JuJu Smith-Schuster

AP

Five things we learned: USC 45, Notre Dame 27

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LOS ANGELES — The end is here. And it looked, for the most part, like the rest of it.

Notre Dame’s 45-27 loss shared all too many similarities with their other seven defeats.  Special teams blunders. A devastating stretch before halftime that altered the game’s outcome. And a mostly gutty effort that ended with the Irish losing because they gave away much more than they took.

The Irish showed plenty of fight on Saturday. Unfortunately, they showed just as much charity. Two special teams touchdowns for Adoree Jackson. A DeShone Kizer gift-wrapped pick six. Add them together and three scores were just too many to spot the hottest football team in the country.

The Irish end their season with four wins. They leave behind many more unanswered questions. Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Adoree Jackson against Notre Dame’s special teams was an unfair fight. 

Notre Dame knew Adoree Jackson was one of the country’s most dangerous return men. They kicked to him anyway.

Jackson’s 55-yard punt return and 97-yard kickoff return were two more touchdowns given up by Scott Booker’s special teams, a fitting end to a nightmarish season where the five return scores allowed only covered a fraction of the damage done.

On a day where the Irish special teams needed to be clean, they were anything but. And when Jackson picked up a bouncing punt and sprinted to the end zone, he turned a field goal-game into a 10-pointer. And when Jackson answered his coverage blunder with a hurdling, highlight reel return touchdown, he all but ended the game.

“Unfortunately today, special teams was a huge deciding factor in the game and we gave up two touchdowns there to a very talented player,” Kelly said postgame. “But we knew how talented he was going into the game.”

That talent presented omnipresent problems, the Irish unwilling to kick away from Jackson when they knew playmakers like Ronald Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster awaited. And with Jackson’s lone catch going 52-yards for a touchdown, the All-American candidate left Irish defenders grasping at air as the all-purpose weapon scored three times—with Irish fans hoping they’ve seen Jackson for the last time with a stay-or-go decision coming soon.

(Speaking of those…)

 

DeShone Kizer may well be a high first-round draft pick. But before he makes his final decision, he’d be wise to look at all the information on hand. 

DeShone Kizer hasn’t made any decisions. That was the message from the quarterback after he faced a swarm of tape recorders, all hoping to get something from a football player far too smart to offer anything.

But if this is indeed it for Kizer, he’ll leave a resume far less convincing than the one he had entering the season. As NFL teams looks for a quarterback to change the future of their franchise, Kizer will need to prove that the player showing up on tape is the real deal, not a signal-caller who regressed in his second season as a starter.

Kizer’s final Saturday of the season was another mixed bag. His 17 completions included some throws that’ll make football men nod with approval. But his 15 misses included some head-shakers, none more confounding than Ajene Harris‘s interception, the throw into coverage breaking Notre Dame’s back.

Kizer’s receiving corps was undermanned, with Corey Holmes struggling in a featured role and Chris Finke supplying most of the playmaking. Add in challenging weather conditions, and it was difficult to tell if Kizer struggled or merely fought an uphill fight.

“There were some good things that he did. At times, he didn’t get the support that he needed,” Kelly said postgame. “There were some balls that could’ve been caught. It could’ve been a little bit better of a throw, a little bit better of a catch. It was kind of a mixed bag.”

Notre Dame has submitted paperwork for an NFL evaluation, a key factor in Ronnie Stanley deciding to return after his third season. While Kizer is a favorite of the mock draft community, he’d be wise to make sure the reality matches with the perception before making any final decisions.

 

Two nightmarish minutes told the story of the season. 

In the second quarter, Justin Yoon trotted onto the field, hoping to even a game at 10-10. Instead, the sophomore kicker’s miss triggered a two-minute run that was the beginning of the end for the Irish.

