NOTRE DAME — USC arrived in South Bend unbeaten in Notre Dame Stadium since 2001.
Over the last decade, the Trojans had become a perennial curse, an ugly mark on Notre Dame’s otherwise solid home winning percentage.
On the echoes of last year’s Irish defense and a stirring halftime speech from an unlikely source, the curse was broken.
Notre Dame downed the archrival Trojans (4-3) in a 14-10 win on Saturday, Oct. 19. The Irish (5-2) won like it did so many times last year: On the backs of a defensive monster atoning for a stalled offense.
The monster was slow to wake, allowing USC running back Silas Redd to run all over the field in a 91-yard first half performance. The defense missed tackles, got burned in man coverage downfield and allowed the Trojans three straight scoring opportunities in the first half.
The monster stirred in the third quarter when freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith snagged his first-career interception on USC’s third play of the drive. It awakened fully when quarterback Tommy Rees crumpled after a bone-crushing hit a few minutes later.
Rees bee-lined to the locker room, putting the offense in the hands of quarterback Andrew Hendrix, who was 1-of-6 for nine passing yards entering the game.
Notre Dame had 262 total yards when Rees went down early in the third quarter. The Irish would gain just 33 yards the rest of the game with Hendrix under center.
So the responsibility shifted to the defense, who had already begun making noise with Smith’s interception and a smothering sack by Stephon Tuitt, to seal the deal. And it responded. The Trojans would gain just 32 yards in 13 plays in the third quarter.
The Irish offense couldn’t do anything under Hendrix, but the Irish defense made it so the Trojans could never get back in the game.
“It all comes down to the defense at the end of the day,” nose guard Louis Nix said after the game. “That’s our mindset. At the end of the day, the defense is going to have to go on the field and win the game, no matter what, even if we’re beating a team by 50.”
Nix probably would have liked a 50-point cushion, or even a seven-point cushion. But after Notre Dame’s go-ahead touchdown late in the second quarter, neither team would score again.
The Trojans found the scoreboard first, off a 96-yard drive capped by a one-yard punch by Redd. Rees responded with a near-perfect march topped by a 7-yard pass to Troy Niklas in the end zone.
Aided by a strong rushing performance by Cam McDaniel — who isn’t usually seen until the fourth quarter but starred in the first half against USC — and a defense that allowed three points in the second quarter, a possessed Rees put together a 91-yard scoring drive in 1:29 to give the Irish a four-point lead before halftime.
Thanks to two missed USC field goals, it would be the last score of the game.
Rees would go down with what Kelly said was a strained neck on Notre Dame’s second drive of the half, but his halftime message stuck with the Irish defense. USC converted its first two third downs of the game but would finish 0-11 the rest of the night.
Even though they started several second half drives in their own territory and even though failed punt coverage and a fumble recovery put USC in scoring range, Tuitt, Nix & Co. didn’t budge. In fact, it flat-out attacked. Tuitt finished with two sacks, two quarterback hurries and a pass break-up.
“They couldn’t handle him today,” Kelly said of Tuitt. “If you’re wanting to talk about a defensive lineman that was dominating, you could throw that word out there. He was a force out there today.”
Tuitt’s efforts earned him the game ball, fitting symbolism for Notre Dame’s top defender finally playing to his potential. Much like Notre Dame will frame this win, Tuitt plans on framing the ball.
“Thirty years from now, I’m going to look at the frame and be like, ‘I got that ball,’” he said.