SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — With its season in danger of spiraling, Notre Dame harassed the Heisman Trophy winner and knocked its fiercest rival from the rankings of the unbeaten.
Xavier Watts intercepted Caleb Williams twice and returned a fumble for a touchdown as No. 21 Notre Dame handed No. 10 Southern California its first loss in a 48-20 victory on Saturday night.
Having lost twice in the last three games, the Fighting Irish (6-2) bounced back against their longtime rivals from the West Coast in a big way. Watts had two of Notre Dame’s three first-half picks against Williams and then a 15-yard scoop-and-score with 3:27 left to add an exclamation point.
“Obviously, we were coming off a loss to Louisville,” Watts said. “I was kind of angry from that. This was a big rivalry game. I just wanted to come out and dominate.”
Benjamin Morrison had Notre Dame’s other interception of the half, leading to Audric Estime’s 1-yard plunge that put Notre Dame ahead 24-3. A week after wiping out a 17-point deficit to beat Arizona in overtime, the Trojans (6-1) had no such comeback in them.
Williams had only been intercepted once, but he was sacked four times by the Fighting Irish and finished with 199 yards passing and a TD. His hopes of becoming just the second two-time Heisman winner along with Ohio State’s Archie Griffin took a hit.
“I made mistakes that I usually don’t make,” Williams said. “Nights like that happen. You have to get through it, you got to keep fighting, you have to be a leader.”
Averaging 51.8 points per game, USC ended up with five turnovers and was limited to 92 yards rushing. The Fighting Irish racked up 11 tackles for loss.
“I couldn’t speak more highly of the performance of our defense,” Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said. “I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer to stopping Caleb Williams. He is one of the best college football players that I’ve ever seen. All I kept telling our guys was, we have a plan, and on this play, you have to attack. You cannot play passive. You cannot play a three-man rush and let him go out there and be the Heisman Trophy winner he is.”
Williams pulled USC within 31-20 with a seven-yard TD pass to Brenden Rice with 9:04 left in the fourth quarter.
Seconds later, the Notre Dame lead bounced back to 18 points when Jadarian Price returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a score.
“Disappointed, certainly not defeated, not demoralized,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “We’ve obviously got a lot in front of us. This game means a lot. We know it means it a lot to our fan base, it means a lot to college football.”
USC lost for the fifth consecutive time at Notre Dame Stadium.
USC: The defense has taken lots of well-earned criticism, but the offensive line is now also looking like a big issue with several huge games in the Pac-12 still ahead.
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish ability to bounce back after a stinging 33-20 loss at Louisville gives Notre Dame momentum heading into the final four games of the season. After a week off, the Irish take on Pittsburgh, Clemson, Wake Forest and Stanford as they try to boost their bowl stock.
USC feasted on a first-half schedule that included only one team with a winning record, but after the loss at Notre Dame, the Trojans can expect a significant slide in the rankings.
Southern California: The Trojans jump back into Pac-12 action when they host No. 16 Utah.
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish host Pittsburgh on Oct. 28.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll