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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 14, USC 10

Oct 20, 2013, 1:02 AM EST

With exactly 9:31 left in the third quarter, Notre Dame fans finally saw what life looked like without Tommy Rees this season. On a delayed blitz, Lamar Dawson planted a vicious hit on the senior quarterback, drilled Rees above the shoulder and driving him into the ground.

Rees was done for the night. So was the Irish offense.

But nobody told Bob Diaco’s defense to slow down. Facing a Trojan offense that charged down the field on their opening drive for an impressive 13 play, 96-yard touchdown, the Irish put together a second half for the ages, holding the Trojans to just 68 yards in the second half, keeping USC off the scoreboard even after they were almost continually in Irish territory, even when the Notre Dame offense was stuck in neutral.

For a football team that spent much of the first half of the season looking for the magic they had during last year’s undefeated regular season, Notre Dame’s defense put together 24 minutes of relentless domination, feasting on USC’s offensive line and shutting down a Trojan offense that lost Marqise Lee after a balky knee acted up.

“I’m really proud of our football team. We battled,” Kelly said after the game. “Mentally and physically, we continued to play every play. And that’s what we ask for them. That’s what I expect from our group, to keep competing.  Regardless of what happens in the game.”

On a crazy Saturday where four top ten teams and eight members of the AP Top 25 lost, let’s take a look at what we learned in Notre Dame’s 14-10 victory over Southern Cal.

***

1. Don’t go burying this Notre Dame defense just yet. 

There are memories from last season’s defensive performance that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Dominating Denard Robinson. Shutting down Miami. Stuffing Stanford at the goal line. Pitching a near perfect game against Oklahoma. And stopping USC to clinch an undefeated regular season.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find a better performance than the second half the Irish defense put together against the Trojans.

Five straight three and outs. A ridiculous 2.2 yards a play on 31 of the most high leverage plays you could ever imagine. Led by a tremendous performance by Stephon Tuitt, the Irish defense would not be denied a victory against their biggest rival, keeping the Trojans off the scoreboard in relatively miraculous fashion.

“Late in the game, when most would succumb to that, it doesn’t phase our group,” Kelly said of his defensive performance. “They just keep playing and competing. And that’s what’s special about this group. They just keep playing. They found a way to win the game.”

***

2. The offense without Tommy Rees is completely lost. 

One of Notre Dame’s biggest scapegoats is now the most irreplaceable player on the Irish roster. There’s no sugarcoating the offensive performance after Rees went down. Andrew Hendrix was as completely unproductive as you could be in a football game.

The senior backup failed to complete one of his four official passing attempts. On his fifth, he missed a wide open Troy Niklas running away from a linebacker in coverage, and threw gas on the fire by fumbled while attempting to throw. Forced to run against a stacked box, Hendrix rushed six times for five yards, moving the chains just twice since taking over the offense.

“We gotta play better. Flat out. You guys watched it. I watched it. He’s got to play better,” Kelly said when asked about Hendrix’s performance.

Hendrix didn’t get the best of breaks, starting in his own territory every time he hit the field, including twice inside his ten yard-line. But for those wondering why Brian Kelly seemed married to Tommy Rees, a quarterback that’s got a lot of obvious deficiencies, Exhibit A was on display for all to see Saturday night.

After poking around the program postgame, multiple sources believe that Rees will be fine by the time next Saturday rolls around. And good thing, because Kelly wasn’t even willing to entertain the hypothetical of taking a redshirt off Malik Zaire at this point, all but confirming it’s Rees-or-Bust this season.

That might not be a bad thing, considering the Irish found a bundle of plays that worked very well in tempo offense and Rees was a very impressive 14 of 21 for 166 yards and two touchdowns. But for Irish fans that have spent the better part of this season wishing to see what the offense would look like without Rees, they’ve now seen it.

And it wasn’t pretty.

