Nov. 27, 2016
By John Heisler
Inside the Notre Dame football locker room, on what became a dark and drippy Saturday in Los Angeles, Irish coach Brian Kelly—very late in his postgame remarks to his squad—allowed a thought about what’s ahead:
“We’ve got guys that care, guys with big hearts that will do whatever is necessary to win football games here. That’s the card we’re going to play. That’s a good card to play.”
That came an hour or two after USC repeatedly played the ultimate trump card—at least in this final assignment of the 2016 season for Notre Dame—in all-purpose junior standout Adoree’ Jackson.
On a day in which the Irish side of the final stat sheet showed the most productive passer in the contest (DeShone Kizer threw for 220 yards and a pair of scores compared to 205 for precocious Trojan rookie Sam Darnold), the most productive rusher (Josh Adams finished with 180 yards, the best day of his career, while Ronald Jones II of USC ended with 134) and the most productive receiver (Californian Equanimeous St. Brown hauled in seven balls for 94 yards and a late touchdown), it wasn’t enough.
That’s because no one in the white jerseys had an answer to match Jackson, whose 291 all-purpose yards included TDs by the reception (52 yards), punt return (55 yards) and kickoff return (97 yards) routes. And that did not include the work he did on defense (two pass breakups and a pair of tackles).
In many ways, the Irish defense and offense played the streaking Trojans (now with eight straight wins) toe to toe. Notre Dame ran eight more plays than did USC—while the home team barely outgained Kelly’s squad 412-408.
But, on an afternoon in which those big one-off plays carried the day (the Trojans also returned an interception for a score with 1:07 left in the first half to make it 24-7 at the break), Jackson’s play qualified as a huge difference in USC’s 45-27 victory.
If the Irish were playing mostly for pride Saturday, Kelly had a simple message for them in his pregame remarks:
“Here’s my challenge to everybody. If you don’t play like your hair’s on fire on every single snap you don’t deserve to be on this football field. Do we have anything to lose? Because we have one last chance to do it against USC. So get ready for that. Let’s change reality over the next four hours.”
Kelly loved the response on Notre Dame’s first play from scrimmage when Adams rambled 74 yards (Notre Dame’s longest rush of the season) down the USC sideline to the one. Kizer’s keeper into the end zone marked his team-leading eighth rushing score, though the Trojans regained the lead at 10-7 on Jones’ 51-yard run midway through the first quarter.
ABC missed the first half-hour of the game due to the two overtimes between Ohio State and Michigan, joining action in Los Angeles at 3:11 of the opening period (ESPN News carried the early play). And a few minutes later the heavy rains came.
The Irish defense forced three straight USC punts. Then the Trojans played their high cards in the final 84 seconds of the half. Jackson’s punt return, fielded on the bounce, was followed 17 seconds later by the 33-yard interception return for a TD by Ajene Harris.
“Last week we’re playing Virginia Tech and we’re kicking their butts. So what do you think’s going on in their locker room at halftime?” Kelly asked of his team.
“They’re making a decision that they’re going to come out in the second half and play great football, so they flip it on you. Now it’s your chance. It’s your decision as to what you want to do in the second half. If you want to play great football in the second half, you can win this football game.
“The first half is over. There’s nothing we can do about that now. Nothing can change where we are. Do we want to be something? Do we want to make a stand? Do we want to say something about who we are? Then we do it now in the second half.
“Other teams have done it against us. It’s our chance to do it to make a statement and say something about who we are. We start on offense—we score, we get back in this, we’re down 10 and our defense is going to play great today and you got a ballgame.”
The script played out in Notre Dame’s favor on the first third-period possession when Jackson made one of his few miscues of the afternoon as freshman Julian Love forced him to fumble a punt. That enabled the Irish to keep the ball for another 10 plays, with Kizer locating Chris Finke for 14 yards and a score to make it 24-14. But five plays later came Darnold’s swing pass to Jackson for 52 yards on Jackson’s only reception of the season
When the Irish cut it to 31-21 on Kizer’s 29-yard scoring throw to freshman Kevin Stepherson, Jackson (who had been defending against Stepherson) again provided the response—this one worth 97 yards on the kickoff.
The rain held off and the sun reappeared (with a rainbow) midway through the third period—yet ultimately the Trojans matched Notre Dame’s three second-half TDs with three of their own.
Other than Darnold’s late two-yard scoring throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster, the other five Trojans scoring plays averaged better than 57 yards each.
After the game Darnold referred to Jackson as a “superhero,” and USC linebacker Uchenna Nwosu called him “the best player in the country hands down.”
“We came out in the second half with the fight we needed and that I was looking for,” Kelly told his team after the game. “We competed and we went after them.
“We know why we did not win the football game. And we didn’t not win the football game because you didn’t put in the time or because we had guys that did not go out there and battle. And that’s a good thing.
“We’ve got guys in here that care about their teammates, care about Notre Dame, care about winning. How we get to that end and what we need to do to get to that end has to happen seven days a week outside this playing field. That’s on me and that’s on you and that’s what we’ve got to go to work on and we’ll get that fixed. Because we’ve got guys who care and want to win football games. That’s the job at hand.
“You went out and fought with the intent to win the football game, but you can’t win games making the mistakes we did. I love the way we battled and that’s been the case all year. But we know what we need to do.”
Kelly thanked his seniors and paid tribute to their leadership, even in the face of the final 4-8 record. Those eight defeats came by an average of 6.2 points—and Saturday’s finale marked the first of those that did not feature some sort of late opportunity for Notre Dame to play a final card.
There were emotional hugs and handshakes in the locker room, as the Irish dealt with the reality that this group would never compete together again. For the first time in seven seasons the Irish will not participate in the postseason.
Kelly and his team—and the vast majority of the 2016 roster returns—know there is work to be done, to borrow a phrase, to make Notre Dame great again.
That job begins today.
Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been chronicling Irish football since 1978.