LOS ANGELES (AP) — By the time Adoree Jackson effortlessly hurdled Notre Dame’s kicker and sprinted off to strike a Heisman pose in the end zone, every rain-soaked soul already knew they were seeing the culmination of something special for Southern California.
Jackson might have punctuated his three-year career at the Coliseum with one last virtuoso display of his talent, although he hasn’t decided yet.
The Trojans unquestionably wrapped up their regular season by with a fitting climax to a two-month crescendo.
Jackson returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns and caught a scoring pass to propel No. 12 USC to its eighth consecutive victory, 45-27 over Notre Dame on Saturday in the 88th edition of their famed inter-sectional rivalry.
Sam Darnold passed for 205 yards and two TDs, and Ronald Jones II rushed for 134 yards and an early score as USC (9-3, No. 12 CFP) claimed the Jeweled Shillelagh for the 11th time in 15 years. Ajene Harris also returned an interception 33 yards for a score shortly before halftime.
But if Jackson, the Trojans’ do-everything cornerback, heads to the NFL next season, he left LA with one of the most memorable performances in this rivalry game’s history.
USC fans chanted “One more year!” throughout the second half at the smiling junior, who has scored five touchdowns against Notre Dame in his career. He returned a punt 55 yards for a score before turning a short pass into a 52-yard TD and then taking a kickoff 97 yards for his third score, leaping over John Chereson along the way.
“The returns and reception were just great blocks by everybody,” Jackson said. “They made it look easier than it was. I knew something special would happen when I trust them. They set things up, and it makes a highlight play.”
With an unbeaten run through October and November, USC completed a perfect home schedule and remained in contention for the Pac-12 championship. If Utah beats Colorado later Saturday, the Trojans will face Washington in the conference title game next week. USC fans repeatedly chanted “Let’s go, Utah!” starting in the first half.
“What an accomplishment by a group of kids that have been through some adversity and come out the other side of it,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “What this team and this group have is something special. Over my 21 years (in coaching), I’ll always remember this. It’s a special group.”
JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to punctuate the prolific junior receiver’s own probable Coliseum finale. Smith-Schuster is looking toward a bowl game, but also is thinking about the future.
“If Adoree comes back, I’m for sure coming back and we’re going to win the natty,” Smith-Schuster said, referring to the national championship.
Josh Adams ran for 180 yards and DeShone Kizer passed for 220 yards and two scores for the Fighting Irish (4-8), who finished their worst season since 2007 with their largest margin of defeat this year.
“I thought we could play with anybody this year,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who shrugged off suggestions his job could be in jeopardy. “We just have not been able to sustain consistent performance for four quarters.”
Chris Finke, Kevin Stepherson and Equanimeous St. Brown caught TD passes for the Irish, who finished their dismal season with a series of mistakes and poor sportsmanship.
Notre Dame’s frustration boiled over when defensive lineman Jerry Tillery made two particularly sketchy plays in the second half.
Tillery first kicked USC running back Aca’Cedric Ware in the helmet while Ware was on the ground with an apparent head injury. Tillery then received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty a few minutes later when he stomped on prone USC offensive tackle Zach Banner’s foot.
“You just can’t do stupid things like that,” Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones said. “That’s going to reflect on you as a player. That’s going to reflect on your character.”
Banner summed up the Trojans’ feelings with a reference to Tillery’s jersey: “(No.) 99 is dirty.”
Referee Ron Cherry left the game in the third quarter after getting flattened in an accidental collision with USC linebacker Michael Hutchings. Cherry appeared to be unconscious after hitting the turf, but eventually walked up the tunnel unaided. USC said Cherry was evaluated for a concussion at a nearby hospital, but should be released later Saturday.
Notre Dame: This was an embarrassing end to an uncommonly ugly year for the Irish. Kelly will find little to salvage from this trip to LA, and Tillery was already receiving heavy online criticism for his dirty play before the game ended.
USC: The Trojans have evolved into one of the nation’s best teams over the last two months. It happened slightly too late to get into the national title conversation without some serious help, but Helton clearly harnessed USC’s formidable talent heading into the postseason.
USC: Either an upper-tier bowl game or the Pac-12 title game in Santa Clara.