by John Vannie
Stephon Tuitt and Jaylon Smith sparked a heroic defensive effort as Notre Dame defeated the Trojans by 14-10 on Saturday night. The Irish scored with just over a minute left in the first half to take the lead, but needed a second half shutout by the defense to survive an injury to quarterback Tommy Rees early in the third quarter that effectively handcuffed the offense.
Both teams moved the ball well at the outset, although USC stoned Cam McDaniel on fourth and goal from the one yard line to end the game’s opening drive. The Trojans then marched the length of the field for a touchdown using a balanced attack that featured runs by Silas Redd and passes from Cody Kessler to Nelson Agholor.
The Irish pulled even at 7-7 on the last play of the first quarter as Rees hit Troy Niklas on a short third down pass for the score. The offenses continued to dominate in the second period, but both teams failed to convert key scoring opportunities. USC kicker Andre Heidari pushed a 40-yard field goal attempt and wide receiver Marquis Lee dropped a sure touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone. Notre Dame also had a promising drive end on a sack and intentional grounding penalty.
The Trojans finally broke through with a short field goal after Louis Nix stopped Javorius Allen on a third down run inside the Irish five yard line. As the half drew to a close with Notre Dame trailing 10-7 and 91 yards from the end zone, Cam McDaniel sandwiched bursts of 24 and 36 yards around a couple of passes by Rees to move downfield. Rees hit T.J. Jones on an 11-yard scoring toss to provide what proved to be the winning points.
Jaylon Smith provided good field position for Rees and company on the first series of the third quarter when he stepped in front of a Kessler pass for a textbook interception near midfield. The Irish were not able to capitalize, and Rees went down on a crushing hit a few minutes later when it appeared Notre Dame was in position to take control of the game.
Backup Andrew Hendrix was not effective throwing the ball and USC’s defense immediately and correctly determined they could sell out against the run. The Irish managed only one first down after Rees went out and were forced to punt time after time as the game moved into the fourth quarter. Agholor’s long punt returns against the stunningly inept Notre Dame special teams tilted the field position advantage back to the Trojans.
The Irish defense continued to turn away each attempt by USC to score, and Heidari misfired again from long range. Tuitt was the dominant force for Notre Dame, chasing or sacking Kessler and drawing multiple holding penalties as the Trojans simply could not block him.
Kessler put together a last-ditch drive with 1:35 remaining, but great plays by linebacker Joe Schmidt and cornerback KeiVarae Russell on the last two Trojan pass attempts sealed the win.
While Notre Dame’s second half offensive woes resulted from the loss of Rees, credit for the win goes to the defense for a perfect second half after a fairly mediocre first 30 minutes. USC had 115 rushing yards at intermission, but only 129 for the game. Poor punt coverage almost cost the Irish the victory, while the missed field goals hurt the Trojans and motivated interim Coach Ed Orgeron to take chances on fourth down late in the game rather than send Heidari onto the field.
Let’s look at the pregame questions for additional analysis:
Will missed tackles continue to haunt the Notre Dame defense? There was a lot of grabbing and arm tackling in the first half, but the Irish tightened up in the second half and were more physical.
Which quarterback will avoid a costly mistake? Hendrix barely avoided disaster when McDaniel fell on his fumble inside the Notre Dame ten yard line.
Will the Irish be ready for an intense slugfest after two weeks off? Notre Dame came out with an up tempo strategy and generally moved the ball well when Rees was in there. The defense started slowly and came on strong as noted above, but the special teams were still on mid-term break.
Can USC keep from running out of gas in the fourth quarter? The Irish and Hendrix did not really test their defense, but the Trojan offensive line was overwhelmed by Tuitt and company in the late going.
Will Marquis Lee be a difference maker or a non-factor? Lee disappeared from the game after dropping a touchdown pass in the second quarter. I’m not sure if his knee or his feelings were hurt more.
Which team will manufacture the most effective pass rush? USC’s sack of Rees put him out of the game, but Notre Dame’s constant harassment of Kessler was ultimately the difference.
How much bad music will we be subjected to on third downs? There was sufficient excitement on the field for the crowd to be loud and engaged without the added stimuli, but the sound system guys went overboard anyway.
Will 12 hours of tailgating lead to chaos in the stadium rest rooms? Most people who attended our tailgater were probably unable to find the restrooms in the stadium.
The 5-2 Irish will push forward as they strive to win out and qualify for a BCS bowl. Rees should be back next week as the team travels to play Air Force, and his presence at the helm of a balanced attack plus the rejuvenated defense make Notre Dame a bit more formidable.