When a neck strain forced senior quarterback Tommy Rees to exit in the third quarter with the Irish clinging to a 14-10 lead against archrival USC, it left the Notre Dame offense battered and broken. After all, the Irish managed a measly 43 yards in six drives without their starting quarterback and mustered just two first downs and never threatened to score the rest of the game.
Notre Dame junior defensive end capped off an interesting week with a pair of sacks that helped the Irish top USC at home for the first time in 12 years.
Enter an Irish defense that — with its back against the wall throughout the second half — ensured the score did not change at all the final 30 minutes as Notre Dame (5-2) squeaked out a home win against the Trojans for the first time since 2001.
“I think we're really starting to get that confidence that maybe at times we were lacking, and they're playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said.
Much of the uplifting play derived from junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who manhandled the Trojan offensive line and sacked sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler twice and hurried him another pair of times while also breaking up a pass attempt.
“He got the game ball,” Kelly said. “He was all over the place. He was in the run game outstanding, left the ball outside the defense one time late in the game, but they held him. They couldn't handle him today. If you're wanting to talk about a defensive lineman that was dominating, you could throw that word out there. He was a force out there today.”
Tuitt was the focus of attention most of the week after declaring to The Observer that he would return for his senior season. He backtracked from those comments after Notre Dame’s third win over USC in four years, saying that a decision won’t be made until after the regular season. He expressed satisfaction from his performance and the unit’s second-half shutout after the headline-grabbing week.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Winning is hard and to get a win, especially against a rival is awesome.
“[The second half] was great. USC is a great team. A great, powerful team. They’re our rival, so they’re going to come in and play hard. To stop them was awesome. It was a great team effort, a great defensive effort as a whole.”
Notre Dame held USC to 121 second-half yards, and that’s what it took to avoid its second home loss in as many games. All four of backup senior quarterback Andrew Hendrix’s passes fell incomplete, and the Irish offense managed 43 yards and two first downs in six possessions without Rees. With 6:27 remaining in the fourth quarter, USC recovered junior running back Cam McDaniel’s fumble and took over at the Irish 34-yard line.
Kessler completed a 16-yard pass for a first down to reach the 21-yard line, but the Trojans only went in reverse after that play. On fourth-and-20 from the 31, Tuitt eliminated any scoring chance with a sack of Kessler.
“Thirty years from now I’m going to look in a frame and be like, ‘I got that ball,’” Tuitt said of earning the game ball. “I’ll just keep it and put it up somewhere.”
Kelly pointed to the stop as a critical moment in notching the tight victory.
“We turn the ball over and we just keep playing,” he said. “Late in the game when most would succumb to that, it doesn't faze our group, they just keep playing and keep competing, and that's really what's special about this group. They just keep playing.”
Offensively, the Irish moved the ball effectively in the first half behind Rees. Notre Dame marched down the field with relative ease on its first drive and attempted to convert on fourth-and-goal from the USC 1-yard line before freshman safety Su’a Cravens halted McDaniel for a three-yard loss on the final play of the drive. The 12-play, 71-yard drive went for naught with the Trojans’ goal-line denial of the Irish.
Backed up at its own 4-yard line after the fourth down stop, USC’s offense rode the legs of senior running back Silas Redd — injured for the team’s first five games of the season with a knee injury — 96 yards on 13 plays for the opening touchdown. Redd gashed the Irish defense for 40 yards on six carries on the drive.
After Redd’s 14-carry, 91-yard performance in the first half, he managed just 26 yards in the final two quarters.
“Silas is a great player and really it was everyone defending their gap,” said freshman Dog linebacker Jaylon Smith, who recorded his first-career interception in the third quarter. “If I have to set the edge, I have to do my job. When everyone does their job, they’re going to be successful.”
After a fast-paced first quarter in which the teams combined for 216 yards of total offense, USC settled for a field goal on its second possession of the second quarter. USC sophomore Nelson Agholor displayed the speed that attracted Notre Dame to him during his recruitment with a 33-yard punt return to the Irish 20-yard line. A few plays later, Irish senior nose guard Louis Nix overpowered the Trojan offensive line and corralled redshirt sophomore Javorius Allen in the backfield on third-and-goal from the three to force the field goal.
Late in the first half, Notre Dame went 91 yards in five plays to regain the lead and claim its first halftime advantage over the Trojans at home since 2005. A pair of McDaniel runs — he finished with a career-high 92 yards on 18 carries — set the Irish up for an 11-yard touchdown pass from Rees to senior wide receiver TJ Jones. Junior tight end Troy Niklas recorded the team’s first touchdown with a seven-yard reception from Rees on the final play of the first quarter.
Rees’ health status moving forward was not immediately clear following the victory. Before USC junior linebacker Lamar Dawson unleashed the devastating hit on Rees, the senior completed 14 of 21 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns while avoiding any turnovers. He also became the fifth signal caller in program history to reach the 6,000 passing yard plateau.
“I guess that means he's played enough football here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “I don't know that Tommy nor I would look at those numbers and equate much. He's interested and I'm interested in winning football games. I think it does say a lot about the kid and his perseverance. He's just a tough kid, and he just keeps battling. I'm sure he'll look back on that a little bit later and be able to point out, ‘Hey, I did play at Notre Dame and I wasn't that bad.’
Notre Dame travels to Air Force next for its seventh game or, as the coaching staff is referring to it, the second game of the new season of sorts after the mid-October bye week.