Result Notre Dame vs. USC, takeaways: The No. 6 Trojans cruise while Caleb Williams steals the spotlight from Heisman

On a day when high-ranking teams like No. 2 Ohio State and No. 8 Clemson suffered angry losses on their home fields, No. 6 USC avoided a similar fate and kept its college football playoff hopes alive with a 38-27 thrashing. Victory alive No. 15 Notre-Dame. Caleb Williams secured the Trojans’ win with a performance that included multiple highlights and four total touchdowns as the quarterback defended his sophomore fight for the Heisman Trophy against a top-flight Fighting Irish defense.

Senior running back Austin Jones also made a big contribution when he surpassed the 100-yard mark in his second game as the Trojans returned to starback Travis Dye from a season-ending injury. Defensively, the Trojans gave up some big passes in the passing game, but stopped Notre Dame’s powerful rushing attack and got some clutch plays.

The Fighting Irish forced a punt and won just 31-21 with 6:03 points remaining, but USC defenseman Calen Bullock jumped in front of a Drew Pyne pass intended for star Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer and pulled an interception with 4 down :56 left. Williams faced a fourth and two on ensuing possession and retained the football for a 16-yard touchdown run to decide the game.

USC is now entering next week’s Pac-12 championship game with an 11-1 record under first-year coach Lincoln Riley. Notre Dame, meanwhile, ended its first regular season under coach Marcus Freeman 8-4.

Caleb Williams steals the show

A quick look at the box score is an ineffective way to gauge Williams’ performance against the Fighting Irish. His 232 passing yards marked his third-lowest passing yardage of the season, but that number doesn’t reflect how he controlled the game. In a second and 13 games late in the third quarter, Williams ran backwards, dodging numerous defenders and somehow turning a potential sack into a 19-yard gain that put the Trojans in Notre Dame territory.

A few games later, he avoided another sack and taunted the Notre Dame defense on his way to the end zone with a 3-yard touchdown that gave USC a 31-14 lead early in the fourth quarter. Time and time again, the Oklahoma transfer dodged potential sacks to buy time for its receivers to open up. Though its numbers from the game don’t jump off the page, part of that was because USC only had nine possessions… well, eight, if you don’t count the Trojans’ last possession when they kneeled the football.

On those eight true possessions, the Trojans scored six goals with five touchdowns and just one field goal. You only punched once in the whole game. And when they did, it was actually Williams who took care of it. With USC lined up in the shotgun while facing a fourth and eight in his own territory, Williams punched the ball 58 yards for a touchback.

Two key pieces

While many of the highlights of this game will focus on Williams, and rightly so, two plays in particular stood out when it came to determining the outcome of the game. The first came early in the second quarter when Notre Dame was 10-0 down but headed for USC territory. Faced with a fourth and one at the Trojans’ 27-yard line, Freeman decided to give it a try, 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 possession touchdown or even a field goal, it would have changed the tone of the first half.

The second game-changing game came on first possession of the third quarter as Notre Dame drove the football deep into USC territory while trailing 17-7. The Irishman had 49 yards in the series when disaster struck in the form of a fumble from Drew Pyne. 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-ball game. But suddenly it became a three-possession game because of the momentum created by the fumbling.

Effects on the CFP

After losing on Saturday at No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 LSU, the Trojans will rise from No. 6 in the new CFP rankings Tuesday night. The question is how high. With another win over a ranked opponent, USC has a case to jump ahead of Ohio State at No. 4 in the rankings. Unlike the Trojans, the Buckeyes won’t be playing for a conference title next week after beating No. 3 Michigan 45-23 at home.

But Ohio State supporters will argue that the Buckeyes shouldn’t be punished too severely for suffering a loss to the No. 3 Wolverines. With a nonconference win over Notre Dame and an 11-1 record, the Buckeyes have a similar record as the Trojans at this point. The true split could come next week if the Trojans can win the Pac-12 championship game. If USC enters the CFP, it would be the first time a Pac-12 team has reached the four-team field since the 2016 season.

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