No. 3 Notre Dame may have punched its ticket to the College Football Playoff on Saturday night. ND beat USC 24-17 in a game in which it struggled quite a bit offensively, but its defense continued to buy quarterback Ian Book and company time.
Things started slowly for the Irish. The Trojans received the opening kickoff and proceeded to march down the field for a touchdown in only eight plays. The USC defense did an excellent job of holding Notre Dame in check, allowing the Trojans to take a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter until the Irish offense finally found a rhythm. Book hit Chris Finke for a 24-yard touchdown pass just before halftime, and in the second half, it was a healthy dose of Dexter Williams and screen passes that helped the Irish pull away and finish off the Trojans. Book finished with 352 yards passing and two touchdowns, while Williams had 151 total yards and a touchdown.
It’s the first time the Irish have finished a regular season with a 12-0 record since 2012. They went on to the BCS Championship Game that season and lost to Alabama. As for the Trojans, USC finishes at 5-7, its first losing season since 2000.
Here are four takeaways from the Irish victory.
1. It’s hard to imagine Notre Dame being left out of the playoff: I mean, there’s certainly a precedent for it to happen. It was just last year that an undefeated UCF team was left out of the CFP, but this is a very different situation. The Knights never climbed higher than No. 12 in the rankings before being left out. Notre Dame debuted at No. 4 in the first CFP Rankings of the season, moved up to No. 3 a week later and have been there ever since. With wins over Michigan, Syracuse and Stanford, as well as ACC Coastal champion Pitt, a logical path for the committee to suddenly deem Notre Dame isn’t a top-four team doesn’t seem to exist. But it could happen, so if you’re a Notre Dame fan, maybe don’t pop the champagne bottles yet — keep them on ice.
2. The Irish offense goes as Dexter Williams goes: Book has received a lot of credit for the revival of the Notre Dame offense, and he deserves plenty of it. Ever since he took over as the starter for Brandon Wimbush, this offense has gone to another level. But it’s not a coincidence that Book’s ascension to the starting job came at the same time Williams got healthy and returned to the starting lineup.
Notre Dame seemed allergic to its run game for much of the first half as its offensive line was getting destroyed by USC’s front. Then Williams started to find some room with the help of a few screen passes, and Notre Dame’s offense kicked into gear. That’s been the case most of the season. Book gives the offense a higher ceiling than Wimbush, but Williams is the one building the wall to rest that ceiling on.
3. Brian Kelly probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves: Think about where this Notre Dame program was before it hired Brian Kelly. The school last won a national title under Lou Holtz in 1988, and it stayed extremely relevant to the national title picture under Holtz through the 1993 season. But then things started to slip, and Notre Dame transformed from national title contender to irrelevancy. Sure, once in a while it would pop up and have a good season, but most seasons were just campaigns that couldn’t seem to live up to preseason expectations, or that Notre Dame mystique.
By the time Kelly was hired in 2010, he was taking over a program that had managed to win 10 games in a season only two times in the previous 16 years. Now, Kelly hasn’t just managed to pick up his fourth such season, but he’s gone undefeated through two regular seasons. Notre Dame will now play for its second national title in the past seven seasons, and while it will be considered an underdog, I think most people would agree that this 2018 team is much better than that 2012 team.
4. It will be interesting to see where USC goes from here: There are certainly whispers that Clay Helton could be fired after this disappointing season. They started a few weeks ago and only grew louder following last week’s loss to UCLA. Now, after losing to Notre Dame, the Trojans finish the season 5-7. It’s the first time they’ve missed a bowl game due to their record (NCAA sanctions kept them out in 2010 and 2011) since going 5-7 under Paul Hackett in 2000. Hackett was fired after the season and replaced by Pete Carroll. All Carroll did was win two national titles and seven conference titles in nine seasons. Of course, USC has been chasing that success since Carroll left for the NFL following the 2009 season, and should USC decide to move on from Helton, they’ll be hiring their fourth coach of the decade.
It’s hard to find success when you keep having to start over. We’ll see if USC decides to try again, though, soon.
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