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Defense stymies USC in second half

Brian Hartnett | Sunday, October 20, 2013

There were no signature goal-line stands or national championship implications this time around.

But Notre Dame’s defense resembled last year’s top-ranked unit for long stretches of Saturday night’s game against USC, as it shut down the Trojans in the second half to preserve a 14-10 Irish victory.

Notre Dame held USC to just 121 yards of total offense in a scoreless second half. The 32 yards of total offense Notre Dame surrendered in the third quarter marked the fewest yards allowed by the Irish defense in any quarter this season.

“I knew before we went on the field that we had to go on the field to win the game as the defense, and we’re prepared to do that,” graduate student inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese said. “We did a great job.”

The Irish defense was called upon several times to bail out an ineffective offense that only gained 47 yards in the second half, and an undisciplined special teams unit that allowed 100 punt-return yards. USC started three of its second-half drives within Notre Dame territory.

“Our defense just kept battling and again, like I said, that’s just the way our guys compete here at Notre Dame,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “They keep playing every single day, and they don’t care about where they were on the field, they just play the next play.”

Despite the unfavorable field position, Notre Dame utilized pressure up front to stall USC’s drives. Junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt recorded two second-half sacks, including a fourth-down takedown of Trojans sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler to give Notre Dame the ball with 2:49 remaining in the fourth quarter.

“[There was] a lot of pressure,” USC coach Ed Orgeron said. “That was a good front. We knew it was a good front coming in, a lot of pressure, and we just seemed that we couldn’t get things going.”

Tuitt may have received the bulk of attention from USC’s offensive line, but it was some of Notre Dame’s more unheralded defensive players that made contributions down the stretch. Junior linebacker Joe Schmidt, filling in for injured junior linebacker Jarrett Grace, broke up a pass intended for USC sophomore receiver Nelson Agholor on the Trojans’ final drive. In addition, freshmen Cole Luke, Devin Butler and Max Redfield all saw time in the secondary.

“I looked up one time, and I was like, man, we’ve got a lot of guys out here,” Kelly said. “And they were just making plays, playing hard, competing. [Sophomore linebacker] Romeo [Okwara] is out there, and you’ve got Butler and Luke and Joe Schmidt. You’ve just got a lot of those guys. Good to see all those guys and all of them contributing in some fashion.”

Freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith, already a fixture on Notre Dame’s defense, added to his first-year accomplishments with an interception on USC’s first drive in the third quarter. Smith finished the game with four tackles, one of them for a two-yard loss.

“[Smith] sets the edge of our defense, which as you know is so important in the 3-4 defense,” Kelly said. “He’s athletic, great interception. He’s playing man-to-man coverage down the field on a pretty talented player.”

After some early struggles, Notre Dame held USC’s skill players at bay. The Irish limited Trojans junior receiver Marqise Lee, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, to only 18 yards on two receptions before Lee exited with a knee injury in the second half. Additionally, Notre Dame’s defense limited Trojans senior running back Silas Redd, who amassed 91 yards and scored USC’s only touchdown in the first half, to 26 yards rushing in the second half.

“Silas is a great player, and really it was everyone defending their gap,” Smith said. “If I have to set the edge, I have to do my job. When everyone does their job, they’re going to be successful.”

Despite the strong defensive effort, few on Notre Dame were willing to invite comparisons to last year’s defense.

“I mean, that was a different team,” senior defensive linesman Louis Nix said. “I don’t look back to that team. I just look forward to this team and what we’ve got to accomplish.”

But at the same time, Nix said the Irish are on their way to regaining some of the qualities that made them successful in the past.

“We know we had some swagger about ourselves last year,” he said. “We’re getting that back. It’s a different team, different people, different guys stepping in place. We’re getting it back in a different way.”

Contact Brian Hartnett at [email protected]