A few USC fans in a sports bar in Costa Mesa were having flashbacks. The last player they’d seen do anything like what cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was doing to Notre Dame on Saturday — three touchdowns, on a punt return, a kickoff return and after a reception — was Anthony Davis.
And Anthony Davis was at the bar.
“If Adoree’ could’ve brought back one more kick like you did in ’72, it would’ve been like what you did,” they told him.
Davis laughed as he recalled the conversation.
“Yeah, he’s in the neighborhood, and he did great,” Davis said of Jackson. “But if he’d have brought back the two, then we’d be talking some serious stuff.”
Davis, the former USC running back, scored six touchdowns for USC, including two on kickoff returns, against Notre Dame in 1972. He scored another four in an iconic comeback win over Notre Dame in 1974. In the 42 years since, there might not have been a one-player performance in the rivalry better than Jackson’s.
It was spectacular enough to earn Davis’ respect and thrust Jackson’s name into the Heisman Trophy conversation for the first time.
Before Saturday, quarterback Sam Darnold had been the only USC player to enter the fringes of the Heisman conversation. But after his postgame news conference, Darnold smiled and said, “Adoree’ for Heisman.”
Jackson is already one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back. He has dabbled on offense. And he has been perhaps the nation’s best special-teams player, now with a signature moment. On his final touchdown, the kickoff return, he leaped over a defender, then struck a Heisman pose in the end zone.
“He’s a special player, and he deserves to be looked at,” USC Coach Clay Helton said in a teleconference with reporters Sunday.
Davis said Jackson “stirs the coffee” for USC.
“He’s amazing,” Davis said. “I tell you, he can carry a game and dictate a game based on his performance.”
Jackson may earn an invite to the Heisman ceremony in New York, but he remains a longshot to win. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has 30 touchdowns passing and another 21 rushing, has become such a favorite that the Bovada sports book is no longer accepting Heisman wagers.
But Louisville has lost its last two games, and Lamar Jackson had three passes intercepted by Kentucky over the weekend, adding a sliver of doubt into the race.
Heisman voters can be fickle. That may help Adoree’ Jackson. His performance broke through into the wider sports culture at a time shortly before votes will be cast. Reggie Bush shouted him out. Tyrann Mathieu and Todd Gurley expressed admiration.
USC defensive back Adoree’ Jackson returns a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against Notre Dame during the third quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC tailback Ronald Jones II breaks into the Notre Dame secondary on a run in the third quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC linebacker Michael Hutchings sacks Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer during the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer is slammed to the turf by USC defensive end Rasheem Green during the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC tailback Aca’Cedric Ware fumbles the ball away to the Notre Dame defense in the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Notre Dame cornerback Cole Luke breaks up a pass intended for USC wide receiver Deontay Burnett in the second quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC linebacker Uchenna Nwosu sacks Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer during the second quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC tailback Ronald Jones II takes the ball into the Notre Dame secondary as the rain comes down during the second quarter at the Coliseum.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC quarterback Sam Darnold throws downfield against Notre Dame in the second quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
The ball pops into the air as USC and Notre Dame players scuffle during the first half.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Strong closing arguments are sometimes necessary. In his final 2002 game, Carson Palmer passed for 425 yards and four touchdowns in a 44-13 victory over Notre Dame and won the award shortly thereafter. But Palmer’s victory came over a top-10 Notre Dame team, and he’d already been in the Heisman conversation.
Strangely, Adoree’ Jackson may have a better case for the Heisman than the Thorpe Award.
Jackson has given up four touchdowns in coverage in the last three games. But he usually more than atoned elsewhere. After he surrendered a touchdown against Notre Dame, he returned the kickoff for a touchdown on the next play.
“I haven’t seen anybody do what he did this year, in terms of all the things he did — punt return, defensive back, kick returner, wide receiver, runner — he does it all,” Davis said. “Yeah, he’s in the running. Is he going to win it? I don’t know. Does he have a shot at it? Yes, he does.”
If Washington defeats Colorado in the Pac-12 Conference championship game and makes the College Football Playoff, would the Rose Bowl take USC over Colorado?
The Rose Bowl will likely select by CFP ranking, but predicting the vote is tricky because playoff-committee precedent is inconsistent.
Some teams have plunged after a championship loss. USC tumbled five spots last season. Some teams haven’t budged. Missouri lost by 29 points to Alabama in 2014, and its ranking didn’t change.
The best comparison for USC’s position comes from last season. Florida lost in the Southeastern Conference title game to Alabama. It moved down one spot. Louisiana State had the same number of losses. It also had defeated Florida in an earlier game. Yet Florida dropped only one spot, remaining one ahead of LSU.
Colorado was No. 9 last week, and USC was No. 12. USC will most likely move up in Tuesday’s rankings because of No. 11 Louisville’s loss.
Helton said he would speak with Jackson, a junior, this month about his decision to enter the NFL draft or return to USC.
“He’ll make the best decision for him and his family, and I’ll support him 100% of the way,” Helton said.
Helton said he would do the same with receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“Man, if Adoree’ comes back, I’m for sure coming back,” Smith-Schuster said, laughing, after the game.
USC rose to No. 10 in the Associated Press top 25. … Running back Aca’Cedric Ware, who absorbed a hit to the head, underwent X-rays and an MRI on his neck and back that revealed no fractures. He is in the concussion protocol. … Outside linebacker Porter Gustin lost a tooth during Saturday’s game.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand