game one to where we are now and I do truly believe that we’ve improved each and every game that we’ve played,” Helton said. “We’re playing our best ball in November and that’s what you’re remembered by.”