Cody Kessler threw three of his opponent-record six touchdown passes in the first quarter as USC scored the first 35 points in a 49-14 rout of Notre Dame Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
One week after a 38-20 loss to their other rival, UCLA, the Trojans outgained the Fighting Irish, 577 yards to 349, led 35-20 in first downs, scored their second-most points against Notre Dame (behind 55 in 1974) and held the Fighting Irish to their lowest point total since they defeated USC, 14-10, on Oct. 19, 2013.
“A week ago we just didn’t play our brand of football and that goes to me,” Trojan coach Steve Sarkisian said.
“You come back Monday, give the guys a message of what we need to do to get get it done and then they go out and work their tails off Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. To come out the way they played today was just awesome.
“All three phases were just tremendous. To hold them down the way we did was fantastic. Offensively, the efficiency was really good. We ran the ball a lot more effective tonight than we probably had in the last few weeks, which in turn got us some favorable coverages and Cody was on.”
Kessler completed a career-high 32 passes, in 40 attempts for 372 yards and broke Notre Dame’s previous opponent single-game touchdown pass record of five shared by former USC quarterback Matt Leinart and then-Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko, both set in 2004.
The Trojans’ 205 rushing yards were their most since they had 213 in a 56-28 victory over Colorado Oct. 18, five games ago.
“We just loaded up against the run and were in man coverage all day,” Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We knew it was pick your poison today and we just don’t have a lot of answers in that situation.”
The Trojans (8-4) had an apparent 28-yard touchdown pass from Kessler to JuJu Smith on their first possession overturned on video review and punted two plays later.
USC then scored touchdowns on each on its next five possessions on Kessler’s 48-, 16- and 31-yard passes to George Farmer, Adoree’ Jackson and Farmer in the first quarter and Kessler’s six- and 14-yard passes to Darreus Rogers and Nelson Agholor in the second.
Kessler threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Randall Telfer on the first series of the second half. Justin Davis ran 16 yards for a touchdown on USC’s next possession.
Notre Dame “got punched in the nose today,” Kelly said after his team’s fourth loss in a row and fifth in the last six games following a 6-0 start to fall to 7-5.
“You want to see a response too, right?” Kelly said. “They’re young, but I want to see some bite too. I want to see some bite. The bowl preparation, we’re going to have to see a response. All jobs are available and we’re going to have to see something from this group.
Backup redshirt freshman quarterback Malik Zaire ran 11 yards for the Fighting Irish’s first touchdown, four minutes, 11 seconds before halftime. Greg Bryant ran 1 yard with 2:48 left in the third quarter for Notre Dame’s other score.
Fighting Irish starting quarterback Everett Golson completed seven of 18 passes for 75 yards, had one pass intercepted and lost a fumble before being replaced by Zaire with 5:09 left in the first half.
Zaire, who had not thrown a pass in college before today, completed nine of 20 passes for 170 yards.
“We tried to get a spark offensively and Malik gave us that spark,” Kelly said. “We had a couple drops on one drive and missed a field goal. He made some mistakes, which is to be anticipated on it being his first today.
The victory was the Trojans’ 10th in the last 13 games in the series, which the Fighting Irish lead 45-34-5, not including USC’s 2005 victory that was vacated due to an NCAA penalty.
“I am happy for this guy (senior linebacker Hayes Pullard, who was seated next to him on the dais during the postgame news conference) and his class,” Sarkisian said.
“Their last moment, their last game and moment in the Coliseum is something they will remember for a lifetime. What a memory to cherish. This is what this rivalry has meant for the past 88 years.”