Within the first two minutes of play, the Trojans’ hopes of defeating rival Notre Dame, reclaiming a spot in the top 10 and vying for a chance to see the playoffs slipped away.
It happened after a perfect three-and-out from the defense, with a near-sack from junior linebacker Cam Smith quieting the crowd.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold called the first snap of the game. His eyes were on the defense, swaying and hungry behind the line of scrimmage. They weren’t on the ball, which flew high, hit him in the hands and popped skywards.
Eyes wide, Darnold scrabbled to retain possession as three defenders descended on him. Out of the dogpile, Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney leapt up with the ball in hand, greeted by roars from the Irish crowd. The defense jogged out, heads shaking in disbelief. Three plays later, Notre Dame scored a touchdown off a 26-yard pass and never looked back, handing USC a crushing 49-14 loss.
The team played like this for the rest of the game — inconsistent, beleaguered and lost.
“It was embarrassing,” senior captain Chris Hawkins said. “I’m embarrassed.”
If the Trojans knew anything upon entering South Bend, they knew that this game would be a test. The legacy of the rivalry and the cacophony of the sold-out crowd alone could sway any game on any given Saturday. Add in the brutal one-two punch of running back Josh Adams and quarterback Brandon Wimbush, and despite the discrepancy in rankings between No. 11 USC and No. 13 Notre Dame, the Irish didn’t look anything like an underdog.
The game was a test of the grandest proportions. And in a stumbling season full of disappointing outings, the Trojans collapsed.
“We’ve got a sad football team in there right now,” head coach Clay Helton said after the game. “We’ll live and learn from this. Credit [to] Notre Dame. They won the battle in the trenches tonight. I thought they played an excellent game. We helped them by mistakes.”
The first half was, if anything, a well-rounded meltdown. The Trojans coughed up three turnovers for 28 points while the defense struggled to control the gashing rush offense. Even special teams struggled mightily, with sophomore punt returner Jack Jones dropping a punt at the five-yard line and freshman placekicker Chase McGrath missing a 27-yard field goal.
After a shutout half, the score wasn’t all Darnold’s fault. The offensive line crumpled after almost every snap, giving him only a second or two to scan the field before he was forced to desperately scramble away from barrelling tacklers.
But after Darnold fumbled the very first snap of the game, he tossed away yet another interception in the second quarter. The two turnovers put him at 15 on the season, which is more turnovers as an individual than any Pac-12 team has allowed as a whole.
“We don’t try to make excuses. We just try to learn from our mistakes if we make them and try not to make them again,” Darnold said. “It’s just those little turnovers we have to fix. We have to get better at that. I’m not playing any differently. I just go out there and try to play ball to the best of my ability, and that’s really all I can do.”
And for a second week, the defense couldn’t bail out the flailing offensive unit. The Irish racked up 262 offensive yards in the first half, with Wimbush tossing for 72 and rushing for 76 on his way to four touchdowns. Sloppy tackles allowed wide open runs, while receivers burned the USC secondary repeatedly.
The halftime trudge to the locker room was a familiar sight for the Trojans — grimacing with frustration as they trailed a lower-ranking team. But in South Bend, the second half magic was nowhere to be found.
“We’ve got to come out faster,” Smith said. “I’m not going to put it on anything else than the fact that they were just better than us.”
The defense only turned out one stop in the third quarter and allowed 21 more points. Notre Dame carved up the USC defense on the ground, with Adams blasting through tackles for an 84-yard touchdown sprint. Unfazed by the Trojan attack, the Irish sent in their backup quarterback with nine minutes still remaining in the game.
The offense found some success in the third quarter, with touchdown passes to junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett and redshirt senior wide receiver Steven Mitchell closing the scoring gap slightly to 35-14. Yet although Darnold’s offense showed signs of life over those two touchdown drives, any momentum the unit had discovered ground to a halt when the quarterback took a hard ankle tackle in the third quarter.
Darnold had to be helped off the field, and although he forced himself back onto the field for one more snap, redshirt freshman Matt Fink took over in the final quarter to ride out the loss.
After falling to 6-2, postseason options are limited for USC. Since Notre Dame is a non-conference opponent, the loss will not affect the team’s position at the top of the Pac-12 South. But after entering the season as favorites to play for the national championship, the Trojans’ hopes at the playoffs are likely dashed.
“It’s going to be a tough plane ride home, but it’s just adversity,” Darnold said. “We’re going to look at it straight in the face and try to get better from it. That’s all we can do.”