Junior linebacker Joe Schmidt has performed admirably in the absence of injured starter Jarrett Grace.
A pair of plays by the junior helped preserve a 14-10 lead over USC in the waning moments at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night, an evening Schmidt has dreamt of his entire life.
Growing up in Orange, Calif., he professed to his father that he would one day suit up for the Irish. In high school, he received scholarship offers from the likes of Arizona, Cincinnati and Air Force as well as a preferred walk-on position from nearby USC, but Schmidt opted to pay his own way at Notre Dame. After two years as a walk-on, head coach Brian Kelly called Schmidt into his office to inform him that he had earned a scholarship for his final two years.
Fast forward to Saturday. Without senior quarterback Tommy Rees, the Irish notched as many fumbles (two, while losing one) as first downs. The edict for the defense was clear: Don’t let USC score. It didn’t, and Schmidt played a major role in shutting out the USC offense in the second half.
“I think as a defense it’s just the way we work and the way we practice,” Schmidt said. “We practice extremely hard and we really got it back today. We played a tough game [and] assignment-correct, physical football.”
Schmidt made a pair of notable plays in the final quarter against the Trojans. Early in the period, sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler found freshman wide receiver Darreus Rogers in the middle of the field on third-and-14 from the Irish 37-yard line. Schmidt hustled to catch Rogers from behind, four yards short of moving the chains. On fourth down, kicker Andre Heidari missed the field goal.
On USC’s final drive, Kessler fired a pass to Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick beyond the first down marker on third-and-eight. The tight end had the ball in his grasp before Schmidt unleashed a hit that dropped the ball to the ground and forced fourth down. The Irish clinched the victory a play later.
“[The pass breakup was] completely and totally surreal,” he said. “It’s honestly a dream come true. Since I was a little kid I’ve been dreaming about playing Notre Dame football, playing against USC. It was an incredible feeling and I’m incredibly blessed.
“I got back in my zone, reading the quarterback’s eyes, saw that he was going to throw the ball to the left, broke and made a play. It was a great play and an amazing feeling.”
In dime packages, a scheme Notre Dame featured often in the fourth quarter, Schmidt served as the lone linebacker on the Irish defense. Kelly praised the junior’s play during his Sunday teleconference.
“[He] played hard. Next man in,” Kelly said. “[He] had a great tackle on a third down play [early in the quarter]. Then the [third] down play, jarred the ball loose. A great example of coming in, losing our middle linebacker in Jarrett Grace, a guy stepping up. Here is a guy that was a walk-on that earned a scholarship.
“We had eight guys out [with injuries] of our two-deep on defense. Here is a guy who steps in and makes two big plays for us.”
Schmidt said practice opportunities and his previous playing experience — mostly on special teams, but also in the Arizona State game after Grace’s injury — helped prepare him for the intensity of a tight finish against the program’s archrival.
“We really get great experience playing against our offense in practice,” he said. “So it’s great playing in an environment like that, getting used to the crowd and the fans, but I think over playing special teams I got used to it and it actually adds energy instead of taking any away.”