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USC Game Review: Wow, Defense

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A scoreless second half allows the Irish to grind out their third win in four games over rival USC.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The offense spun its wheels in the second half but the Irish defense put up one of the best performances of the Kelly era to preserve a 14-10 victory over USC.

Play Call of the Game

How about the 4th down play on the first series? Just kidding.

With the offense going into a shell in the second half following the Rees injury there really wasn't much to work with in terms of play-calling. The 36-yard run by McDaniel and the 11-yard touchdown pass from Rees to Jones in back-to-back plays were the highlights of the night.

Armchair Quarterback

For how bad the offense performed in the second half I really didn't find much to complain about. If Brian Kelly can call plays that prevent Andrew Hendrix from bouncing the ball 6 yards in front of the intended receiver I'm sure he would have done that.

In reality despite the brutally conservative approach in the second half there were some nice things coming out of this game. Some hurry up tempo in the first half? Hey, we can do it! Two tailbacks in the backfield at the same time? I'm so excited that we are allowed do to that!

With Rees the offense was looking pretty sharp. There were the typical Rees floaters on a few completions, an overthrow or two, but the play-calling balance and execution was admirable.

Turning Point

In a close game like this it came right down to the wire with KeiVarae Russell planting his golden dome into Nelson Agholor's ribs while Joe Schmidt made a play on the ball to cause an incompletion on 4th and 8 effectively ending the contest.

Surprising Stat: 1 first down

Okay, so it wasn't surprising but Notre Dame only gained one first down while Andrew Hendrix was in at quarterback. 1 first down in 6 offensive series.

On the other side of the ball how about holding USC to just 2 of 13 on third down and 0 for their last 11 on the game?

Unheralded Star: Joe Schmidt

It has to be the former walk-on who has been thrust into playing time with the injury to Jarrett Grace. He got a little lost in coverage on Agholor's 32-yard reception on USC's last drive but made up for it with a couple nice plays overall in the game, and a key pass breakup.

Missed Opportunity: Turnover on Downs on the 1st Drive

That drive was very reminiscent of the first drive in 2012 against Pittsburgh where the Irish drove right down the field and followed the exact same script leading to giving the ball up deep in opponent territory without putting points on the board.

The 1-yard rush by McDaniel on 3rd & 2 on Notre Dame's last full offensive series was also another missed opportunity to put USC earlier.

Bad Flag of the Game

Sorry USC fans, but the refs could have called a lot more holding penalties on the Trojans.

Rees Reaction

We really missed Tommy Rees out there, didn't we?

He looked as comfortable as ever with minimal checking, handling the up-tempo, completing 66% of his passes, and throwing a couple nice touchdown passes. His lack of mobility really hampered his ability to do anything on the play in which he got injured which is too bad.

I'm hoping both that Rees gets healthy this week and that he gains a lot of confidence from his performance.

Red Zone TD Success: 66 percent

The Irish failed to score on their first drive after moving the ball to the USC 1-yard line but then did covert touchdowns on their following two trips inside the USC red zone.

Trench Analysis

The offensive line was really up against it for the majority of the second half facing 10 and sometimes 11 men in the box. I still think the running backs are slowing down the ground game with poor vision but there's still room for improvement in blocking execution. The pass blocking once again was excellent.

Huge, huge, huge game for the defensive line. As I mentioned in the preview I thought it would be important for Notre Dame to be even with USC in terms of tackles for loss and sacks. Each team had 2 sacks---with Notre Dame split seconds away from many more---and the Irish had 7 tackles for loss to USC's 5.

Silas Redd did average 5.9 per rush on 19 carries but that appeared to me to have more with poor run fits, bad angles by linebackers and safeties, and poor tackling than it was poor play by the defensive line. The line gave the defense plenty of opportunities to shut down the run and to their credit they were able to do that in the second half.

Freshmen Update

Defensively the stud Jaylon Smith played great again (4 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 interception) while both Cole Luke and Devin Butler did some nice things in the secondary. Max Redfield even saw some action at safety in the second half.

Offensively, Steve Elmer saw more action at right guard, and Will Fuller saw significant reps at wide receiver. James Onwuanlu, Tarean Folston, Isaac Rochell, and Corey Robinson also saw the field.

Final Thoughts

Nelson Agholor had more punt return yardage on 4 attempts this Saturday than Notre Dame had in all of 2011 and 2012 combined.

The Voodoo Child had a bad experience. If you want to blame Brian Kelly for it go right ahead but remember internally the coaching staff has believed for a long time that Hendrix can't handle the pressure of the big lights. Can Hendrix play better? Sure, and with some more reps I'm sure he can put in a better effort, calm down, and complete some passes. But he's very unlikely to change in the way he handles the pressure.

I hate to pile on Hendrix at this moment but I'll say this. If he doesn't see any extended action the rest of the season and if he looks poor in any of the action he probably shouldn't come back for a fifth season. That's not to say that the coaching staff might not bring him back anyway---there might be room for him anyway---but his mental game might be beyond repair by now.