SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The season's first true playoff elimination game delivered.
Notre Dame is in the mix for the top four. USC is not.
The Irish completely outclassed a sloppy Trojans team, storming out to a four-touchdown lead en route to a 49-14 win at raucous Notre Dame Stadium. Coach Brian Kelly's team applied a familiar formula -- big-chunk runs with a bevy of ball carriers, opportunistic defense and timely passes -- to record its fifth straight win, and its first over a ranked opponent.
Until Saturday night, Notre Dame's best achievement was a loss, by a point/possession, to surging Georgia. But the best-loss argument wouldn't resonate with the selection committee. Notre Dame needed substantial performances against substantial opponents. The Irish produced such a performance to begin the defining stretch of their season.
Brandon Wimbush, who returned from a foot injury that sidelined him in Notre Dame's last game, ran around and through a USC defense that provided multiple gaps to attack all night. The quarterback ran for 106 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries, while throwing two touchdown passes in the first 8:01. Featured running back Josh Adams used a huge second half to slice through USC's defense and finished with 191 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries. But the totality of Notre Dame's run game -- Adams, effective reserves such as Tony Jones Jr., a brutalizing line led by guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey -- is overwhelming opponents, as USC can attest.
The Irish rushing performance (377 yards) complemented another step forward from a defense that has transformed under first-year coordinator Mike Elko. Notre Dame increased its season takeaways total to 17, most of which have resulted in touchdowns. Football is about opportunities, and few teams are making more of theirs than Notre Dame.
The home team came in with a decided scheduling edge. It had an open week after four wins by 20 points or more. USC hopped on a plane five days after beating Utah, one of the nation's more physical teams, by one point.
The Trojans looked beaten up. They definitely missed Josh Fatu in the middle of their defensive line. But they also looked bad. What happened to the poise coach Clay Helton bragged about this week?
The problems began with their first offensive snap, which quarterback Sam Darnold fumbled, collected and fumbled again. Later in the first half, Darnold threw an interception, his 10th of the season. Although Darnold showed glimpses of his next-level talent, especially early in the second half, the turnovers continue to eclipse all the good things he does. USC's problems go beyond Darnold -- the defense got bullied all night -- but it hasn't been a smooth season for No. 14.
This wasn't the result the Pac-12 needed a week after the Washington schools lost their first games to unranked opponents. Either the Pac-12 champion will have two or more losses -- no team with two losses has reached the CFP -- or will be a one-loss Washington or Washington State lacking a marquee nonleague win. Washington used a similar formula to reach the playoff last year, but the landscape looks more crowded now.
That landscape includes Notre Dame, which would be a near lock for the playoff if it wins out to finish 11-1. The Irish still have signature win opportunities next week at home against No. 16 NC State, on Nov. 11 at No. 8 Miami and Nov. 25 at No. 22 Stanford.
After taking out USC -- and likely the Pac-12 -- Notre Dame is back on the national radar, exactly where it wants to be.