Irish come up clutch to burn Trojans
Hayden Adams | Sunday, October 13, 2019
The Jeweled Shillelagh is staying in South Bend as Notre Dame defeated archrival USC 30-27 Saturday night. Irish head coach Brian Kelly talked his team’s play and what prevailing against their rival means to them.
“After the game, in the locker room, when you get a chance to kind of debrief about it, you feel really good that what you put in was going to be effective,” Kelly said. “ … [Head coach] Clay [Helton] had them playing very well. But again, to win against your rival is one of the things that we’ve wanted to do, and it’s a traveling trophy that’s important to us, and to come out as the winner tonight, we’re very, very pleased.”
At the beginning of the game, both teams took turns marching into the opponent’s territory but were forced to punt. Neither team was able to establish much of a rhythm until the Trojans (3-3, 2-1 Pac-12) forced the Irish (5-1) into a three-and-out and converted on a 40-yard field goal attempt the ensuing drive to take a 3-0 lead with 2:13 left in the first quarter. The Irish would finish the first quarter with 78 yards of total offense to the Trojans’ 90.
The Irish finally broke through in the second quarter, thanks in part to the running game finding a solid footing. Junior tight end Cole Kmet credited the run game with opening the offense and allowing them to go on a scoring run.
“I think we were running the ball well today,” Kmet said. “I think that was something we [were] really good at, and we were just imposing our will. I think that’s what led to the scoring.”
After being pinned by a punt at their own three-yard, the Irish converted three first downs, one on a 43-yard rush by senior running back Tony Jones Jr., with senior quarterback Ian Book capping off the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kmet. As he broke the plane of the endzone, a Trojan player tackled Kmet below the knees, causing him to flip into the endzone. He said the hit only invigorated him more.
“I didn’t feel anything, that felt great,” he laughed. “Yeah, that was good; it was good to get the first touchdown in, get the lead to start — and, yeah, definitely felt good against the rival.”
The Irish would keep their foot on the gas, scoring on their next possession with a 51-yard reverse by sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy. On their next and final drive of the half, Notre Dame added to their margin with a 45-yard field goal, taking a 17-3 lead into the half. The Irish improved from 78 yards of offense in the first quarter to 289 total at the half.
The action would not stop with the clock, however, as both teams got into a scuffle on the field that saw players and staff from both sides involved. Both teams were assessed unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, meaning any unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by any player from that point on would result in an ejection.
The Irish received the ball to start the second half. On their first drive, USC forced the Irish into a fourth-and-10 at the Trojan 42-yard line, but junior kicker Jonathan Doerer nailed the 52-yard field goal, the first 50-yard field goal for Notre Dame since Justin Yoon kicked one of the same length against Navy in 2015. The Trojans responded with a 27-yard field goal of their own to cut the deficit to 20-6 with 8:53 left in the third period.
After taking over on downs from the Irish at their own 38, the Trojans would trim the margin even further with a 38-yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis to sophomore wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. However, Doerer would step up yet again for the Irish, converting a field goal from 43 yards out to give the Irish a 10-point cushion.
The Trojans would not be fazed though, as they marched 75 yards down the field with Slovis throwing a touchdown pass to redshirt junior wide receiver Tyler Vaughns to bring the score to 23-20 in the fourth quarter. With pressure mounting on the Irish, Kmet said the team had the utmost confidence the offense would do what was necessary.
“We knew we were going to score before the drive even started. There was no other option,” he said. “We had some third downs, we had that penalty that took us back [to] 1st-and-20, whatever it was. We overcame that, some adversity there on that drive, but we all knew we were going to put the ball in the endzone there.”
Book said he felt the same confidence toward the offense.
“I really felt that all 11 guys were truly confident that we were going to go down and score. I could feel the buzz, feel the energy. I was just confident. I knew we were going to be in the right play calls and just had to go out there and do it, and that’s what we did,” he said.
The offense would see their confidence realized as Book scrambled for an 8-yard touchdown rush to put the Irish on top 30-20 with 3:33 left in the game.
“They were bringing pressure off the edge, so I just wanted to go take it up the middle, and … it worked out perfectly. I saw the endzone and knew I had to get it in there, so it felt really good,” Book said of the play.
Senior running back Tony Jones Jr., who recorded career-highs of 176 yards rushing on 25 carries, gave his take on the team’s clutch fourth-quarter conversion.
“All the plays [offensive coordinator Chip Long] was calling were for everyone, for the whole team,” Jones said. “The whole team had to do their job. And then when Book scored, it felt like the whole team scored a touchdown to win the game.”
USC would score on their next drive but failed to recover an onside kick, allowing Notre Dame to take a knee and drain the clock. Kelly talked about the importance of draining the clock on their final touchdown drive and the role the running game played there and throughout the game.
“Whatever means necessary to win a football game, whether it’s throwing the football or running the football, you have to be equally effective. They were playing a two-deep zone, and it was important that we ran the football in that situation,” he said. “Our offensive line, tight ends did a great job blocking. Tony Jones was outstanding again in the fourth quarter, just like he was against Virginia, and again, taking a lot of time off the clock, I thought Chip did a really good job of being measured in terms of not wanting to push tempo but to use clock in that situation. So just a well-orchestrated drive that ate a lot of clock.”
Kelly also talked about his team’s ability to limit the Trojan receiving corps and how that played a pivotal role in their success.
“I think we accomplished what we wanted to. [Senior wide receiver Michael] Pittman, four catches for 29 yards. I mean, that was first and foremost. He could not be a game wrecker,” Kelly said. “You know, St. Brown, we were in the right coverage on his touchdown. We needed to be in better leverage. That’s one where we needed to execute better in that situation. But number one was to take Pittman out of the game, which we did, and I thought in the first half we executed exactly the way I wanted to defensively.”
Regardless of how Notre Dame came away with the victory, Kelly had praise for the grit of the USC players.
“They’re not too high, they’re not too low. At halftime, they knew that they had to play for four quarters. There was no giddiness of, ‘Hey, we’ve got this thing.’ USC, they had bite to them,” Kelly said. “This team had a bite. I have a great deal of respect for USC and its tradition and in particular for Clay [Helton], but this team has some fight to it, and you could feel that out there, and our kids can, too. When you’re down on the field you know if a team has got some fight in them.”