NOTRE DAME — Thank the Notre Dame defense for one.
The Fighting Irish improved to 5-2 with an anything-but-pretty 14-10 college football win over USC on Saturday, Oct. 19, but the big question now is the health of quarterback Tommy Rees, who left in the third quarter after being sacked.
With the offense faltering in the hands of Andrew Hendrix, ND needed big-play performances across the front seven defensively in the final six minutes of the game.
Explosive but low-scoring first half
By the look of the first handful of plays, Notre Dame was getting off to the fast start it had been looking for all year. The Irish moved 64 yards on nine plays, toeing the USC 5-yard line with a fresh set of downs.
The Irish couldn’t convert a 4th-and-1 push, though, allowing USC’s equally fast-paced offense a chance to march 96 yards down the field for the first seven points of the game.
The rest of the half settled into a lot of bark with not much bite from both sides.
With the ND offensive line keeping the pressure at bay, Rees connected on 12 of his 18 passes for 148 first-half yards. As Rees found success connecting with Troy Niklas and TJ Jones, running back Cam McDaniel ate up the field on the ground.
But for as easy as it was for the Irish to move in the long field, they clammed up once they got close to scoring territory. Notre Dame scored only twice in its 248-yard first half.
USC responded with equal offensive intensity. Running back Silas Redd shredded the Irish front seven, and quarterback Cody Kessler took advantage of Nelson Agholor’s mismatch with safety Austin Collinsworth.
Still, USC couldn’t find the end zone after its first drive.
The two teams combined for 457 yards total offense in the first half but had only 24 total points to show for it.
Lucky Drive No. 5
Notre Dame’s offensive efforts finally hit on all cylinders on the fifth drive of the game.
In the span of one minute and 29 seconds, McDaniel broke free on 24- and 36-yard runs and TJ Jones grabbed an 11-yard touchdown pass over the head of Kevon Seymour.
Jones’s touchdown is even more impressive when considering the fact that he had just returned to the field after a minor injury two plays prior.
The score gave Notre Dame the first lead of the game and the last time the Irish would cross the pylons.
Defense wakes up, offense screeches to a halt
Notre Dame’s defense had been stirring through the second quarter, but it didn’t fully awaken until the third.
Jaylon Smith smashed the proverbial champagne bottle with his first career interception. The Irish embarked on a smothering third-quarter campaign, holding the Trojans to 32 total yards and just one first down on 13 plays.
Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix wreaked havoc on the Trojan offensive line. Tuitt dragged Kessler down for a sack to end another USC drive.
On the following series, Rees was blindsided by linebacker Lamar Dawson. Rees shakily headed to the locker room, and the Notre Dame offensive momentum slammed to an abrupt stop under the direction of Hendrix.
As Hendrix struggled to hit anything but the wet turf at Notre Dame Stadium, the defense continued to harass the Trojan offense.
Tuitt sacked Kessler twice and hurried him another two times.
Redd, who had antagonized the Irish with 91 first-half rushing yards, finished with 112. Kessler managed only 162 yards the entire game.
Against its biggest enemy, Notre Dame’s defense looked like the unit that won 12 games last year.
And like so many times last year, it’s what won Notre Dame the game.
Notre Dame 14, USC 10
USC 7 3 0 0 — 10
Notre Dame 7 7 0 0 — 14
USC: Silas Redd 1 run; Andre Heidari kick, 4:03. Drive: 13 plays, 96 yards, 6:25. Key play: Cody Kessler to Nelson Agholar for 16 yards; Redd 15 yards to just outside the goalline.
Score: USC 7, Notre Dame 0.
NOTRE DAME: Troy Niklas 7 pass from Tommy Rees; Kyle Brindza kick, :00. Drive: 10 plays, 77 yards, 4:03. Key play: Rees to DaVaris Daniels for 10 yards, 11 yards, each first downs.
Score: Notre Dame 7, USC 7.
USC: Heidari 22 field goal, 7:50. Drive: 5 plays, 16 yards, 1:55. Key play: Agholar’s 48-yard punt return.
Score: USC 10, Notre Dame 7.
NOTRE DAME: TJ Jones 11 pass from Rees; Brindza kick, 1:13. Drive: 5 plays, 91 yards, 1:29. Key plays: Cam McDaniel runs of 24 and 36 yards.
Score: Notre Dame 14, USC 10.
FINAL: Notre Dame 14, USC 10.