The Trojans are still firmly in the College Football Playoff picture with the Pac-12 title game now on deck
On a day when highly ranked teams such as No. 2 Ohio State and No. 8 Clemson suffered upset losses on their home fields, No. 6 USC avoided a similar fate and kept its College Football Playoff hopes alive with an 38-27 win over No. 15 Notre Dame. Caleb Williams keyed the Trojans’ win with a performance featuring several highlight plays and four total touchdowns as the sophomore quarterback made his case for the Heisman Trophy against a quality Fighting Irish defense.
Senior running back Austin Jones also did plenty to contribute as he surpassed the 100-yard mark in his second game as the Trojans’ featured back following a season-ending injury to star back Travis Dye. Defensively, the Trojans gave up some big plays in the passing game but bottled up Notre Dame’s strong rushing attack and came up with some clutch plays.
The Fighting Irish forced a punt and took possession down just 31-21 with 6:03 remaining, but USC defensive back Calen Bullock jumped in front of a Drew Pyne pass intended for star Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer and pulled down an interception with 4:56 remaining. Facing a fourth-and-2 on the subsequent possession, Williams kept 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, ends its first regular season under coach Marcus Freeman at 8-4.
Caleb Williams steals the show
A quick glance at the box score is an ineffective way to assess Williams’ performance against the Fighting Irish. His 232 yards passing marked his third-lowest passing output of the season, but that number fails to tell the story of how he controlled the game. On a second-and-13 play late in the third quarter, Williams ran backwards, evaded numerous defenders and somehow turned a would-be sack into a 19-yard gain that moved the Trojans into Notre Dame territory.
A few plays later, he avoided another sack and taunted Notre Dame’s defense on his way into 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 his receivers to get open. Though his numbers from the game won’t jump off the page, part of that was because USC had just nine possessions … well, eight if you don’t count the Trojans’ last possession when it kneeled the football.
On those eight true possessions, the Trojans scored six times with five touchdowns and just one field goal. They only punted once the entire game. And when they did, it was actually Williams who handled it. With USC lined up in the shotgun while facing a fourth-and-8 in its own territory, Williams punted the ball 58 yards for a touchback.
Two pivotal plays
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 game’s outcome. The first came early in the second quarter with Notre Dame trailing 10-0 but on a drive into USC territory. Faced with a fourth-and-1 at the Trojans’ 27-yard line, Freeman opted to go for it, but the USC defense got a nice surge and stuffed ball-carrier Mitchell Evans before he could reach the sticks. Had the Fighting Irish scored a touchdown on the possession, or even a field goal, it would have given the first half a different flavor.
The second game-altering play came on the opening possession of the third quarter with Notre Dame driving the football deep into USC territory while trailing 17-7. The Irish had covered 49 yards on the series 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 all of the sudden, it became a three-possession game because of the swing caused by the fumble.
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 victory over a ranked foe under its belt, USC has a case to jump to No. 4 in the rankings ahead of Ohio State. Unlike the Trojans, the Buckeyes will not be playing for a conference title next week after they were destroyed 45-23 at home against No. 3 Michigan.
But advocates of Ohio State will argue that the Buckeyes should not be penalized too severely for suffering a loss against the No. 3 Wolverines. With a nonconference victory over Notre Dame and an 11-1 record, the Buckeyes have a similar resume to the Trojans at this point. The true separation could come next week if the Trojans are able to win the Pac-12 Championship Game. If USC gets in to the CFP, it would be the first time since the 2016 season that a Pac-12 team has made the four-team field.