Technically, the Irish defense delayed things, forcing the Trojans to punt in just four plays. But with the Irish down just three points and hoping to take some momentum into half (Kelly deferred possession until the third quarter), they imploded—going backwards before the Irish threw away some good luck on special teams (Scott Daly’s high snap that blew through Tyler Newsome’s hands was erased by the officiating crew), trading a safety for a touchdown as Jackson’s magic act starting with just over 90 seconds remaining.

Two players later, Kizer’s interception turned a tight game into a 17-point deficit. And with 63 seconds left in the half, Notre Dame was lucky to get to the break without any more damage—even though the game was essentially done.

Kelly has often talked about the lapses this football team has shown, a season marked by streaks of poor football that too often contributed to a critical loss. That was evident once again.

“We just have not been able to sustain performances for four quarters,” Kelly said. “We’ve shown a propensity of self-inflicted wounds.”

 

The mistakes covered up a gutty performance by an Irish team that went toe-to-toe with the Trojans. 

Notre Dame wasn’t blown off the field. They weren’t outclassed. And while an eighth defeat and the end of a season eliminates any opportunity to find silver linings, the fact that Notre Dame kept Sam Darnold in check and out-scored the Trojans offense is certainly something most didn’t see coming.

Neither was Josh Adams’ afternoon, a 180-yard performance the high-water mark of the season. While Ronald Jones broke loose for a long touchdown and Jackson got one of his own, the defense—playing many young players—will take this momentum forward.

“I liked a lot of things that we did today. The toughness that I was really looking for,” Kelly said. “We had a lot of inexperienced players out there so they learned a lot from it.”

Julian Love’s nine tackles end his season on a high note. Elijah Taylor’s surprising play gives a clue as to how the Irish will move forward without Jarron Jones. Kevin Stepherson left Jackson in his wake as he caught his fifth touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown‘s late touchdown catch from Malik Zaire might have come in garbage time, but a ninth score is a big number for the sophomore.

If Brian Kelly is indeed going to lead this team forward, he’ll need to find a way to begin that transition to 2017 now.

 

The coaching carousel doesn’t look like it’ll include Brian Kelly. But that doesn’t mean big changes aren’t coming—and maybe sooner than later. 

As Jack Swarbrick watched from the side of the cramped interview tent, he didn’t look like an athletic director about to make a cataclysmic move. So unless a plot twist befitting the final scenes of the Godfather takes place over the next 48 hours, Notre Dame will move forward with Brian Kelly atop the football program.

But that doesn’t mean big changes aren’t coming.

Kelly will return to South Bend to take stock of his program. He’ll talk to his outgoing players—not to mention his boss—and forge a path. And that likely means some significant changes to a coaching staff that’s already looking or a defensive coordinator.

“Everything is on the table. I have to evaluate a lot of things within the program,” Kelly said. “There are some really good things in place but I’ve always felt that the blend of continuity and change is the sweet spot. And for me, we need to clearly look at where that is because it was off. And so I have to clearly look at where that mix is of continuity and change.”

A defensive coordinator is the first step forward, a national search that likely needs to reach a conclusion before the team’s year-end banquet set for mid-December. A change on special teams is also probably mandatory, Scott Booker leaving few who believe he’s a viable option for any longer.

In the past, Kelly has leaned on his own coaching network to find answers. The optics of that alone lead you to believe that will be off the table. But heading into his eighth season, a reinvention is in order.

Whether Kelly can accomplish that or not remains the unanswerable question. But change better come quickly. Because a September schedule that features a visit from Georgia, four bowl teams, and Mark Dantonio will be here before we know it.

Recalibrating expectations for Irish

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The College Football Playoff isn’t in the cards. Not with two early-season losses. Not with the type of defense the Irish are playing. And certainly not with a young roster still learning on the job.

But the season is far from over.

So while some will continue to call for Brian VanGorder’s head or search the head coach’s Twitter likes for the next big off-field controversy, Brian Kelly and his young team have a season to play.

Nobody throws in the towel in mid-September. And there are plenty of ways to turn this season into a success—though it’ll require some recalibrated expectations. Consider this an exercise in that.

