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Week 7: USC

Mary Green | Sunday, October 20, 2013

Notre Dame was able to sing the Alma Mater in front of its home crowd Saturday with a 14-10 win over rival USC on Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.

“I think it was good for us,” senior receiver and captain TJ Jones said about the victory. “It was a good, tough win in front of our home crowd and probably one of the toughest wins we’ve had yet this season, so to be home in front of that home crowd I think was good for us and for our community.”

The offenses for the Irish (5-2) and the Trojans (4-3) set the tone for the first half, while their defenses took over in the scoreless second.

Notre Dame came up fruitless on its first drive despite advancing to the Southern California one-yard line. On fourth down, Notre Dame junior running back Cam McDaniel was immediately stopped by Trojans freshman safety Su’a Cravens for a three-yard loss and turnover on downs.

USC relied mainly on its running game on its first drive. After a 15-yard rush by running back Silas Redd, the Trojans put the ball in the senior’s hands again at the half-yard line, and Redd delivered with the rushing touchdown to give his team a 7-0 lead after the 96-yard drive. Redd led all players with 112 yards on the ground, while McDaniel’s 92 were the most for Notre Dame.

The Irish responded on their next possession. Senior quarterback Tommy Rees led the charge in a new, up-tempo offense, racking up 48 yards through the air on passes to Jones, junior receiver DaVaris Daniels, sophomore receiver Chris Brown and freshman receiver Will Fuller.

“I thought we got some really good things out of it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said of the quicker offense. “We settled on some plays, a cluster of plays that we felt were going to be good for us. I thought the tempo worked well, and I thought [Rees] played well.”

A McDaniel five-yard rush put the Irish at the Trojans’ seven-yard line, where Rees put the ball into the hands of junior tight end Troy Niklas – outstretched on the goal line and with Trojans redshirt senior linebacker Hayes Pullard on his back – for the Notre Dame touchdown to tie the game.

The Trojans marched 44 yards down the field on the ensuing possession but came away with no points after junior kicker Andre Heidari missed the 40-yard field goal attempt wide right.

Notre Dame went three-and-out on its drive, and Trojans sophomore receiver Nelson Agholor found an opening to take the punt 48 yards to the Irish 20-yard line, the longest punt return against the home team this season.

“We were undisciplined in punt coverage,” Kelly said. “We were actually just overactive, out of our lanes, really trying to squeeze the football too hard and got the ball outside of us on a couple of occasions. We’ve got to do a better job there.”

The Irish stopped the Trojans from crossing the goal line on this possession, highlighted by senior defensive lineman Louis Nix’s tackle for a one-yard loss on third down.

Heidari was able to put the 22-yard kick through the uprights on his second attempt to give the 10-7 lead back to USC.

The teams traded scoreless possessions that both ended with punts before the Irish came away with another score. McDaniel fueled the drive, picking up 60 yards on two rushes, including a career-long 36-yard scamper.

“He’s a very hard runner,” senior offensive lineman and captain Zack Martin said of McDaniel. “We know he can grind it out and get some of those runs. We know if we block and make holes, he can get some big ones, and we saw that at the end of the second quarter, he really put our offense in field position to score.”

Then, with the ball on the Trojans’ 11-yard line, Jones made an over-the-shoulder catch along the sidelines for a Notre Dame touchdown, and the first half closed with the Irish ahead, 14-10.

Players said Rees gave a halftime speech to the team that fired up the Irish and inspired them to take the victory over their rivals.

“He just said that we’ll play together, let’s play for each other, let’s do this, let’s win,” Niklas said. “[He said] we had a great first half and we should take the momentum into the second half.”

“He had a lot of the guys almost in tears,” Jones said. “It’s the first time Tommy spoke out like that, and it was definitely emotional.”

With Rees’s speech in their minds, Notre Dame came out with a strong defensive front in the second half. The Trojans’ first possession swung the momentum in favor of the Irish, as freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith intercepted Kessler’s pass to Agholor for his first career pick.

“It was great,” Smith said of his interception. “I didn’t expect it, but I knew I was in the right position. Anytime you make a play, it’s always good. It’s always positive when you do something good for the team.”

However, Notre Dame could not reap the benefits of the USC turnover and ended the drive with a punt.

Irish junior punter Kyle Brindza and Trojans sophomore punter Kris Albarado were busy in the third quarter as their teams traded scoreless possessions, four apiece.

In one of those Irish drives, Rees was sacked by junior linebacker Lamar Dawson for an eight-yard loss. The quarterback was shaken up and left the game for the locker room, and senior quarterback Andrew Hendrix took the reins of the offense.

“Tommy had a really inspiration speech during halftime, and we were all definitely rallying around him,” Niklas said. “He’s becoming a great leader on our offense, so to see him go down was really disheartening. But with our ‘next man in’ philosophy, we had to go with Andrew, and I think he did a good job with the circumstances at hand.”

Kelly said Rees strained his neck on the play and was “really sore.” He said the team would know in the next 24 to 48 hours what their starting quarterback’s status will be for the next game against Air Force.

Each team managed one first down in the third quarter. The Trojans only put up 32 yards against the Irish defense in the period, the fewest yards allowed in a single quarter for Notre Dame this season.

“USC is a great team, a great, powerful team,” junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “They’re our rivals, so they’re going to come and play hard. For us to stop them was awesome. It was a great team effort and a great defensive effort as a whole.”

USC finally ended the punting streak five minutes into the fourth quarter with a 46-yard field goal attempt by Heidari that fell short of the goalposts.

An Irish drive midway through the fourth quarter ended on a fumble by McDaniel, which Cravens recovered for the Trojans. The fumble was only the second that Notre Dame has lost all season.

“We turn the ball over, and we just keep playing,” Kelly said. “Late in the game when most would succumb to that, it doesn’t faze our group. They just keep playing and keep competing, and that’s really what’s special about this group. They just keep playing.”

USC did not capitalize on the turnover, hindered by three penalties that set its offense back 25 yards. The three-and-out ended with a monster sack by Tuitt that set the tone for Notre Dame’s control of game’s final minutes. Tuitt registered two sacks and seven tackles on the night.

“He got the game ball,” Kelly said of his star defensive end. “He was all over the place. He was in the run game outstanding, left the ball outside the defense one time late in the game, but they held him. They couldn’t handle him today.”

After another punt by Brindza, who combined with Albarado to punt for 484 yards, the Trojans had one final opportunity to take a late-game lead.

Kessler completed a pass to Agholor to advance 32 yards to the Irish 43, and the tandem picked up another quick seven yards on the next play. An incompletion and false-start penalty slowed the Trojans’ progress, and on third-and-8, a hard hit by Notre Dame junior linebacker Joe Schmidt on USC sophomore receiver Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick forced another incomplete pass.

“I got back in my zone, reading the quarterback’s eyes, saw he was going to throw the ball to the left and broke and made a play,” Schmidt said. “It was a great play and an amazing feeling.”

On the Trojans’ final down, Irish sophomore cornerback KeiVarae Russell broke up a pass intended for Agholor, allowing Notre Dame to take possession and finish the game in victory formation.

“Our defense was outstanding in the second half and gave us the chance to win the football game,” Kelly said. “Great win, one that obviously, when it comes to beating USC, will go a long way with our guys.”

With their first win over Southern California at home since 2001, the Irish head on the road to face Air Force on Saturday in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Contact Mary Green at mgreen8@nd.edu