Staring into the abyss of their worst season in nearly a decade, Notre Dame came into Saturday with one goal: ruin rival USC’s late-season surge.
But much as they have all season, Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish fell hopelessly short.
Adoree’ Jackson accounted for three touchdowns, two in the return game, as USC ran away with a 45-27 victory over Notre Dame in their regular-season finale.
The Trojans and Irish were essentially equal on the offensive side of the ball, but Jackson’s penchant for big plays turned the game around. The 5’11" speedster took a second-quarter punt 55 yards to the house to give the Trojans a two-score lead and went 97 yards on a third-quarter kickoff return after Notre Dame had just closed the gap to 10 points.
Throw in a 55-yard touchdown reception from Sam Darnold, and Jackson made it abundantly clear why he’s one of college football’s most dynamic playmakers. He finished with 291 all-purpose yards.
Stewart Mandel of FoxSports.com is ready to invite him to New York:
Adoree Jackson for Heisman. Seriously.
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) November 26, 2016
ESPN Stats & Info put his historic day into context:
Adoree’ Jackson: 4th in last 20 seasons w/ punt rtn TD, KO rtn TD, rush/rec TD in same game. Last: Missouri’s Marcus Murphy at Florida, 2014
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 26, 2016
Jackson’s heroics led the Trojans to their eighth straight victory, which makes their ugly 1-3 start seem like a vestige of the distant past. USC has taken down then-undefeated Washington and its two biggest rivals (UCLA and Notre Dame) in successive games and have looked like a completely different team since turning the starting quarterback job over to Darnold.
The freshman threw for 205 yards and two touchdowns, breaking his streak of four straight contests with an interception. He has thrown for multiple scores in eight straight games and has completed at least 62.5 percent of his throws in each of his nine starts.
ESPN The Magazine’s Mina Kimes offered her theory on Darnold:
I have a theory that Sam Darnold would’ve had more Heisman buzz if his last name didn’t look like a typo
— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) November 26, 2016
Jackson’s big play was enough to make him USC’s leading receiver, but Darreus Rogers, Deontay Burnett and JuJu Smith-Schuster each made four or more catches. Smith-Schuster hauled in Darnold’s second touchdown pass from two yards out in the fourth quarter.
Ronald Jones II reached the 1,000-yard mark Saturday with a 134-yard outing. Jones has hit triple digits in four of his last five games and scored in his last six. The sophomore is one of many Trojans who have hit their stride in the season’s second half.
Ryan Abraham of USCFootball.com has his eyes set on a new offense:
#USC could do worse than handing it off to Ronald Jones for about 10 straight plays.
— Ryan Abraham (@insidetroy) November 26, 2016
For Notre Dame, its afternoon was filled with a whole lot of offensive success that helped little thanks to breakdowns on the other two sides of the ball. Running back Josh Adams scampered for 180 yards on 17 carries, including a 74-yarder that set up a DeShone Kizer touchdown run that gave Notre Dame its first and only lead of the game.
Kizer threw for 220 yards and two touchdowns before being replaced by Malik Zaire in garbage time, but he also threw an interception that Ajene Harris returned for a touchdown. That was part of a stretch in the second quarter where Jackson’s punt return and Harris’ pick-six broke the back on any momentum the Irish were building.
The Sports Mockery Twitter feed had some advice for its hometown Chicago Bears:
If the #Bears still had DeShone Kizer on their draft board…someone needs to get out the red marker. #Garbage
— ✶ Sports Mockery ✶ (@sportsmockery) November 26, 2016
Once seen as a potential top overall pick, Kizer has seen his stock plummet as Notre Dame has fallen apart. While he’s still a solid prospect with run-pass potential, he hasn’t been able to overcome his team’s shortcomings and has at times been part of the problem.
Ranked 10th in the preseason Associated Press poll, Notre Dame finished with fewer than six wins for the first time since 2007. That Irish team went 3-9 and spelled the first real cracks in the Charlie Weis era. This is only the eighth time in the last century that Notre Dame has had four or fewer wins and the second since 1963.
USC, meanwhile, awaits the result of Colorado’s game against Utah later Saturday night. If the Buffaloes win, they’re in the Pac-12 Championship Game. If not, it’ll be USC going for its second win over Washington this season.
Given the way the Trojans are playing, odds are they’re the biggest Colorado fans outside of the Rocky Mountains right now.
Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter.