LOS ANGELES — Brian Kelly called his entire team over to the 35-yard line at the end of the first half to publicly deliver a pointed message to them.
ABC’s Todd McShay said Kelly told his players “what happened in the last three minutes is unacceptable for a Notre Dame team.” What happened in the second half — including defensive lineman Jerry Tillery appearing to kick the head of a USC player and stomping on the foot of another — was similarly unacceptable, then.
Notre Dame lost, 45-27, to USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday to finish its embarrassing 2016 season with a 4-8 record, which secured the fifth-worst winning percentage in program history.
Notre Dame scored the game’s first touchdown — the 11th time that’s happened in its 12 games this season — when DeShone Kizer followed Josh Adams’ 74-yard run with a one-yard plunge into the end zone early in the first quarter. USC quickly re-took the lead, though, when Ronald Jones dashed 51 yards for a touchdown to put the Trojans up, 10-7.
Notre Dame battled — especially on defense — but never threatened to re-take the lead. Justin Yoon missed a 37-yard field goal with just under five minutes left in the second half that would’ve tied things up, and a few minutes after, the bottom fell out.
After a substitution issue negated a snap that went out of the end zone on a punt attempt, Notre Dame punted to Adoree’ Jackson, who scythed 55 yards for his first return touchdown of the game.
The disaster continued when Kizer was picked off by Ajene Harris for a touchdown, which vaulted USC to a 24-7 halftime lead. That’s when Kelly called his team meeting on the field. Kelly said his reasoning behind holding the meeting on the field was that the Coliseum's visiting locker room was set up so he couldn't see the faces of all of his players.
Kizer took advantage of Jackson’s fumble on a punt return to open the third quarter by finding Chris Finke for a 14-yard touchdown that drew the Irish within 10. But Jackson struck again, catching a swing pass from San Darnold and racing 52 yards for a touchdown.
When Kizer found Kevin Stepherson — who juked Jackson on a sweet double move — for a 29-yard touchdown, Jackson again responded. His 97-yard kick return for a touchdown featured a hurdle over Irish kicker John Chereson that’ll be on highlight reels for this rivalry game for ages.
After Nicco Fertitta was ruled, after two reviews, to have targeted Aca’Cedric Ware — he forced a fumble on the play — USC punched in a touchdown when Darnold found JuJu Smith-Schuster for a two-yard touchdown.
Following the touchdown, Tillery stomped on the foot/ankle of a USC offensive lineman and was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Tillery also appeared to kick the head of Ware after he was down following Fertitta’s hit, too.
With the game out of reach with about a minute left, Malik Zaire — who entered the game after Kizer took a shot to the ribs — connected with Equanimeous St. Brown for a 15-yard touchdown. It was Zaire's first touchdown throw of the season.
Notre Dame pulled out all the stops on offense, having Finke pass twice (one was completed to Kizer) and running a Statue of Liberty play, among other wrinkles we hadn’t seen this year. But it wasn’t enough to keep a red-hot USC team within arm’s reach.
Usually around this time of year, Notre Dame is figuring out what warm-weather bowl destination it’ll head to in December or January. But now, with a 4-8 record, there’s only one massive question to be answered: Will Brian Kelly be the coach of Notre Dame in 2017?