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The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. USC

Oct 20, 2013, 6:10 PM EDT

USC Notre Dame Football AP

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That was never more true than in the aftermath of Notre Dame’s 14-10 victory, a game where offensive football went to die after halftime.

What looked like a game that’d feature two efficient offenses turned into trench warfare. With the Irish on pace to gain 500 yards on the evening and USC going to halftime with 209 yards themselves, not many saw the slugfest coming. But for a Notre Dame team that leaned heavily on its defense during a twelve-win regular season, the temporary return to defensive dominance was a welcome sight, especially since it was needed with Andrew Hendrix turning into a deer under the stadium lights.

No win over USC is a bad win. And your reaction to the style of victory likely says more about you than it does about this football team. But the response inside the program was unequivocal: It was a great victory.

Let’s go through the good, the bad, and the ugly from Notre Dame’s 14-10 win over USC.

THE GOOD

Second Half defense. I wrote a little bit more about it over here, but I’ve got a hard time finding a better 30 minutes of football than the ones this defense put together. Especially considering the circumstances, the margin for error, the pressure and the opponent.

Adding another level of appreciation to the performance? How about the bodies that were missing. Brian Kelly mentioned on Sunday that a ridiculous eight guys were missing from the two-deep. But players like Romeo Okwara and Joe Schmidt stepped up. Youngsters like Devin Butler and Cole Luke played tough. And the teams best players carried not just their weight, but the offense’s, too.

There may have been more heroic moments during last season’s magical run. But those were the most dominant 30 minutes of defense I can remember.

Tommy Rees. As I noted last night on Twitter, Rees should be fine by Saturday. Kelly addressed the injury to his senior quarterback this afternoon.

“He’s feeling better today,” Kelly said. “Still a little sore. But it will be a day‑to‑day situation.”

The injury took away from one of the better games Rees has played this year. Against a defense that Andrew Hendrix made look like the ’85 Bears, Rees completed 14 of 21 throws for 166 yards and two touchdowns.

He also made it clear that he’s the No. 1 quarterback for obvious reasons, even if portions of this fanbase are hellbent on believing there’s somebody better unjustly waiting their turn.

Rees passed the 6,000 yard mark for career passing yards Saturday night and became the first quarterback since Rick Mirer to defeat USC twice. When asked about some of the career accomplishments Rees has achieved, Kelly seemed to subtly poke at some of the backlash that’s followed Rees these past few years.

“I don’t know that Tommy nor I would look at those numbers and equate much,” Kelly said. “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.”

Troy Niklas. Don’t look now, but the Irish have another elite weapon at tight end. Niklas was excellent on Saturday night, leading the Irish in receiving and scoring another touchdown on his way to four catches for 58 yards.

(Niklas was also wide open on Hendrix’s throw-fumble, the end of the Irish passing game.)

We’re watching a guy learn the game in front of our eyes and develop into an elite college football player. That’s a product of hard work by Niklas, a guy that won’t be cheated in the weight room or on the practice field. It’s also great coaching and Scott Booker, Chuck Martin and Kelly all deserve some credit.

Cam McDaniel. Let’s get the bad out of the way first. McDaniel just can’t lay the football on the ground. It’s the fastest way to the sideline. But McDaniel also provided another important datapoint that shows why some people still believe he’s the best running back on the Irish roster.

Against a team filled with elite athletes, McDaniel may have put on the move of the evening with a stop-and-start juke opening up the outside for a huge 36 yard run. McDaniel’s 92 yards on 18 carries provided some type of balance to the passing attack before the Trojans stacked eight, nine and sometimes ten men inside the box.

Stephon Tuitt. We got into it last night, but Tuitt was a man among boys out there.

KeiVarae Russell and Joe Schmidt. Big hits down the stretch caused two key incomplete passes. Really nice work by both guys, and if Irish fans are looking for a folk hero, they should turn their eyes to Schmidt, who paid his own way to go to Notre Dame and played the best game of his life against the team that dominates his backyard.

QUICK HITTERS:

That’s four straight games with a touchdown for TJ Jones. He may have only gained 46 yards, but the touchdown catch was a great individual effort. Jones also made a really important catch on a short punt that turned into a positive play.

Talk about great Third Down Defense. After the first two third down conversions, USC didn’t make another for the rest of the night.

Good to see Davaris Daniels seem to be on the same page as Tommy Rees. You get the feeling that he was set to make a few big plays in the second half if the Irish were able to throw the ball.

Heckuva day by Jaylon Smith. You saw that right. That’s Smith covering Nelson Agholor one-on-one and making an interception. Nice game for Carlo Calabrese as well, although he’s still missing too many tackles.

He may have only showed up with two tackles in the box score, but Ishaq Williams drew a couple key holding calls coming off the edge.

