LOS ANGELES (AP) — After a tumultuous season of last-second losses and big-game disappointments, Southern California took the Coliseum field playing only for respect and history against Notre Dame.
That’s more than enough motivation in this famed rivalry, and Cody Kessler put his name into Irish football lore while he led the Trojans’ romp.
Kessler passed for 372 yards and threw two of his six touchdown passes to George Farmer, propelling USC to a 49-14 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday in the 85th edition of the intersectional matchup.
Adoree Jackson, Darreus Rogers and Nelson Agholor also caught TD passes in a dynamic first half for the Trojans (8-4), who jumped to a 35-0 lead in the second quarter and spent the second half celebrating a big finish to a wild autumn.
“When everyone is in tune, this offense is capable of anything,” Kessler said. “You saw it today.”
USC easily reclaimed the Jeweled Shillelagh after two straight losses to the Irish, piling up 577 yards against Notre Dame’s injury-plagued defense. The Trojans celebrated on the field, with the seniors and select underclassmen — including defensive lineman Leonard Williams — climbing a ladder to lead the USC band.
“Our future is ridiculously bright,” said USC coach Steve Sarkisian, who won his first shot at Notre Dame. “We’re going to be really good, and we’re not going anywhere.”
With Kessler’s second-half scoring throw to Randall Telfer, Notre Dame yielded six touchdown passes for the first time in the program’s 127-year history.
That defensive low caps a miserable second-half slide for the Irish (7-5), who have lost five of their last six games.
“We have to remember where we are after today’s loss,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “It’s a red-letter day for our football players and coaches alike. Two years ago, we were playing for a national championship. Today we got our butts beat, and it wasn’t as close as the score. I thought Coach was very generous today to keep running the football to keep the score where it was.”
Everett Golson struggled mightily before Malik Zaire replaced him late in the first half with Notre Dame already trailing by 35. Zaire led a scoring drive and finished with 170 yards passing, providing hope for Notre Dame’s future.
But the present in this rivalry belongs to the Trojans, who rebounded from their lifeless effort last week in a blowout loss to UCLA in their other big rivalry game.
“We put UCLA behind us, because this game was still important to us,” said tailback Javorius Allen, who rushed for 93 yards. “That’s hard to do, but we don’t quit.”
Kessler, who went 32 for 40, also became the first quarterback to throw five touchdown passes in a half against Notre Dame while completing 16 straight passes in a stretch spanning halftime.
After setting his career high in completions, the junior finished the regular season with 3,505 yards passing and 36 TDs against just four interceptions.
“At some point, people are going to recognize him,” Sarkisian said. “You can’t ignore what this guy is doing.”
Agholor caught 12 passes for 120 yards in perhaps his final game at USC, while Justin Davis rushed for 81 yards and a score.
Before the final regular-season game of its NCAA sanctions era, USC said farewell to a small senior class. Several upperclassmen left with memorable games: J.R. Tavai matched his previous season total with 3½ sacks, including a fourth-down sack with 4 minutes to play, while Gerald Bowman had an interception and Hayes Pullard recovered a fumble as USC built its lead.
“I’m happy that their last moment in the Coliseum is something they’re going to remember for a lifetime,” Sarkisian said. “That’s what this game has been about for 88 years. We got to be a part of it for just a few.”
The low stakes didn’t matter to fans as USC and Notre Dame closed out two disappointing regular seasons on a brilliant sunny day at the venerable arena that hosted the schools’ first meeting on Dec. 4, 1926.
Obviously aware of Notre Dame’s injury woes on defense, USC opened the game at a high offensive tempo. After JuJu Smith’s diving TD catch was overturned by video review in USC’s first drive, Kessler hit Farmer for a beautiful 48-yard TD moments later.
Jackson, USC’s two-way freshman star, came out of the backfield for a 16-yard TD catch before Farmer capped the first quarter with a 31-yard TD catch down the seam.
Rogers and Agholor caught scoring passes while USC ran away from Notre Dame, which mounted nothing on offense with Golson behind center. Zaire sparked the Irish, getting a 49-yard completion on his first collegiate throw before rushing for an 11-yard score shortly before halftime.
“When a team beats you by 35 points, you just got punched in the mouth,” Irish defensive lineman Isaac Rochell said.
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