Notre Dame vs. USC score, takeaway: No. 6 Trojans cruise as Caleb Williams steals Heisman spotlight

Notre Dame vs. USC score, takeaway: No. 6 Trojans cruise as Caleb Williams steals Heisman spotlight

On a day when highly ranked teams such as no. 2 Ohio State and no. 8 Clemson suffered upset losses at home, No. 6 USC avoided a similar fate and kept its College Football Playoff hopes alive with a 38-27 victory over No. 15 Notre Dame. Caleb Williams keyed the win for the Trojans with a performance that featured several highlight plays and four total touchdowns as the sophomore quarterback defended his Heisman Trophy against a quality Fighting Irish defense.

Senior running back Austin Jones also contributed a lot as he surpassed the 100-yard mark in his second game as the Trojans played back from a season-ending injury to senior running back Travis Dye. Defensively, the Trojans gave up some big plays in the passing game, but slowed down Notre Dame’s high-powered offense and came up with some clutch plays.

The Fighting Irish forced a punt and led just 31-21 with 6:03 remaining, but USC defensive back Calen Bullock jumped in front of Drew Pyne’s pass intended for Notre Dame star tight end Michael Mayer and knocked down the interception with 4:56 remaining. Facing a fourth-and-2 on the next possession, Williams kept the ball on a 16-yard run for the game-winning drive.

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 with an 8-4 record.

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 yards passing marked his third-lowest passing output of the season, but that number doesn’t speak to how he controlled the game. On a second-and-13 play late in the third quarter, Williams ran back, eluded numerous defenders and somehow turned a potential sack into a 19-yard gain that moved the Trojans into Notre Dame territory.

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

On those eight straight possessions, the Trojans scored six field goals with five touchdowns and just one field goal. They only shot once in the entire game. And when they did, it was actually Williams who handled it. With USC lined up in the shotgun as it faced fourth-and-8 in its own territory, Williams punted the ball 58 yards for a touchback.

Two key games

While many of the highlights from this game will focus on Williams, and rightfully so, two plays in particular stood out above the rest in determining the outcome of the game. The first came early in the second quarter with Notre Dame trailing 10-0 but driving into USC territory. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the Trojans’ 27-yard line, Freeman went for it, but USC’s defense got a good rush and forced the ball-carrying Mitchell Evans before he could reach the sticks. If the Fighting Irish had scored a touchdown on the possession, or even a field goal, it would have given the first half a different flavor.

Another game-changing play followed on the first possession of the third quarter with Notre Dame pushing the football deep into USC territory while trailing 17-7. The Irish went 49 yards on the drive when disaster struck in the form of a Drew Pyne fumble. Ralen Goforth fell on 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 game. But suddenly it became a three-possession game because of the fumble-induced momentum.

CFP implications

With no. 2 Ohio State and no. 5 LSU who lost on Saturday, the Trojans will go up Tuesday night from the no. 6 in the new CFP ranking. The question is how high. With another win over a ranked foe under its belt, USC has a case to jump to the No. 4 ranking ahead of Ohio State. Unlike the Trojans, the Buckeyes won’t be playing for a conference title next week after being destroyed 45-23 at home against No. 3 Michigan.

But Ohio State naysayers will argue the Buckeyes shouldn’t be penalized too harshly for the loss to the No. 3 Wolverines. With a non-conference win over Notre Dame and an 11-1 record, the Buckeyes have a similar resume to the Trojans at this point. The real separation could come next week if the Trojans are able to win the Pac-12 Championship Game. If USC makes the CFP, it will be the first time since the 2016 season that a Pac-12 team has made the four-team field.

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