Nice punt by mini-punter, also known as Alex Wulfeck. 

THE BAD

Tackling. There were just too many missed tackles by the Irish defense. Top-level guys like Bennett Jackson and Carlo Calabrese swung and missed a few too many times, and while they weren’t exactly trying to take down blocking sleds, those misses could’ve been costly against the Trojans.

Expect things to get cleaned up, especially as the Irish play a gentler schedule down the stretch until Stanford.

Special Teams coverage. Nelson Agholor very nearly beat the Irish himself on special teams, with the Irish coverage teams having a brutal day, with Agholor notching 100 punt return yards on just four tries.

“We were undisciplined in punt coverage,” Kelly said after the game. “We were actually just overactive, out of our lanes, really trying to squeeze the football too hard and got the ball outside of us on a couple of occasions.  We’ve got to do a better job there.”

USC kicker Andre Heidari bailed the Irish out with two missed from 40 and 46 yards, but a game after doing a really good job of controlling field positions thanks to special teams, the Irish won in spite of the third segment.

Andrew Hendrix. I’m keeping this out of the ugly because at this point it feels like piling on Hendrix, a kid that’s done everything right here at Notre Dame and embodies so many things that make student-athletes special.

But when Hendrix’s number was called the stage just got too big for him and his inability to operate even at a base level very nearly cost the game. Kelly talked about the expectations he has for Hendrix.

“I don’t think Andrew nor myself or Coach Martin could expect him not to perform at a higher level. I think he’s probably as disappointed as anybody,” Kelly said Sunday. “Those are basic things he’s got to do better.

“I think you could probably look at mechanics, the game, nerves, all those things.  But he’s been in it too long for those things to affect him.  He’s got to play better, period.  He’s going to have to be challenged to play better, and he knows that.”

Probably the ugliest stat from last night was the productivity the Irish had during Hendrix’s time running the offense. He entered the game with just over 24 minutes left. He ran 23 plays. The Irish gained 23 yards. That’s less than a yard a minute.

What’s obvious to just about anyone that understands program building is that freshman Malik Zaire isn’t ready to play. Nor is he a guy that this staff wants to play, especially with Rees departing and Hendrix far from a lock from returning as well.

Zaire will take first team practice reps on Tuesday only if Rees isn’t able to go. But he’s an emergency option at best.

THE UGLY

That victory was the definition of winning ugly. And by the looks of the latest ICONN video over at UND.com, the team didn’t seem to mind one bit.

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112 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. 31sorin - Oct 21, 2013 at 11:06 AM

    Amen on Kelly’s lack of backup QB preparation. Hendrix has a load of physical talent, but Kelly hasn’t developed him at all. Ara and Lou understood how to create great backups. Anyone remember how Coley O’Brien took over for Hanratty late in 1966 and got us the National Championship?

    • 1historian - Oct 21, 2013 at 11:22 AM

      I do remember that but I don’t think the analogy is accurate. Hendrix is just not very good.

    • mtndguy - Oct 21, 2013 at 1:21 PM

      Hendrix has had 4 years to prepare himself to be a starter, or at the very least a great backup. Don’t blame the coach. Hendrix showed an inability to do the very basics. I don’t want to pile on Hendrix, but putting that performance on Kelly is just pure BS. Do you think that Kelly loves Rees so much that he was willing to let Hendrix “physical talent” go to waste, AND forgo winning more games? Get a clue.

      • irishwilliamsport - Oct 21, 2013 at 2:33 PM

        I agree, Hendrix should be more prepared than he was on Saturday after four years in the program. I hope Kelly holds Tommy out this weekend vs. AF and let Hendrix get some confidence back. Keil left and Golson screwed up and all we have left are these 2 guys.

        The goal line play after that beautiful drive was #18 wiffing on a block, if he did his job on that play Mcdaniel scores easily.

      • irishdrg1 - Nov 16, 2013 at 12:19 PM

        What about Maliks talents what if Kelly had started him all year where would we be.!!!!!

  2. hbmichael9 - Oct 21, 2013 at 11:21 AM

    Why is no one talking about the playcalling. From the cheap seats I could tell the exact play they were runnin every first down. Not because I have a keen eye but because they ran the same play every time each 1st down when Hendrix was in (after getting the ball obviously we didn’t gain a 1st on offense).

    Single back. Atkinson wide. Motion in, run opposite way stretch play. I haven’t gotten a chance to double check the video but at least 5 times on 1st we ran this. Against 9 in the box no less. What happened to being less predictable!??

    • dbldmr - Oct 21, 2013 at 11:37 AM

      What’s there to say? No passing threat…none at all. The only question was which running play was going to be called. I suspect that the hope was that a tackle would be missed. I don’t think there was much likelihood that a run between the tackles was going to be successful. The predictability was…well, predictable.

