Notre Dame vs. USC Score, Takeaways: No. 6 Trojans Cruising As Caleb Williams Heisman Steals The Spotlight

On a day when high-ranking teams like No. 2 Ohio State and No. 8 Clemson suffered heavy losses on their home field, No. 6 USC avoided a similar fate and kept College Football Playoff hopes alive with a 38–27 No. 1 win. 15 Notre-Dame. Caleb Williams secured the Trojans victory with a standout performance and four total touchdowns as the sophomore quarterback made his plea for the Heisman Trophy against a high-quality Fighting Irish defense.

Senior running back Austin Jones also contributed heavily as he broke the 100-yard mark in his second game as the Trojans bounced back from a season-ending injury to star back Travis Dye. Defensively, the Trojans gave up some big plays in the passing play, but stopped Notre Dame’s strong offense and came up with some clutch plays.

The Fighting Irish forced a punt and took possession just 31-21 with 6:03 left, but USC defenseman Calen Bullock jumped for a Drew Pyne pass intended for star Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer and took down an interception with 4:56 left. Facing a fourth and two on the ensuing possession, Williams held the football for a 16-yard touchdown run to clinch the game.

USC now enters next week’s Pac-12 Championship Game with an 11-1 record under first-year coach Lincoln Riley. Notre Dame, meanwhile, finishes its first regular season under coach Marcus Freeman at 8-4.

Caleb Williams steals the show

A quick look at the box score is an ineffective way to judge Williams’ performance against the Fighting Irish. His 232-yard pass marked his third-lowest passing output of the season, but that number doesn’t tell the story of how he controlled the game. On a second and thirteenth play late in the third quarter, Williams ran backwards, evaded numerous defenders and somehow turned a potential sack into a 19-yard gain that carried the Trojans into Notre Dame territory.

A few plays later, he avoided another sack and taunted the Notre Dame defense en route to the end zone on a 3-yard touchdown that put USC ahead 31–14 early in the fourth quarter. Time and time again, the Oklahoma transfer evaded potential sacks to buy time for its receivers to open. While his game numbers don’t jump off the page, that was partly because USC only had nine possessions… well, eight if you don’t count the Trojans’ last possession when it kneeled the football.

On those eight real possessions, the Trojans scored six times with five touchdowns and only one field goal. They only gambled once in the entire game. And when they did, it was actually Williams who handled it. With USC lined up in the shotgun as he faced a fourth and eight in his own territory, Williams kicked the ball 58 yards for a touchback.

Two pivotal plays

While many of the highlights of this game will be focused on Williams, and rightly so, two plays in particular stood out above the rest in determining the game’s outcome. The first came early in the second quarter with Notre Dame trailing 10-0, but heading into USC territory. Facing a fourth-and-1 on the Trojans’ 27 yard line, Freeman chose to go for it, but the USC defense got a nice wave and filled ball carrier Mitchell Evans before he could reach the sticks. Had the Fighting Irish scored a touchdown on possession, or even a field goal, it would have given the first half a different flavor.

The second game-changing play came on the first possession of the third quarter, with Notre Dame pushing the football deep into USC territory trailing 17-7. The Irish had gone 49 yards on the range when disaster struck in the form of a Drew Pyne fumble. Ralen Goforth fell for it for the Trojans at the USC 26 yard line. Less than three minutes later, USC completed a touchdown drive to make it 24-7. Just minutes earlier, Notre Dame was on track to make it a one-possession duel. But suddenly it became a three-possession game because of the swing caused by the fumble.

Consequences of the CFP

With No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 LSU both losing on Saturday, the Trojans will rise from No. 6 in the new CFP rankings on Tuesday night. The question is how high. With another win against a ranked foe in their pocket, USC has a reason to jump to fourth in the rankings, ahead of Ohio State. Unlike the Trojans, the Buckeyes will not play for a conference title next week after being destroyed 45-23 at home to No. 3 Michigan.

But Ohio State advocates will argue that the Buckeyes shouldn’t be penalized too severely for the loss to the No. 3 Wolverines. With a non-conference victory over Notre Dame and an 11-1 record, the Buckeyes currently have a similar resume to the Trojans. The real divorce could come next week if the Trojans can win the Pac-12 Championship Game. If USC joins the CFP, it would mark the first time since the 2016 season that a Pac-12 team has made it to the four-team field.

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