As someone who grew up with Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, and Charlie Weis, it’s a sublime relief that Notre Dame has managed to make the Southern Cal rivalry an actual rivalry — from 2002 to 2009, the Trojans came out on top every time, scoring at least 34 in every contest. This streak, combined with *that* game and *that* ending in 2005, made the mere mention of USC dominance mildly traumatic. Sorry for dredging all that up. Thankfully, the tables have somewhat turned, and ND has won two in a row, three of four, and three in a row in the friendly confines. Let’s do a quick rundown of each win in the Brian Kelly era, highlighting the players that most impacted these wins.
2010: Robert Hughes
Boy, was this one necessary. ND’s first victory over the Trojans since 2001 didn’t exactly feature an enthralling quarterback duel (Tommy Rees and Mitch Mustain combined to throw four picks and average a hilarious 4.7 yards per attempt), but Robert Hughes was able to shoulder the load on what would turn out to be the game-winning drive. He bulldozed through the USC defense for gains of 6, 12, and 13, culminating with the deciding five-yard touchdown. The victory didn’t come without more than a little luck — a Cierre Wood fumble on the final drive was mercifully scooped up by Tyler Eifert, and star receiver Ronald Johnson dropped a surefire touchdown before Harrison Smith sealed things with a goal line interception — but after eight straight losses, you take what you can get.
2012: Theo Riddick
The real answer here might actually be Kyle Brindza, who bailed out the start-and-stop Irish with a school record-tying five field goals (including a 52-yarder as time expired in the first half), but Theo’s impact can hardly be overstated. He was the engine of the offense, logging 20 carries and 3 catches, and totaling 179 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. My favorite play is in the below video at the 1:57 mark, even if it wasn’t the most consequential:
After a relatively straightforward pitch and catch to keep the drive alive on third down, he jukes waaay back to make the SC defender covering him look silly. It only resulted in maybe an extra one or two yards, but I appreciate the style points in a road effort that was mostly utilitarian.
2013: Stephon Tuitt
Here lies one of the ugliest, most unseemly contests in recent series history, all the way back when night games at Notre Dame Stadium were a novelty. Touchdown Tommy performed admirably, throwing for two scores and no interceptions before leaving the game with a neck strain in the third. Andrew Hendrix was abysmal in relief, unable to complete a single pass or score a single point, but the Irish defense was able to smother the visiting offense and preserve the four point halftime lead (yes, there were no points scored in the second half). Tuitt led the charge with seven tackles, including two sacks of the inept Cody Kessler, plus a pass breakup.
2015: C.J. Prosise
I’ll allow that the most memorable and thrilling play of the game is Will Fuller’s torching of Adoree Jackson, but C.J. was the real difference maker throughout. He was a security blanket for Deshone Kizer, catching 5 for 32, and led all rushers with 143 yards on 19 carries. One of his two touchdowns was the tying score after the Irish gave up a 14 point lead to go down 31-24 (yuck). This was actually Clay Helton’s first game as head coach, giving the 2019 Irish a nice opportunity to bookend his tenure on Saturday.
2017: Te’von Coney
How’s this for a statline against the #11 eventual Pac-12 champs: 11 tackles, one sack, another for a loss, and one fumble forced and recovered. That play, in which he straight up took the ball from Sam Darnold after a bobbled and recovered snap, and the frenzied celebration that followed, fully set the tone for the blowout to come. The Irish defense abused Darnold to the point that the Southern Cal staff would capitulate and pull their starting quarterback for his own safety. Brandon Wimbush was also a star — in a quintessential BW performance, he didn’t reach the 50% completion mark, but accounted for 226 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. Hard to say whether the defense or offense was more locked in here, but Coney established early that this would be a romp.
2018: Chris Finke
On a day where Notre Dame was sluggish — perhaps weighed down by the gravity of wrapping up a perfect regular season, certainly struggling with an efficient and focused USC offense — it was the offense’s least heralded starter that boosted the favorites when they most needed it. Chris Finke’s toe-tapping 24-yard catch in which he barely snuck into the front corner of the endzone helped jumpstart Ian Book back into form and got the team within striking distance. He genuinely had his way with the talented Trojan secondary, finishing with 7 catches for 86 yards. Fun thought experiment — which Finke touchdown was more important to the 2018 season, this one or his Moss moment against Michigan? The latter was more fun, and may have prevented a pick, but this one kicked off the scoring for the Irish in an intensely high pressure situation, righting the ship directly towards a playoff berth, so it gets my vote.
Photo via Robert Franklin, South Bend Tribune