It's hard for a top-15 Notre Dame team to fly under the radar, but this year's squad had done just that through the first half of the season.
The Fighting Irish were coming off a 4-8 record in 2016. In the first six weeks of 2017, their most notable game was a loss, 20-19 to Georgia, that has looked better and better as the Bulldogs have racked up dominant win after dominant win. Their most notable win was a 38-18 beatdown of Michigan State, which has also grown to look better after the Spartans won at Michigan. Add that all up, and Saturday night was the first time that a Notre Dame team that is viewed as a potential playoff contender had a chance to earn a statement win with the stakes known and the college football world watching.
The Irish couldn't have made a bigger statement.
No. 13 Notre Dame dominated No. 11 USC, 49-14. Coming off an off week, the Fighting Irish imposed their will on a banged-up Trojans squad that entered the game with a 6-1 record through a grueling stretch. As expected, Notre Dame looked like the more rested team, but it also looked like the far better team in South Bend on Saturday.
HE. COULD. GO. ALL. THE. WAY. pic.twitter.com/qLB6xbdoXT— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) October 22, 2017
The Irish punted on their first possession, but USC quarterback Sam Darnold lost a fumble on his first play. Notre Dame capitalized quickly, with two successful runs followed by a 26-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Wimbush to Equanimeous St. Brown just 2:15 into the game. After a USC punt, Notre Dame went 79 yards in 10 plays, grinding out yards on the ground before Wimbush hit Kevin Stephenson for a 23-yard touchdown pass.
So the night went. The Trojans committed three turnovers, and although they scored a couple third-quarter touchdowns after trailing 28-0 at halftime, they never stood a chance. The Irish ran 47 times for 377 yards and five TDs -- 191 yards and three TDs from Josh Adams and 106 yards and two TDs from Wimbush -- and they held USC to 76 yards on 31 rushes. Darnold continued his uneven season by completing 20 of 28 passes for 229 yards and two TDs with one pick, numbers that don't quite accurately reflect the reality of the game.
that pick tho 😮 pic.twitter.com/P2uHMl5uYF— Notre Dame on NBC (@NDonNBC) October 22, 2017
Brian Kelly's hires of Chip Long as offensive coordinator and Mike Elko as defensive coordinator continue to pay off, as Notre Dame overwhelmed USC on both sides of the ball. Kelly has thus shifted from hot seat talk to playoff talk, as Notre Dame started a brutal second-half schedule -- N.C. State, Wake Forest, Miami, Navy and Stanford still to come -- with exactly the type of convincing win it needed to be taken seriously as a playoff contender after the 2016 debacle.
It's hard for a good Notre Dame to ever be overlooked, but Saturday night ensured that will no longer be a problem.