Ian Book passed for 352 yards, Dexter Williams went 52 yards on a go-ahead touchdown run and No. 3 Notre Dame completed an unbeaten regular season — and likely secured a spot in the College Football Playoff — with a 24-17 over rival USC on Saturday night.
Chris Finke caught an early touchdown pass for the Irish (12-0), who showed playoff-level tenacity in rallying from an early 10-point deficit, their largest of the season. Tony Jones Jr. then took a short pass 51 yards for a touchdown with 3:09 to play to finish off Notre Dame’s 10th perfect regular season since 1945, the first since 2012.
“It brings tears to your eyes,” cornerback Julian Love said. “So much is put into this, and it was very tough at times. It just feels so good to get here. Nothing has been handed to us. USC was struggling this year, but they weren’t just going to hand it to us. We had to go out there and seize it.”
Notre Dame is all but certain to be chosen for the four-team playoff, and this win could keep the Irish away from powerhouse Alabama in the semifinals. The semifinals will be played Dec. 29 in the Orange and Cotton bowls, and the national championship game is Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.
Williams rushed for 97 yards as the Irish overcame a slow start in the 90th edition of this famed intersectional rivalry. Notre Dame didn’t score until Finke’s touchdown catch shortly before halftime, but the Irish ran off 24 consecutive points and shut out USC in the second half until Tyler Vaughns’ touchdown catch with 48 seconds to play.
“It’s something I dreamed about, so to have it really be like that, it’s a surreal moment,” said Book, the Californian who improved to 9-0 as Notre Dame’s starter, including 8-0 this year. “This whole team, we’re just so fortunate to be here. USC, they played great. We knew they had a great defense, and to be able to finish the season off undefeated in a rivalry game, you can’t ask for anything better than that.”
JT Daniels passed for 349 yards for the Trojans (5-7), who will stay home for the bowl season after their first losing season since 2000. Vaughns caught 12 passes for 120 yards in what might have been the final game for coach Clay Helton, who is under pressure after the Trojans lost five of their final six games in a dismaying collapse.
USC athletic director Lynn Swann didn’t make an immediate announcement on Helton’s future.
“The best is yet to be, I truly believe that,” Helton said. “I watched the men that are out there, both old and young, and see guys that are truly talented individuals that will develop into a quality football team that can win championships. I know that and I believe that in them.”
After USC won eight straight over Notre Dame in the 2000s, the Irish have claimed the Jeweled Shillelagh in six of the last nine meetings. Notre Dame is the first road team to win in the series since 2012, when the Irish also completed an unbeaten regular season with a victory at the Coliseum.
Only four USC teams have finished with losing records since 1961, but this clearly talented group gave a tough game to the Irish, who faced their first double-digit deficit of the year when USC went up 10-0 in the second quarter. The Trojans’ 289 yards in the first half were 64 more than the Irish had allowed before halftime all season.
Notre Dame had trailed only twice at any point in their perfect season, but Williams bounced his 52-yard go-ahead run down the USC sideline shortly after halftime.
Justin Yoon set a Notre Dame record with his 58th career field goal late in the third, putting the Irish up 17-10.
Although Jones’ late rumble to the end zone clinched the expected result for Notre Dame, the Trojans were competitive with an elite opponent despite the roiling subplot of their coach’s future.
Helton won the Pac-12 last season and the Rose Bowl just two years ago, but a large portion of the Trojans fan base is publicly agitating for the dismissal of the coach, who got a contract extension through 2023 just nine months ago.
When Helton’s face appeared in a recorded announcement on the scoreboard in the first half, he was booed by a portion of the Coliseum crowd of 59,821 — the smallest for the Notre Dame-USC game in Los Angeles since 1960.
USC got a 14-yard touchdown run on its opening drive by Vavae Malepeai, who missed the second half with an injury. When Michael Brown hit a field goal early in the second quarter, Notre Dame faced its first double-digit deficit of the year.
The Irish offense finally scored 2:20 before halftime, capping a difficult 64-yard drive with Book’s 24-yard throw to Finke, who hadn’t caught a touchdown pass since the season opener against Michigan.