***

***

3. Led by Jaylon Smith, the youth and depth on this roster is really stepping up. 

After playing his best game of the season against Arizona State, Jaylon Smith stepped up and made one of the game’s biggest plays, an interception that confirmed how special an athlete the Irish’s freshman outside linebacker truly is.

Smith’s four tackles, which included a perfectly timed blitz for a tackle-for-loss, led the youth’s resurgence, on an evening where a ton of backups made key contributions.

“We played a lot of players. A lot of freshmen were on the field,” Kelly said. “I looked up one time and I was like, man, we’ve got a lot of guys out here.  And they were just making plays, playing hard, competing.  Romeo (Okwara) is out there, and you’ve got (Devin) Butler and (Cole) Luke and Joey Schmidt, you’ve just got a lot of guys, Max Redfield played today.

“Good to see all those guys and all of them contributing in some fashion. 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.”

The depth really showed on defense, where seldom used guys like Kendall Moore played a lot of snaps. And Schmidt’s bone-crushing hit over the middle felt like something out of a sports movie, with the undersized linebacker growing up in USC’s backyard making a key play against the bitter rival.

We watched young cornerbacks like Butler and Luke compete against two elite wide receivers, holding their own in coverage. But there’s an emerging star on the defense and it’s obvious that Smith’s skillset, especially in an era of spread offenses and up-tempo attacks, is one that’s among the elite — and most coveted — in college football.

“He’s playing man to man coverage down the field on a pretty talented player. He’s bringing pressure. He’s a pretty special player,” Kelly said of Smith. “Not a lot of guys like that in the country as a true freshman. Expectations will be that he continues to grow, continues to develop, and continues to sharpen his craft at that position.”

 ***

4. Stephon Tuitt emerged as the force we all thought he could be. 

Life’s a little bit tougher with a spotlight on you. (Just ask Jadeveon Clowney.) Especially when you’re battling back from major offseason surgery and no longer coming off an anonymous freshman season where you barely showed up on the stat sheet and weren’t even the most impressive freshman at your position.

But Stephon Tuitt is getting healthy at the right time of the year, and the junior defensive end was at his best against the Trojans, a continual menace in the backfield against USC and all but unblockable during the second half.

Kelly talked about the performance the junior defensive end put together, heaping praise on the big man who earned the game ball.

“He was all over the place,” Kelly said. “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.”

Just a few days after making headlines for his will-stay-won’t-stay two-step with the school newspaper, Tuitt let his play do the talking. And in doing so, he reminded all of us why the 6-foot-6, 326-pound defensive end has a difficult choice to make.

***

5. Don’t look now, but Notre Dame has won three of four against a Southern Cal team that spent the last decade dominating the Irish. 

The Trojan honeymoon lasted a little bit longer than a week, but only because USC beat Arizona last Thursday night. After entering Saturday night embracing the role of the dark horse, the Trojans shot themselves in the foot with eleven penalties, a broken down offense, key missed field goals and an offensive line that couldn’t protect the quarterback when they absolutely needed to do it.

With Marqise Lee likely heading to the NFL after this season, the Trojans will in all likelihood hit a hard reset on the football program, bringing in a new coach, a new offensive philosophy, and a ton of new personnel. It’ll hardly be a bare cupboard for the next head coach, but the Irish could start to put a little distance between their program and that of their biggest rival.

Kelly talked about how important it was to get the victory against USC, something that was obvious by the strict limitations he put on Andrew Hendrix after his nearly catastrophic fumble.

“We talked more about wanting to beat our rival,” Kelly said after the game. “Whether it’s here or on the road, it’s important to beat your rival. And this is our rival, USC, and now we’ve beaten them three out of the last four years.”

On a night where both teams would’ve finished second place in a beauty pageant, the Notre Dame victory establishes another important datapoint on the road to building a championship program.

Even if neither program is competing for a national title, in a series where wins and losses against USC usually mean something more than a tick on the ledger, the victory was one to commit to the memory bank.

