After the rivalry game was canceled during the 2020 season, Notre Dame once again faced USC in a battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh. The 31-16 game was Notre Dame’s second consecutive win and first at home since Cincinnati snapped the Irish’s 26-game winning streak in South Bend.
The rivalry, generally considered to be the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, was first played in 1926. With a victory over the Trojans, Notre Dame increased their overall series lead to 48-36-5 and extended their series winning streak to four games beginning with a 2017 victory in Notre Dame Stadium.
After a scoreless first drive, ending with Jonathan Doerer’s missed 36-yard field goal attempt, Tommy Rees’s offense steadily gained momentum, securing a 17-3 lead at the end of the first half. The offensive consistency allowed the Fighting Irish to withstand USC’s fourth-quarter comeback attempt. USC scored 13 points in the fourth quarter alone but couldn’t quite close the gap thanks to a strong rushing effort by the Fighting Irish. With running back Chris Tyree out with turf toe, Kyren Williams carried the load by himself, rushing for 138 yards, a season-high at the time for the running back, and two touchdowns. Quarterback Jack Coan also had a strong showing, completing 20 of his 28 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown.
Head coach Brian Kelly expressed satisfaction with the offensive effort against the Trojans, an indication of the necessary maturation taking place under Rees’s direction. The Notre Dame offensive line, rebuilding after losing four starters last season, showed notable signs of improvement. Williams attributed his own ability to step up and make plays to the O-linemen who likewise stepped up and worked hard.
Though the Irish defense allowed 428 yards, USC failed to convert those yards into touchdowns. The Trojans ended the half on a 52-yard drive but failed to score before the clock ran out. USC quarterback Kedon Slovis outgained Notre Dame in the passing game and instead 299 to 213 yards, completing 27 of 37 passes. But, Slovis did not throw a single touchdown pass in the game, threw one interception and lost a fumble after being sacked by Isaiah Foskey.
USC fought back in the fourth quarter with the help of Slovis and wide receiver Drake London, who both put up big numbers. They diminished Notre Dame’s 24-3 lead to 24-16 in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. The Trojan defense was unable to stop Notre Dame’s offense, which responded promptly with an 8-play, 75-yard drive for a touchdown, extending their lead to 31-16. The subsequent Slovis fumble at the end of the 4th quarter cemented the Fighting Irish victory.
Notre Dame secured the victory despite the absence of All- American safety Kyle Hamilton, who injured his right knee in the first quarter. The injury proved to be season ending; in fact, Hamilton’s brief appearance against the Trojan’s constituted the end of his Notre Dame career, as he decided to enter the 2022 NFL Draft.