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Instant Analysis: Notre Dame defeats USC behind strong, balanced offense

Notre Dame beat USC 41-31 in the Trojans first game under interim coach Clay Helton.

SOUTH BEND, Ind.—Things started poorly for USC on Saturday evening. They ended poorly, too. In the middle of the game, the embattled Trojans got a healthy dose of hope, but that all came to naught in the fourth quarter, when their defense proved unable to stop Notre Dame—and their offense committed a key turnover.

Ultimately, Saturday will be remembered for USC athletic director Pat Haden’s pregame collapse (word out of the school is he's fine*) and the Trojans’ late-game crumbling, which resulted in a 41–31 Notre Dame win. The Fighting Irish (6–1), meanwhile, escaped falling to college football’s dumpster fire du jour of a program.

*After the game, USC announced Haden "took a knee" before the game, felt lightheaded, left to stop at a local hospital and then took a private plane back.

Here are three takeaways from the game.

1. Notre Dame’s offense is the epitome of balanced, but maybe it should rely more on tailback C.J. Prosise.

With a converted slot receiver at running back and a redshirt freshman who expected to be buried as a third-stringer on the depth chart at quarterback, Notre Dame continues to put together a formidable offensive attack with an element of balance few teams are able to achieve. Going into Saturday night, the Fighting Irish had a 1.11:1 passing yards to rushing yards ratio, and against USC they finished with 262 yards in the air and 214 on the ground. Still, as the game ground on, it begged questioning: Why not more lean more heavily on Prosise?

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The senior running back finished the night with 143 yards on 19 carries, and he was responsible for two of Notre Dame’s touchdowns. As he busted Notre Dame toward midfield on its go-ahead, fourth-quarter drive, it was hard not to get the sense that he couldn’t do even more. After all, Prosise has now averaged 131.7 yards through the Fighting Irish’s first seven games, yet somehow he remains on the periphery of the discussion of the best rushers in college football.

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2. Despite USC’s coaching turnover, it still boasts a roster full of game-changing offensive players.

In the first game under interim coach Clay Helton, the Trojans looked just fine through much of the first quarter, scoring on a run by quarterback Cody Kessler and a 42-yard field goal from kicker Alex Wood. Then, for next two quarters, they looked even better. On back-to-back drives near the end of the second, USC saw a 75-yard touchdown pass from receiver Jalen Greene to JuJu Smith-Schuster and then an 83-yard bomb from Kessler to Adoree’ Jackson that wound up in the end zone, tying the game at 24.

Icing on the cake was a 65-yard, third-quarter rush by Ronald Jones that set up a Taylor McNamara touchdown reception, pushing the Trojans temporarily ahead, 31–24. By that point, Notre Dame had allowed USC more total yards than it had any opponent all season—and with more than a quarter to go.

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3. Ultimately, defense and special teams doomed USC.

It was hard to say much negative about either team’s offense Saturday, and though Notre Dame’s defense lacked a certain luster—allowing 450 total yards will do that—it was USC that ultimately committed foibles that lost the game. There was the punt Notre Dame blocked in the first quarter, the missed field goal in the second quarter and, perhaps most crucial, the KeiVarae Russell fourth-quarter pick that sealed the game for the Irish. To take down an opponent of Notre Dame’s caliber—which the Trojans will need to do as they navigate a Pac-12 slate including Utah, Cal and UCLA—USC will need to polish its defense and special teams.