    • ndfaithful - Oct 21, 2013 at 12:00 PM

      Nobody is complaining about play calling because the play calling was good enough to move the ball and pile up yards – until our backup, backup QB came in and we all preferred a punt over watching him run another play (of any type).

    • ndirish10 - Oct 21, 2013 at 12:24 PM

      hbmichael9,

      I mentioned it during the Live Blog, of the many predictable plays that were called one really pissed me off, the goal line play on the Irish’s first drive. From about 8 inches from the goal line, why would you call a running play from a shot gun snap? Why?!!! Do you expect that the middle of the line will open up like a draw play may at the 50 yard line?

      The line of scrimmage is stacked up! You are essentially giving the defense more room to make the tackle when you have a shot gun snap, which was the case! You huddle up, tell your line that you will be under center, and that the linemen will blast through for either a qb sneak (I personally wouldn’t prefer, I don’t think Rees himself has much of a push) or a straight dive/bast/belly (whichever terminology you are used to).

      When they didn’t convert I knew our Irish would be in for a long one. A win is a win though, and it’s been 12 year since beating our bitter rivals at home. GO IRISH!!! Anyone know if the Air Force game will be televised on ESPN?

      • dmacirish - Oct 21, 2013 at 12:46 PM

        air force game is on cbs sports network – not everyone will get it.

      • danirish - Oct 21, 2013 at 1:59 PM

        If you really watch the goal line play, the gap in the middle was wide open, McDaniel should’ve walked right in. As mentioned before, #18 the TE failed to block the rush end who made the play – all 18 had to do was hinder and it would’ve been an easy score. When NBC showed thplay from behind the Irish line it is quite clear – fine play call, poor execution

      • ndirish10 - Oct 21, 2013 at 6:22 PM

        Thanks dmac, just checked DirecTV, channel 221 @ 5pm.

      • ndirish10 - Oct 21, 2013 at 7:16 PM

        danirish,

        Just saw the replay, and agree the TE should have blocked that end. But i disagree about the middle being wide open. I saw no gap in the middle, the d line and line backers covered the middle gaps. Maybe McDaniel could have squirted out to the right. Another question I came up with while watching the replay, why crowd the box with the motion? If you noticed TJ motioned in bringing #16 into the box. I still believe a simple dive/blast/belly (snap under center) would have given the Irish a better chance of scoring on that play. Let’s agree to disagree. GO IRISH!!!

    • mtndguy - Oct 21, 2013 at 1:25 PM

      They did not run the same play every first down with Hendrix in. Watch it again.

    • danirish - Oct 21, 2013 at 2:03 PM

      Theplay calling was good until Rees went down. This game could’ve been a butt whipping for the Irish. The defense held all game except the first USC possession and ND was pretty much running at will.

      When Rees went down the calling did get very conservative, not like you said, but it was very basic UNTIL the awesome play call that ended in almost disaster.

      Watch the play when Hendrix bobbled the pass – look where it was going – to a wide open Hercules who would’ve gone for 60+ yards – the play was perfectly set up. Good play call, poor execution.

  3. runners00 - Oct 21, 2013 at 12:56 PM

    I wonder how the coaches feel today? I mean, there are a lot of coaches around here who were convinced that AH was the guy in the absence of EG. “He can run,” I read, “he can pass.” This discussion is settled.

    Good. 1. Beating USC. I don’t care what the score was, Coach Kelly gets that USC is our rival and he prepared the team to beat USC. And the team beat USC. 2. Our halftime adjustments and our entire second half defensive effort were great.

    Bad. 1. Cheap shot that ended Rees’ night. 2. The fact that his replacement struggled so much despite having such a talented group of wide receivers.

    Ugly. USC.

    One quick note on the rankings: I am not disappointed with where we place in the rankings. A lot of teams play one another. Some conference rivals will knock off some other teams (but I swear if I hear or read that T A&M and GA are great, I will throw up). We’re not, at all, a guaranteed BCS selection if we win out — and that is a huge if — but we’ll be in the discussion.

    • irish4006 - Oct 21, 2013 at 6:17 PM

      I never worry about ranking. If we keep winning, things usually fall in place. ND is not a team that generally has to worry about being left out of anything that we could possibly have gone to – to the extreme displeasure of non-ND fans, a lot of times.

      One thing I have not heard a lot about in the last couple of days is the cheapshot that TR took. Isn’t there a rule to review these hits by NCAA even if they are not called on the field?

  4. rcali - Oct 21, 2013 at 9:33 PM

    Remember when Kelly’s Cincy teams would put up 35+….by the end of the third qtr? He didn’t have NFL QB’s either at Cincy so that must be how bad our QB really is.

    • papadec - Oct 21, 2013 at 11:17 PM

      rcali – maybe it’s more like the quality of the teams on the cincy schedule?

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