Midway through the Third Quarter, Notre Dame was outplaying USC. They had gained 261 yards of offense, scored two touchdowns and forced a turnover.
Then everything fell apart. Almost.
Notre Dame's defense held USC to zero points in the second half and the Irish held on to defeat the Trojans 14-10 tonight in South Bend.
Any doubts that Irish fans had of Tommy Rees' importance to the Notre Dame offense were erased tonight. Rees went off after taking an ugly sack midway through the Third Quarter that appeared to be at Rees' neck. Rees would leave to the locker room, coming out in the 4th quarter without his pads and an unknown diagnosis at this point, though it appeared that Notre Dame's medical staff were testing Rees for a concussion on the sidelines.
Andrew Hendrix came in the game and was absolutely abysmal. He short-hopped three of his first four throws and completely lost the ball on another that didn't end up being a pass attempt. USC's defense smartly loaded the box, forcing Hendrix into either running the ball into a wall of defenders or throwing passes that he couldn't complete. He would end up without a pass completion on four attempts.
However, the Irish defense was stout, especially in the second half. Led by Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, the Irish defense pressured USC quarterback Cody Kessler all night, forcing a turnover and leaving Kessler without a touchdown pass and only 201 yards passing.
Irish Freshman LB Jaylon Smith continues to improve each week and was very impressive tonight, notching his first interception of his Irish career.
USC was addled by the loss of star WR Marqise Lee, who apparently reinjured his knee and didn't return in the second half.
The Trojans also were very penalty-prone, committing 11 penalties for 95 yards, some of them at very crucial times.
The Irish offense started the game with an impressive drive to inside USC's 1-yard line but couldn't convert and turned the ball over on downs. USC then went 99 yards for a 1-yard scoring run by running back Silas Redd.
Rees then marched the Irish 77 yards downfield, capping off the drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Troy Niklas on the last play of the first quarter. Niklas had a great game, finishing with 58 yards on 4 catches.
Irish WR TJ Jones scored his 5th touchdown of the season on an 11-yard strike from Rees near the end of the first half that would eventually prove to be the game-winner.
Now for some thoughts and observations:
#runthedamnballkelly? - While the Irish rushed for 129 yards tonight, the stats are a little bit misleading. 60 of the Irish's yards came from almost-consecutive runs by Cam McDaniel on the Irish's go-ahead scoring drive. Taking those away, the Irish only rushed for 69 yards. McDaniel, without those two runs, went 16 carries for 32 yards. Yikes. George Atkinson III, who only saw limited action, gained 40 yards on 8 carries. We'll never really know if the Irish offense would've been able to establish the run on a gassed USC defense because Rees went out and USC was able to stack the box. However, the running game was moderately concerning tonight. Including Rees' sacks, the Irish offense rushed 40 times for 129 yards. At 3.2 yards per carry, that is ugly.
Tommy Rees was playing the best game of his career - Yes, a ballsy statement, but I'll stand by it. Rees was incredibly efficient and made some excellent throws on the Irish's almost-scoring drive and their scoring drive with Niklas. He was finding his receivers and while sailing his passes somewhat, never put the ball in a position to get it turn over. He ended up 14 of 21 for 166 and 2 touchdowns. I think he could've easily finished with over 250 yards passing and another score or two, but we'll never know. Rees finishes his career against USC 57-100 for 505 yards, 4 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. It is also worth mentioning that Tommy Rees tonight joined Jimmy Clausen, Brady Quinn, Ron Powlus and Steve Beuerlein with over 6,000 passing yards in his career. Congratulations to him.
The Irish defense did what it needed to do to win - It didn't look great early. USC drove the ball on their first drive 99 yards and Silas Redd was the first running back all season to rush for over a hundred yards on the Irish defense. Yet they buckled down and put the pressure on the USC offense forcing them to go 2 for 13 on third downs and holding the potent USC offense to zero 2nd half points. Stephon Tuitt had arguably his best game tonight, with 7 total tackles (4 solo, 3 assisted) and 2 sacks on Kessler. Jaylon Smith is quickly becoming my new favorite player after Louis Nix (who also played great tonight). Smith finished with 4 total tackles and an interception and is showing that he'll be someone to watch down the stretch. As a unit, the Irish defense would finish with 7 TFL's, a very impressive performance.
Special Teams...Not So Special - Notre Dame's kicking and punting coverage left a lot to be desired tonight. USC WR Nelson Agholor had 4 punt returns for 100 yards, including 2 very long runs that put USC in prime scoring position. It appears that OFD's very special teams blogger (and my bro) PatrickRRigney will have a lot to discuss this week.
I'd rather be lucky than good? - USC really didn't do themselves any favors tonight. Their kicker, Andre Heidari, was 1-3 on field goals and their defense committed a brutal number of penalties. A good number of them that occurred in the second half were after key first downs by the USC offense. Despite that, the USC offense outgained the Irish and had better 2nd half field position. Andrew Hendrix, who struggled mightily, couldn't move the ball at all for the Irish offense and gave the ball to USC three times in the final five minutes of the game. And USC couldn't score.