LOS ANGELES — They never said it was going to be easy, but the wins all count the same.
No. 3 Notre Dame trailed by double-digits for the first time all year but completed a second half comeback against rival USC 24-17 to cap off an undefeated regular season for the first time since 2012.
The Irish, who trailed by 10 early in the second quarter, slowly but surely chipped away at their deficit as the game wore on despite not really firing on all cylinders on either side of the ball. Though the defense allowed just 10 points, they were shredded in the first half by a short passing game that allowed true freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels to throw for 349 yards (one TD) while completing over 70% of his passes. The group did force two key turnovers (all fumbles) to keep the team in it with the offense not finding a groove until well after halftime.
That said, when Notre Dame needed a big play, they found one as they have all season long during this remarkable run. Dexter Williams recorded over half of 97 yards rushing on a 52-yard burst up the seam to give the visitors from South Bend their first lead of the game. After a few up-and-down drives, Justin Yoon tacked on a 46 yard field goal late in the third quarter while Tony Jones Jr. put the exclamation point on the season with a weaving 51 yard catch and run touchdown that clinched the game.
Irish signal-caller Ian Book was far from his best on the night but still finished with 352 yards and two scores (one interception) while picking up another 16 on the ground.
Though Williams was able to break that big run, neither side could do much at all running the football. Aca’Cedric Ware led the way for the Trojans with 68 yards but it was other wise too little, too late for the cardinal and gold as they miss a bowl game for the first time since 2000 at 5-7 overall.
That final record will also lead to plenty of speculation over the future of USC head coach Clay Helton, whose team was almost shutout in the second half and faces an extremely unhappy fan base that even flew a pre-game banner from an airplane over the Coliseum urging athletic director Lynn Syann to fire him.
Opposite number Brian Kelly won’t have to worry about that at all as he completed his second undefeated regular season in seven years. The Irish, who came into the night ranked No. 3 behind No. Alabama and No. 2 Clemson, will assuredly be in a College Football Playoff semifinal next month and will await who they might play on Selection Sunday next week.
There will be plenty to clean up between now and then for the Irish coaches but, deep into a perfect Southern California night, first will come just a little celebrating from the golden domers.