***

149 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. ajw21 - Oct 20, 2013 at 3:33 PM

    The arrangement with the ACC is so we have deals with bowls. Basically if the bowl says they take ACC#3 then they can take that team or ND if ND is within 1 win of that team. Sadly this yr if we don’t make the BCS we are gonna be playing in the no one cares bowl.
    Go Irish!
    My thoughts on Tommy: Tommy is the best we have. Played great last night but don’t forget he completed 39% of his passes last 3 games. He is an average college qb and saying anything more is reaching.
    Go Irish!

    • irish4me - Oct 20, 2013 at 6:04 PM

      Nude, I said the same thing on the previous page, it’s so transparent that GETSOME99 and KNUTROCKNEGHOST are one and the same, multiple posts one right after the other most “defending” TR who’s not being criticized this week. I took a week off from here hoping he’d go away, but that’s not going to happen, I think we all need to ignore all that he says and by that I mean, no thumbs up or down and no responses. I believe he has a mental illness of some sort and shouldn’t be held accountable for what he does, but at the same time shouldn’t be encouraged in any way. I’m sure he will respond to this or his next incarnation CAPTOBVIOUS, I will not reply to him, I think you should do the same.

      • knuterocknesghost - Oct 20, 2013 at 8:12 PM

        Sage advice by you, Irish4me. Why would I or any other adult want to engage in a discussion with a person like Nude whose intellectual prowess is so great that he is left with calling me “dumbsh*t” on this blog? Thanks for the advice.

        “Ridicule is the tribute paid to the genius by the mediocrities.” – credit to Oscar Wilde. Not claiming I’m a genius, just sayin’ it seems incredibly sophomoric that responses like that are above reproach by you and others, and even praiseworthy with the thumbs-up routine. I remember when I was 16 and stupid too.

    • mayo1010 - Oct 21, 2013 at 12:41 PM

      rees has a 48% completion % in last 3 games (9-24, 17-38, 14-21 for 40-83=48%).

  2. 25kgold - Oct 20, 2013 at 4:05 PM

    If Hendrix plays the way he did against Stanford two years ago out in Palo Alto we’ll be just fine.

    • charlie617 - Oct 20, 2013 at 4:42 PM

      Good point. I think (hope) it might have just been the shock of coming in “cold” off the bench combined with the stress of playing USC with the first home win in over a decade on the line that caused his poor performance. This goes beyond not improving from 2011– it’s a deep regression. If he has the week to prepare and get his head in the right place, I think that will be enough for a win.

      • irishrugby990 - Oct 20, 2013 at 9:00 PM

        I think too that part of the problem is he hasn’t been called upon to throw that much when he has been in the game, so he is clearly not as experienced as Tommy in reading defenses or checking out of a play if the defense is banking on the run. While Hendrix has a more complete skill set, I really think Kelly needs to cut him loose and let him throw more in game situations. I agree with what you say charlie617 about him coming in cold, but by the same token, it’s pretty inexcusable to miss receivers by the margins he was missing on every single drive. That’s one of the worse cases of jitters I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean to crucify Andrew, or Coach Kelly for that matter, but I think QB2 needs to get monumentally better at reading defenses before anything else.

  3. glowplugv - Oct 20, 2013 at 4:06 PM

    I want to echo the comment that it is about time people stop bashing Rees and just realize he is the best we got. The comments should be directed at the coaches to make the best use of his skills and to scheme a way around his shortcomings. Late in the game with Hendrix they were using two backs in the game. That looked like it had some possibilities; sort of a thunder and lightning with Atkinson and Carlilse. Call me an old fogy but if you need to run, the old power I did it in the day. Besides it would give Atkinson some practice at hitting the hole he is assigned.

  4. nudeman - Oct 20, 2013 at 4:40 PM

    Just back, flipped on the PC and see that this has officially become another grease fire

    This post of mine is the 113th
    32 are from getsome and his new handle “knuterocknesghost”.
    A lusty 28%

    You aren’t even the least bit clever about this new handle.