With three games of data in hand, let’s take a look at the rest of the Irish schedule, projecting how this season could break week by week.

 

CATEGORY ONE: GOTTA WINS

Duke (1-2): No, not just because it’s the next one. But because Duke’s season was derailed in late August when quarterback Thomas Sirk reinjured his achilles tendon, ending the senior’s year before it even started. That’s taken some punch out of Duke’s offense and put too much pressure on the team’s undermanned defense. It should be a good Saturday to get a bad taste from the Irish’s mouth.

 

Army (3-0): This is no cupcake, as Army has been in year’s past. Just look at the damage Army has done in its opening three games, laying it on Temple in the season opener, beating Rice handily and then waxing UTEP. That doesn’t mean that the Shamrock Series game isn’t a must-win, but after watching this defense, you can’t be sure that the Irish will have their option game on point just because they did last season. With a young defense still learning things on the fly, this game is far scarier than ever imagined.

 

CATEGORY TWO: SHOULD WINS

Syracuse (1-2): Dino Babers’ team isn’t ready for primetime. And they aren’t going to have a true home field advantage. Moving the game into the Meadowlands will take away any of the benefits of the Carrier Dome, though Babers’ hyper-speed offense might have found its footing by then and could make for a long weekend for the Irish.

Any other season and I’d have chalked this game into category one. But after watching the defensive performance against Texas and Michigan State, this one has me worried, especially with a noon start just announced.

 

Navy (3-0): Ken Niumatalolo is rolling along, even if he’s had to replace starting quarterback Tago Smith. The Midshipmen pulled off a huge upset of Bob Diaco’s UConn team and they keep winning, beating Tulane last weekend to move to 3-0 as well.

They’ll have a week off before playing Air Force, the first of five tough tests before playing the Irish. The game comes just a week after the Irish host Miami, and is a really-early 11:30 kickoff in Jacksonville. The first of back-to-back option games, Navy is almost a game that’ll put immense pressure on both the offense and defense, with the Midshipmen limiting possessions and forcing the Irish defense to take them off the field.

 

North Carolina State (2-1): I very nearly put this into the 50-50 category, but am keeping it here because of the Wolfpack’s suspect schedule strength. Boise State graduate transfer quarterback Ryan Finley looks like he’ll be a handful for the Irish, already sporting a shiny 6:0 TD:INT ratio. Throw in a big running game and the fact that Dave Doeren is still looking for a big win three years into his run at NC State, and you get the feeling that the Wolfpack faithful will have this one circled on the schedule.

 

 

CATEGORY THREE: COIN FLIP

Virginia Tech (2-1): New coach Justin Fuente has started life after Frank Beamer off quite nicely for the Hokies, winning twice in his first three games, including an absolute beat down of Boston College 49-0. It helps that he’s found his quarterback, junior Jerod Evans, a juco transfer who has shaken things up immediately. The Hokies defense seems to be doing good things, with holdover Bud Foster still in Blacksburg. And the mix of attacking defense and opportunistic offense hasn’t felt like a good matchup lately for the Irish.

 

USC (1-2) This only stays as a coin flip because the Trojans have been the biggest dumpster fire in the country this season. After opening up with an embarrassing stomping at the hands of Alabama, things haven’t gotten much better for Clay Helton. He’s dealt with off-field distractions both serious (sexual assault chargers) and self-inflicted (JuJu Smith-Schuster fighting his teammates), as well as terrible self-discipline on the field. At 1-2 with two lopsided losses already, the hiring of Helton instead of trying to get a fresh start is looking dumber and dumber.

 

Miami (3-0): Entering the season, this felt like a game the Irish should win, with Mark Richt transitioning the Miami program after finally cutting bait on the Al Golden era.  But with Brad Kaaya throwing the football and the Hurricanes taking care of an admittedly cupcake-ish start, consider me a pessimist that the young Irish defense can find a pass rush and good coverage by then.

