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USC beats Notre Dame for eighth win in a row but will not play for Pac-12 title

USC defeated Notre Dame, 45-27, to finish the season 9-3. The Trojans now must wait to see if they can clinch the Pac-12 South by way of a Utah victory over Colorado.

After he hurdled Notre Dame's last defender, Adoree' Jackson had enough time as he raced down the sideline to contemplate his touchdown celebration.

It was Jackson’s third score in USC’s 45-27 win over Notre Dame on Saturday. What was the best way to mark both USC’s stunning turnaround, from a 1-3 record to one of the hottest teams in the nation at 9-3, and the best performance of Jackson’s magnificent USC career: Front flip? Or Heisman pose?

"I told them I was going to do a front flip and then do the Heisman pose," Jackson said. "But I was so tired from the kickoff return."

As Jackson was celebrating (he went with the Heisman pose) a sizeable portion of the fans in attendance turned their energies to more important proceedings.

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And that is how a “Let’s go Utah!” chant broke out at the Coliseum, for what was probably the first time.

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To win the Pac-12 South Division, USC still needed help. Utah would kick off against Colorado shortly after the game’s end. If Utah defeated Colorado, USC would win the division.

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USC's players filed out of the locker room and marched through a postgame spread quickly after the game. Then they rushed through the rain, clutching their taco bowls, to pack into dorm rooms and apartments to watch, with disappointment, as Colorado fended off Utah, 27-22.

The outcome didn’t eliminate USC from the Rose Bowl, but it did make its path more complicated. Washington, the North Division champion, is a contender for the College Football Playoff. Colorado, the South winner, is more of a longshot.

If the Pac-12 champion reaches the playoff, the Rose Bowl would select the next best Pac-12 team, most likely based on CFP ranking. Washington was ranked No. 5, Colorado No. 9 and USC No. 12 before this weekend's games.

Some players were keeping expectations in check.

“I think we’re going to San Antonio” for the Alamo Bowl, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “But I think the Rose Bowl, we worked so hard and we deserve it.”

The Cotton Bowl also remains an option if the Trojans ascend high enough in the rankings to earn an at-large bid.

Any of the possible destinations seemed like fantasy after September, when USC began its season 1-3, shackled with two Pac-12 losses in two tries.

Saturday evidenced the team's evolution. Quarterback Sam Darnold, who was once relied upon to power the offense single-handedly, was rendered almost a game manager against Notre Dame. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown. It did not matter. USC still scored 45 points.

Nor did it make much of a difference that Notre Dame (4-8) had slugged USC to nearly a stalemate for the first 28 minutes of the game.

In both cases, Jackson could be credited.

With USC stuck with a narrow 10-7 lead in a rainy game, Jackson returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown to swing the momentum. Two plays later, cornerback Ajene Harris ripped in front of a DeShone Kizer pass and returned it for another score. In the span of 17 seconds, USC had wrenched back control of the game for good.

Jackson later took a Darnold screen pass 52 yards for a touchdown. He'd also picked up a first down with a Houdini-like escape along the sideline and nearly intercepted a pass on defense.

His third score, the kickoff return, came after he surrendered a touchdown on defense. He said he'd wanted to atone, and he knew he'd score, he said, "right when the kick was going off. Because I was thinking I was overdue for a kick return."

Jackson knifed to the sideline, galloped past most of Notre Dame's coverage team but still had one man to beat. It was Notre Dame's kicker, John Chereson, and he had Jackson pinned to the boundary. Jackson kept running. When Chereson went low, Jackson leapt over him.

"One of the best I've seen in person," linebacker Michael Hutchings said. "That's a Reggie Bush type play."

"He's a superhero figure," Coach Clay Helton said.

USC did not outgain Notre Dame by much — 412 yards to 408. But its scoring has diversified from the start of the winning streak, when Darnold was called upon to create most of it.

Ronald Jones II rushed for 134 yards and scored on a 51-yard run. USC ran for more yards than it gained through the air, just the third time it has done so all season.

"There's an overall chemistry of the offense right now that I really like," Helton said. "There's not one thing that a defense can take away."

"Everyone's involved," Smith-Schuster said.

The defense generated six sacks, a season high, and held Kizer, considered a strong NFL prospect, to 220 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

The Trojans' three losses almost certainly rule out  a playoff bid, but few teams anywhere would like to play them at this juncture. Now all USC can do is wait to find out where that next game will be.

"It would mean a lot, just from where this program has come since I was a freshman, to going to a Rose Bowl as a senior," Hutchings said. "Nobody would've expected that, just with all the stuff over the years."

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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