    • knuterocknesghost - Oct 20, 2013 at 8:22 PM

      It’s a never ending battle with you Nude for truth, justice and the American way. Tell you what…. you’re the smartest one here. You win. The rest of us with a different opinion capitulate. We surrender this ground to you. Be happy now and sleep easier knowing that you have vanquished your opponents. And don’t forget to let the cat out tonight.

  5. 1historian - Oct 20, 2013 at 4:57 PM

    I said about a month ago that it was obvious that this team was not of NC caliber – that’s obvious.

    I said about a month ago that I was proud of this team. After the way they played last night I couldn’t be more proud. Talk about a character game – this was it. This team has character and showed it last night. The defense was awesome, and even though that is an overused word, I insist on using it to describe the defense last night with SC knocking on the door for most of the 2nd half.

    I said about a month ago that we hadn’t seen their best game yet. last night we did.

    • papadec - Oct 20, 2013 at 6:34 PM

      1hist – thanks for the sane post. I think the defense will keep improving & that we will see their best game vs Stanford.

    • nudeman - Oct 20, 2013 at 7:46 PM

      Really?
      14 points is ND’s “best game”?

      OK, 7-5

      • papadec - Oct 21, 2013 at 12:06 AM

        nude – I believe 1hist was referring to the defense only giving up 10 points. At least that’s the way I read his post.

    • irish4006 - Oct 20, 2013 at 7:54 PM

      I would agree, 1hist. It was unfortunate that we lost TR halfway through Q3 which left us wondering what could have been, yet again. I want to see a game where everything comes together and the team plays the best it can, whistle to whistle.

      I personally think the running game will get much better in the next few weeks with a lot more Folston in the mix. BK has a tendency of holding back true freshmen from high profile games to the extent he can, I think he will try out Folston and Redfield a lot in the next 2/3 weeks.

  6. danirish - Oct 20, 2013 at 5:53 PM

    1. We won!
    2. I have no problem with the 4 and 1 call early. I’d prefer a qb sneak but the play call was fine. After the failure the replay clearly showed that #18 missed the outside rush – if he had hit him – TD. Play calling was pretty good. The call to go to Niklas was fantastic until Hendrix whiffed on the throw – great play call!
    3. The biggest thing I wonder about is even though he can’t say it – Kelly is looking towards next year – he is finding stars and starters. I had to use the roster sheet to find out who the youth movement was. Win now is great but the future looks cool.
    4. We should all chill, I’m from UGA Dawgs/SEC land. UGA is awful on defense and depleted on O. I still hang on their forum boards and all my Dawg friends are going bonkers, bezerk and freaking out. The O and D coordinator will be hung in effigy later.
    5. I know I just said chill out but getsome and nude, take your silly BS somewhere else. Its embarrassing. Both think they are the gods of this board and know all and throw a fit when someone dares disagrees, counters their arguments or proves them wrong. Nude’s stupid political references are childish and silly and getsome’s constant board hogging is annoying.

    All in all that was an ugly win but a WIN! Next up – Air Force – the service academies and their wishbone/flexbone/turkeybone offenses always scare me – not to mention the chop blocks.

    No matter who is at qb we should be able to run through them.

    Honorable mention – whatever team gets TJ Jones is going to have one hell of a player on Sundays (Bears?)

    • nudeman - Oct 20, 2013 at 7:43 PM

      Yes, let’s all just hug
      Because when sports fans of any team get together, that’s what they do
      No one ever says “Why is that a**ole playing shortstop/point guard/goalie?”
      No one ever says “I am so tired of xxx playing yyy position, I just want to puke”

      Bitching about certain players is exclusively a Notre Dame phenomenom.
      Let’s all just hug instead

      Jesus ….go away

      • knuterocknesghost - Oct 20, 2013 at 8:24 PM

        You win….. you win…. we all stand in awe of your searing logic and intelligence. You’re right. You are perfectly right about everything you’ve ever said here.

  7. scottatnd - Oct 20, 2013 at 6:07 PM

    One thing I learned: We had better find an answer for Nelson Agholor in the coming years. This kid is going to be incredible. Why oh why couldn’t we get him signed at ND?

