SOUTH BEND, Ind. — All KeiVarae Russell had been missing this year was an interception. He found an optimal time to change that.
Russell’s interception midway through the fourth quarter was a key blow in Notre Dame’s second-half surge past USC to secure a 41-31 win over its historic intersectional rival on a frigid Saturday evening at Notre Dame Stadium.
After Corey Robinson’s spectacular diving catch to reel in a 10-yard, go-ahead touchdown, Russell picked off USC quarterback Cody Kessler with a dive of his own, snatching the ball away from receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Notre Dame drove for a 32-yard field goal to go up 10, then Russell deflected a pass that was picked off by safety Max Redfield to effectively seal the Irish win.
This was a game defined by massive momentum swings and generally-poor defense, with USC crossing the 500-yard mark before the end of the third quarter. But Russell’s two plays in the fourth quarter were the difference between Notre Dame sweating out a close win and blowing past a Trojans side that saw its coach fired only a few days before heading to South Bend.
Notre Dame quickly rebounded from USC’s eight-play, 71-yard scoring drive to open the game when DeShone Kizer fired a 75-yard touchdown to Will Fuller on the team’s first offensive play of the game. Running back C.J. Prosise added a 25-yard touchdown to put Notre Dame up after USC hit a field goal, and then made a play that seemed to have the Trojans wobbling.
Some atrocious blocking allowed Notre Dame to have a jailbreak on a punt attempt, with freshman wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown leaping to block the kick, which was recovered by ex-USC player Amir Carlisle in the end zone for a touchdown.
Notre Dame then methodically drove inside the USC 10 and looked to deliver a knockout blow in early in the second quarter. But cornerback (and wide receiver and returner) Adoree Jackson stripped Torii Hunter Jr. at the one-yard line, with the Trojans recovering in the end zone. Instead of an 18-point lead, Notre Dame gave USC life.
After Hunter’s fumble, Notre Dame held USC to a three-and-out, so whatever momentum the Trojans gained didn’t come immediately. Notre Dame had another chance to put an exclamation point on the first half on its next drive, but had to settle for a 32-yard field goal.
It was then that USC caught fire and threatened to torch Notre Dame’s season.
USC beat Notre Dame on a trick play — the third time the Irish defense have been gouged on a gadget — when Cody Kessler fired a lateral to quarterback-turned wide receiver Jalen Greene, who flipped a pass to a wide-open JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 75-yard touchdown.
After a Notre Dame three-and-out, USC quickly struck again. Safety Elijah Shumate over-pursued Adoree’ Jackson, who was able to sprint 83 yards for a game-tying touchdown.
Notre Dame only avoided going into halftime losing to the Trojans because kicker Alex Wood banged a 36-yard kick off the left upright just before the end of the second quarter.
[NBC SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear here]
In the second half, USC picked up where it left off. Notre Dame had to punt on the opening possession, and on a third-and-short Trojans running back Ronald Jones shed a tackle attempt and dashed 65 yards to the Irish four. Cody Kessler found tight end Taylor McNamara for a touchdown to give the Trojans the lead.
Notre Dame finally responded near the end of the third quarter — a period in which it gained only 60 yards — thanks to Kizer’s 23-yard run and back-to-back pass interference flags drawn by Fuller. Prosise finished the nine-play, 90-yard drive by willing himself into the end zone for a six-yard, game-tying touchdown.
Hunter helped make up for his fumble later in the fourth quarter when, on a trick of Notre Dame’s own, he floated a 35-yard pass to tight end Alize Jones to set up Robinson’s go-ahead touchdown. It was Robinson’s first touchdown of the season.
Notre Dame didn’t convert Redfield’s interception into points, but Devin Butler downed Tyler Newsome’s punt at the USC one. The Trojans couldn’t deliver another big play, and Notre Dame hung around the College Football Playoff race heading into its bye week.