Notre Dame thrusted themselves into the playoff discussion Saturday as the Irish manhandled No. 11 USC 49-14 in South Bend.
The win was the largest for Notre Dame over USC since 1966 and the 49 points were the most scored by the Irish against the Trojans since the infamous 1977 green jersey game.
The Irish set the tone early as Te’Von Coney sacked Sam Darnold and ripped the ball away from the quarterback on USC’s first offensive play of the game.
Notre Dame needed just three plays following the turnover before Brandon Wimbush found Equanimeous St. Brown in the back of the endzone on a 26-yard touchdown pass to commence the onslaught.
After the Irish forced USC to punt, Notre Dame went 79 yards on 10 plays to score their second touchdown of the night. This time, the drive was capped by 23-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Stepherson – the sophomore’s first touchdown grab of the season.
The second quarter saw more of the same as the Irish added two more touchdowns to take a commanding 28-0 lead into the half.
The Trojan offense managed to find some rhythm in the second half as USC scored touchdowns on their first two possessions and were able to cut the lead to 35-14 late in the third quarter. However, Josh Adams delivered the knockout punch on an 84-yard touchdown run to give the Irish a commanding 42-14 lead.
Adams capped the scoring with a 14-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter – his third rushing touchdown of the game.
For as dominant as the Notre Dame running attack has been, the Irish have only won the time of possession battle once this season (vs. North Carolina). ND is beginning to develop an identity similar to that of Wisconsin and Alabama where they are a run-first team and still manage to be an explosive offense.
Josh Adams vs. Saquon Barkley
Both running backs were on display in primetime Saturday night and both put on a show. Adams ran for 191 yards on 19 carries and tallied three touchdowns, while Barkley recorded 108 yards rushing on 15 carries for two touchdowns and added 53 yards and one touchdown receiving.
While Barkley has received the majority of the hype, Adams has put up superior numbers against stiffer competition.
Adams has 210 more rushing yards, averages 2.74 more yards per rush, and has registered six rushes of at least 60 yards. Adams has also accomplished this while also missing most of nine quarters this season to due to injury or rest.
Adams has complied these stats against the like of Georgia, Boston College, and Michigan State – some of the stingiest run defenses in the country. While Penn State does not have a win over a team that is currently ranked in the AP poll and Barkley’s most notable performances have come against a Michigan squad that needed overtime to get by Indiana and a 4-3 Iowa team.
Also, Barkley goes to a school that covered up child molestation for upwards of 40 years, so point to Adams.
The Heisman is won or loss in November and both Barkley and Adams will have ample opportunities to shine with the spotlight on them. However, to this point in the season, the numbers don’t lie.
Brian Kelly characterized Kevin Stepherson’s position on the depth chart as “in Siberia” for the first half of the season. Stepherson missed the first four games because a violation of team rules and then was ineffective in limited action against Miami (OH) and North Carolina.
Saturday night, however, the sophomore found his sea legs. Stepherson finished the game with three catches for 58 yards and one touchdown. He also added 24 yards rushing on a pair of reverses in the first half.
Through much of the first half of the season, the Notre Dame passing offense has suffered from a combination of Wimbush’s inaccuracy and an inability of the wide receivers to gain significant separation downfield.
While both of those aspects have improved, Stepherson adds another dimension to the passing attack. The sophomore has breakaway speed to compliment the size ND has at the other receiver positions. The emergence of Stepherson could expedite the development of Wimbush as a passer down the stretch of the season.
Mike Elko Continues to Work His Magic
Through seven games, Mike Elko has to one of the favorites for the Frank Boyles Award (awarded to the best assistant coach in the country). Elko again devised a gameplan that kept the opposing offense in check and allowed the Irish to force turnovers.
Notre Dame tallied five sacks and 10 tackles for loss, the most against USC since 1993. The Irish continued to take the ball away from the opponents as ND forced USC into three turnovers (using the term “forced” lightly here as one turnover came on a muffed punt).
Developing depth has been a key on both sides of the ball. In Notre Dame’s last two games the recipients of the post-game “game balls” have been the fourth string running back, Deon McIntosh vs. UNC, and ND’s fifth or sixth best defensive lineman, Khalid Kareem vs. USC.
Kareem had two sacks in Notre Dame’s winning effort, which brings his season total to three – as many sacks as the entire Notre Dame defensive line recorded in 2016.
Saturday’s critical play came with just over seven minutes remaining in the second quarter with Notre Dame leading 21-0. USC had advanced the ball to the Notre Dame 45-yard line, when Nick Watkins picked off Sam Darnold to thwart the USC threat.
USC had driven the ball deep in Notre Dame territory the previous drive, but Trojan kicker Chase McGrath missed a chip shot field goal. USC was down, but would get the ball first in the second half, so a score could have generated some much-needed momentum.
Instead, Darnold forced a throw into zone coverage and Watkins, who was taken apart by Miami (OH) just three weeks ago, intercepted the pass. Although he been turnover prone this season, that kind of poor decision-making is uncommon for Darnold and demonstrated that he was rattled and felt that he had for force the issue.
The Irish would score another touchdown on the ensuing drive and stretch the lead to 28-0.
Notre Dame will return to action Saturday for another top-15 showdown as No. 14 N.C. State comes to South Bend. No hurricanes are currently in the forecast.