  8. bearcatirishfan - Oct 20, 2013 at 6:35 PM

    1. Thing I learned is the hacks on espn are silly. Seahorn last night after the highlights of the game said “wow I expected nd to score more”. Clearly he was not aware TR has been knocked out of the game. I wouldn’t care but aren’t these guys paid money for these services.

    2. People will say we were aided by holding calls, but had the d line playing so well caused those holds which hasn’t been mentioned a lot. Probably were told to hold just to make sure the QB didn’t get hurt.

  9. viktory2013 - Oct 20, 2013 at 10:29 PM

    Whew, you boys get worked up over this…understandable because we’re all ND diehards. First of all, don’t know who’s what here, but speaking for myself, I am no one’s alias. Live in SoCal, don’t know any of you guys ( Midwesterners, I presume?), and probably never will. Been watching ND since Huarte was hitting Snow when I was a little boy, so I’m familiar with the subject. Also managed college boys for 35 years, so I kind of learned about them over the years. So just my opinions; Brian Kelly knows his stuff, the fact he can win with nothing like he did Cincinnati and even last year proves it. He’s not Ara but he does pretty well considering. Still pulls weird moves out of the blue. Jaylon Smith will be the next Manti Teo, no doubt. Troy Niklas is the nation’s top tight end before he leaves, Stephen Tuitt will anchor a brutal defense next year, maybe by the bowl game this year. Those kids they have as wideouts (Robinson, Daniels, Fuller) are acrobatic and fast and will punish defenses next year because they are taken lightly. Cam McDaniels just isn’t big enough, strong enough, or fast enough to be a top notch back, but he’s the only back that’s really putting in any effort out effort. Atkinson and Carlisle aren’t willing to risk themselves by going head first. Andrew Hendrix has lost all focus/confidence/ability (was never very talented on his best days anyway), and shouldn’t be on the depth chart much less 2nd string. Tommy Rees, as you might have gathered, is a very polarizing figure. Do you remember a quarterback that’s drawn this much division and dissent? Ron Powlus perhaps. Having watched him and listened to him talk for 4 years, I can tell you I’ve managed several boys like him over the decades. He’s marginally talented, which is no sin, but kids like him usually cause unease and division. They’re politically correct and say all the right things, but only as long as they’re the center of attention; the team’s success important only as it pertains to them. People always seem to be fighting over and around them, which is terribly unhealthy to a team’s chemistry and negates whatever positive they contribute.

    The teams left on the schedule are very beatable, and though I would never have thought so three weeks ago, ND might just win out, particularly since the defense has regained last year’s ferociousness. They are an angry bunch of boys and are willing to hit you until you cringe at the thought of touching the football.

    • bearcatirishfan - Oct 21, 2013 at 12:18 AM

      We gets em all here Vik, I’m a native New Yorker who grew up in Virginia who attended the university of Cincinnati, then ball state and now live in Chicago.

  10. papadec - Oct 21, 2013 at 12:15 AM

    vik – I’m a New Yawkah living in the Seattle area. We seem to be a fairly diverse group from, and living, all over the country & world.

    • viktory2013 - Oct 21, 2013 at 12:17 AM

      Lived in Bellevue in the early ’60’s

  11. usarmyirish4ever - Oct 21, 2013 at 11:41 AM

    Two things. One. I am highly impressed with the heart this team has shown this year. Two. Even though I am new to commenting here, nudeman and dickasman really make me want to not read this blog. Mr Arnold I really enjoy your articles but I believe that you need to begin to regulate some of these individuals comments especially when they become profanity laced tirades.

  12. BurroTrailAlum - Oct 21, 2013 at 12:24 PM

    We learned what about the QB position? We learned that Kelly should have been giving the backup game time since the Stanford game 2011.

    I don’t know what the problem was Saturday, but this is what Andrew Hendrix is capable of.

    He almost matched Andrew Luck’s stats in only a half. Try again, Keith Arnold.

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