Often, experienced sports fans can feel a distinct mood in stadiums before kickoff. It might be anticipation before the season opener or stress if a season has already gone awry.
The mood in Notre Dame Stadium in the buildup to the Irish’s clash with the University of Southern California Trojans was a strange one: a fusion of mixed sensations from a fanbase that had endured a nerve-thinning first half of the season. Notre Dame entered USC-week with a 5-2 record, a mark reflecting the highest highs and the lowest lows.
An ascendent first four weeks was followed by a crushing last-second home loss to Ohio State in primetime. A thrilling escape on the road against Duke immediately segued into a disastrous misfire against Louisville.
The emotional influence of these triumphs and failures met when Southern California rolled into South Bend for a mid-season rivalry clash. The Trojans entered undefeated, yet vulnerable after enduring a pair of dramatic endings themselves. Irish fans knew the season had reached an inflection point.
Would Notre Dame dig deep and leverage the pain of their loss the week before into a memorable triumph over a hated foe? Or, would they wilt under the pressure of a campaign threatening to go off the rails and give USC consecutive wins for the first time in their rivalry since 2009?
Forced to redefine a season that started with so much promise, the Irish chose the former.
Though reigning Heisman winner Caleb Williams — who had all but secured the award with a signature performance against Notre Dame just a year prior — got the ball initially, it was the Irish who drew first blood. On just the Trojan’s fourth play from scrimmage, Xavier Watts intercepted an errant pass by Williams and raced the ball back to the USC 12-yard line. The Irish scored first just over a minute later.
The opening drive heroics proved a bellwether for Watts, who delivered a mammoth performance under the bright mid-October lights. The senior safety ended the contest with seven tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble returned for a touchdown.
But his first big play on a day of many set the tone for the Notre Dame defense. Nothing would be easy for Williams, who faced some degree of pressure on nearly every drop back. The star quarterback would throw two more interceptions before halftime, both of which led to Irish touchdowns.
Notre Dame eventually amassed a 24-6 lead heading into the halftime break. USC’s offense wouldn’t find the endzone until midway through the third quarter. But the Trojans stuck around, and when MarShawn Lloyd scampered 31 yards to cut the Irish lead to 11, a hint of anxiety bubbled up deep in the collective soul of Notre Dame Stadium.
Just seven days prior, Notre Dame had endured a brutal second-half meltdown under the lights in Kentucky: The Fighting Irish faced an avalanche of setbacks followed by hurried, destructive responses. How would the Irish react to absorbing their first punch of the night?
This time, they punched back even harder. Sam Hartman dropped back and uncorked a deep shot to Chris Tyree, who raced to the pylon for a 46-yard score. It was the first Irish offensive play of more than 40 yards in over three games, ending the drough of big plays that dated back to the team’s tuneup match with Central Michigan.
USC would threaten again, reducing their deficit to two scores on their first drive of the fourth quarter. But Notre Dame responded with verve once more. Jadarian Price returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, the first Irish kickoff return score in 749 days.
Now it was Notre Dame’s turn to sit back and watch their opponent unravel. The Trojans ran three drives after Price’s dagger touchdown. Those drives ended in a turnover on downs, a fumble returned for a touchdown, and another fumble. Over 77,600 fans watched a rivalry game turn into a rivalry rout. A party atmosphere in South Bend culminated in a triumphant field storming when the final whistle blew.
Earlier in the season, Marcus Freeman ruefully left a press conference in silence after struggling to find answers to questions about his team’s collapse. That night, he walked the same hallway deep inside Notre Dame Stadium and leaned over the north tunnel railing, slapping high fives with jubilant students filing out for fall break under the watchful eyes of Touchdown Jesus.