SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame withstood an inspired effort from USC before pulling away with 17 points in the fourth quarter Saturday night, as the Fighting Irish beat the rival Trojans, 41-31, at Notre Dame Stadium. The win keeps the Irish's College Football Playoff hopes alive as they head into their bye week with a 6-1 record, though they don't quite look like a finished product just yet if they hope to finish 5-0 down the stretch.
What the win means for Notre Dame: Notre Dame's playoff goal would have been all but officially dead with a second loss, so the victory Saturday keeps that dream alive. The Irish improved to 4-2 against archrival USC under Brian Kelly, and they avoided the dreaded Navy hangover (Notre Dame entered this game only 2-6 in their past eight games after playing the Midshipmen and their triple-option offense). The back end of the Irish's schedule looks more difficult than initially imagined -- Temple and Pitt have both exceeded expectations so far, and Stanford looks as good as anyone in the country lately -- but there may yet be a path for them to crack the four-team playoff if they can win out.
What the loss means for USC: Give the Trojans credit for not folding amid a chaotic week, and for not folding early after falling behind 21-10. Torii Hunter Jr. looked as if he was going to make it 28-10 early before Adoree’ Jackson forced a fumble near the goal line that changed the game's momentum, as USC raced to a 31-24 lead before succumbing in the fourth quarter. Things won't get any easier for Clay Helton's crew -- USC hosts Utah next Saturday before traveling to Cal a week later.
Unsung hero: A tip of the cap here to freshman receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and redshirt senior receiver Amir Carlisle for a key special-teams play early. St. Brown blocked a Kris Albarado punt with 5:04 left in the first quarter, and Carlisle scooped it up and scored a 5-yard touchdown. Carlisle started his career at USC as a freshman running back in 2011 before transferring to Notre Dame in 2012 to be closer to his family, as his dad had gotten a job with Purdue's athletic department. And the special-teams play ended up being crucial early in what was a back-and-forth affair. USC's Alex Wood missed a 36-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright just before halftime that would have given the Trojans a 27-24 lead.
Stat of the game: Since Kelly took over at Notre Dame in 2010, only three FBS teams had allowed fewer plays of 60 or more yards than the Irish. (Notre Dame had allowed nine over 71 games.) But the Irish surrendered three such plays to USC on Saturday night. USC finished with 590 total yards of offense. The Trojans' offense is lethal, but the Irish still need to shore up some things defensively if they wish to go 11-1 this season.