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Klonsinski: Irish needed this one

| Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Notre Dame needed to win this one, and not just to keep its slim hopes of making the College Football Playoff alive.

On home turf under the lights in prime time, playing against not just any rival, but the biggest rival that was also reeling after a coaching fiasco in the week leading up to it, with almost three dozen recruits representing the future in the stands, as well as keeping itself afloat in the playoff picture: it was a game elite programs win.

No. 14 Notre Dame did just that.

“Just your normal USC-Notre Dame football game,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said dryly following the win.

It was anything but.

After all the chaos in Los Angeles this weekend with former Trojan head coach Steve Sarkisian’s leave of absence and eventual firing, it would have been hard to blame the Trojans for putting together a less-than-stellar showing Saturday night.

But it’s USC-Notre Dame. Immense credit is due to the USC football program and interim coach Clay Helton: They were a few plays away from downing the Irish on the road despite being behind the eight-ball and on a negative swing.

That’s something the Irish did not manage at all last year in Los Angeles, where they simply rolled over in Notre Dame’s ugly 49-14 loss.

Yet the Irish took the best swings the Trojans threw at them and made the plays they needed to win. The biggest ones could not have come from more unlikely sources — at least this season.

When it needed it most, Notre Dame received huge contributions from junior receiver Corey Robinson, senior defensive back KeiVarae Russell and the special teams units.

Robinson had not hauled in a touchdown this season until his spectacular diving catch in the end zone put Notre Dame up for good in the fourth quarter. Russell likewise had a big zero on his stat sheet until he soared above Trojan sophomore receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for his fourth-quarter interception. Russell also factored heavily in junior safety Max Redfield’s pick on the next Trojan possession, getting his hand on a pass by USC redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler.

Even the special teams unit, a new strength for the Irish this season, contributed in a massive way: After Notre Dame’s defense forced the Trojans into its first punt attempt, freshman receiver Equanimeous St. Brown burst through the USC formation and blocked the kick with his chest. Senior receiver Amir Carlisle scooped up the bouncing ball and carried it into the end zone escorted by half the Irish punt-block team to almost blow the game wide open.

Carlisle said after the game it felt good to contribute with such high stakes.

“I’ll be honest, it definitely felt good, especially because of the whole rivalry, and they have a great team,” Carlisle said. “This was a must-win game for us to keep our playoff hopes alive.”

Kicker Justin Yoon also continued his strong freshman campaign by drilling two field goals, including a 32-yarder that gave Notre Dame a two-score lead with just over two minutes remaining.

Carlisle said this week was a little different than even other USC weeks he’s been in with the added outside pressures, and the team approached it with an aggressive mentality.

“We came into this week thinking it’s a big rivalry, we’ll take that for what it is, but we know we’re going to attack this game and attack whoever’s in front of us. That was the mindset of this game,” Carlisle said.

With their victory Saturday night against USC, the Irish took a large step they missed last year — twice — and already once this season: Win a big-time game against a big-time opponent.

It’s a fair criticism to point out those other three opportunities (Florida State, Arizona State and Clemson) came on the road. That’s the next step for Notre Dame, and it will get another opportunity in that category Nov. 28 against Stanford over Thanksgiving weekend.

Until then, however, Notre Dame put itself in the position to still be talked about come late November and moved a little closer to the realm of the elite in college football.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Zach Klonsinski

A History graduate, Zach spent all four of his years on campus as a resident of Knott Hall. Hailing from Belgrade, Montana, he covered a wide variety of sports in his time at Notre Dame, including Football, Hockey, Men's Basketball, Men's Soccer, Women's Tennis, Fencing, Rowing, Women's Lacrosse and other events around campus. You can contact him in his post-graduation travels and job search at [email protected]

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