- Notre Dame overcame a lethargic start to finish off an undefeated regular season as the cries for USC to fire Clay Helton continued to grow louder.
LOS ANGELES — It did not go quite as predicted. Rivalry games rarely do. But when the clock struck all zeroes at the L.A. Coliseum on Saturday night, Notre Dame had defeated USC, 24–17, to complete an undefeated season and launch itself into the four-team college football playoff. “All year, we talked about just taking it day by day, week by week,” quarterback Ian Book said in the stadium tunnel immediately afterward. “Now that we’re [headed to the playoff], it’s crazy to realize how fast the season went by.”
Championship seasons don’t go as predicted either. And if this campaign ends in a title for the Irish (12–0), it will have seen as many speed bumps as Saturday night’s victory. The Irish replaced their popular senior quarterback, Brandon Wimbush, three games into the season, with Book, an untested junior. Then they lit up the scoreboard for three weeks before eking out close wins over Pittsburgh and Northwestern. They appeared to hit their stride heading into Saturday night’s showdown at the Coliseum, thrashing Florida State and Syracuse by a combined score of 78–16, but looked entirely mortal at times against a USC team that had lost four of its last five games, and was trying to block out the cries from its fan base to fire head coach Clay Helton.
Notre Dame’s defense allowed 244 passing yards in the first half to the Trojans, 14 fewer than it had given up, on average, in its first 11 games. And there was the Irish’s mysterious lack of commitment to the running game early on, as if Notre Dame had not seen the video of USC being gashed last week by lowly UCLA.
Thankfully for the Irish, there were plenty of big plays to fill those deficits. The most pivotal snap came in the second quarter, when, trailing 10–0 and facing third-and-long at USC’s 47, Book was pressured out of the pocket and took off on a cross-field scramble that ended when he lowered his head and bulled past a Trojan defender to get the first down. Five plays later, receiver Chris Finke ran a flag route on the left hash that allowed him to snag Book’s perfectly lofted pass at the goal line and clip the orange pylon with his knee. Finke’s TD catch put the Irish on the board, and breathed life into a national title contender that, until that drive, had resembled anything but.
The grinding, 17-point second half the Irish turned in sanded away the last of USC’s hopes.
For the Trojans, the game offered a microcosm of what the season was supposed to have been. The plan this year was for freshman quarterback JT Daniels to complete short passes until he gained confidence, while his receivers remained patient with him and while the Trojans defense bent without breaking. That plan was executed to near perfection in the first half against the number-two team in the country. Who knows, it might have produced a win if not for two momentum-killing fumbles by receivers Michael Pittman and Amon-Ra St. Brown in Irish territory.
Instead, the Trojans buckled beneath the weight of a superior opponent, and finished their season with a 5–7 record that their more forgiving supporters will deem “frustrating.”
It had been an unseemly week for the once-proud program. Athletic director Lynn Swann offered his support to Helton as recently as mid-November and indicated that Helton would return as head coach in 2019. But that did not stop someone from hiring a plane to fly a banner over the Coliseum on Saturday that read: LYNN SWANN – PLEASE FIRE CLAY HELTON!
The conversation on social media was even more biting. Granted, there were several warm responses to Helton’s tweet this past Thursday, in which he “wish[ed] everyone a Happy Thanksgiving from our football family to yours. #FightOn.” But most were of this ilk:
I'll be thankful when you resign.
The other 11 Pac 12 coaches are especially thankful you’re our coach.
I would be thankful if you quit and let someone else take a crack at Notre Dame you loser
A GoFundMe account titled “USC Fans Supporting LAFD,” had raised $1,813 of its of $3,000 goal (as of midday Saturday) on behalf of the region's heroic firefighters, while the GoFundMe dedicated to terminating Helton’s employment amassed $14,740 in just four days.
To his credit, Helton has appeared to ignore his detractors. Notre Dame, of course, paid the Fire Clay crowd no mind at all. Los Angeles was but another stop on its path toward its first ever playoff bid. Now the Irish are 12–0 for the first time since 2012 (a mark that was later negated due to NCAA penalty). That regular season had also ended with a win over SC in the Coliseum. Book, a native of El Dorado Hills, Calif., said after Saturday’s win that he was a middle school age Trojan supporter at the time.
Six years later, he is the backup-quarterback-turned-leader of a college football semifinalist. “This is something I dreamed about,” he said. “It’s a surreal moment.”