Again, things will reveal themselves over the next month. For the Irish, they can right the ship. For the Canes, their true talents will be revealed. But the Irish defense will be in the crosshairs that Saturday, with Kaaya the best quarterback on the Irish schedule.

 

CATEGORY FOUR: SPRING AN UPSET

 

Stanford (2-0): The Cardinal have been tested early this season and passed swimmingly, grinding out comfortable wins against Kansas State and USC. They feature college football’s best all-around running back and a defense that’s only getting better. They’ll bring a physical attack to South Bend, one that’s much better than the Spartans offense that bludgeoned the Irish in the trenches.

Of course, Notre Dame found a way to slow down Christian McCaffery last season, only to lose when Kevin Hogan lit them up through the air. The Cardinal have three Pac-12 opponents—at UCLA, at No. 9 Washington and Washington State—on the slate before the night kickoff in South Bend, giving us a chance to see just how good new quarterback Ryan Burns is. But the Cardinal defense looks like its back to its stingy ways, and the Irish will need to play a great football game to win this one.

Kizer and Zaire both land on Maxwell watch list

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Whoever wins Notre Dame’s starting quarterback job will have lofty expectations. Both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire landed on the Maxwell Award’s preseason watch list, awarded annually to the country’s best college football player.

The preseason release of watch lists has become a season onto itself. While it’s certainly a nice feather in the cap during early July, simply being a name on a list that seemingly expands each year takes away some luster from the acknowledgement. That being said, the inclusion of two Notre Dame quarterbacks among the 90 candidates nationally to be mentioned is noteworthy.

A total of 37 signal-callers earned mention, including Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and former Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel. The Irish will face off against Maxwell Award watch-listers including Stanford’s Christian McCaffery, Miami’s Brad Kaaya, as well as Nevada running back James Butler, USC teammates Ronald Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Duke QB Thomas Sirk and Virginia Tech receiver Isaiah Ford.

Kizer completed 211 of his 335 passing attempts last season, throwing for 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He also ran for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns. In two starts before an injury, Zaire completed 26 of 40 throws for four touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also ran for 103 yards on 19 carries.

***

Senior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell was one of 90 names on the Bednarik Award watch list, awarded annually to the nation’s top defensive player. Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o won the Bednarik Award after the 2012 season.

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

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Start fast and finish strong. Those are two of the four key components Brian Kelly talked about when he mentioned a formula for winning football. So while the Irish defense missed tackles and gave up too many big plays, all four critical pieces—including the Irish’s attention to detail and a great effort—made it possible for Notre Dame to rally for a victory over rival USC.

Was it a perfect game? No. But it sure was exciting. And more important than anything else, the Irish showed great mental toughness, repeatedly battling back from adversity (usually in the form of a big offensive play by the Trojans) to score the game’s final 17 points.

“Our theme all week was the mental toughness that we wanted to exhibit today, it was the one question we wanted to answer,” Kelly said after the game “I didn’t see anything on the sideline that resembled our guys not believing they were going to come back.”

With fall break upon us and a much deserved weekend off for Notre Dame, let’s put the USC game through the good, bad and ugly machine.

 

THE GOOD

Mental Toughness. This type of thing usually turns into one of those hard to quantify, usually subjective, and agenda-pushing topics that I’d rather avoid. (Consider it scar tissue from the Jeter is Clutch era.) But Saturday night’s victory deserves a viewing through this lens.

Most looked at the difficulties the Trojans faced heading into their rivalry game. USC tried to circle the wagons, bringing in Hall of Famers to practice and rallying around interim head coach (and offensive coordinator) Clay Helton. They played up the “Fight On” motto, pasting it to the front of their sweatshirts, doing everything they could to earn a victory in South Bend. Yet it didn’t work, with the Trojans now 3-3 and looking ahead at a difficult schedule that includes a date with a Utah team that some believe is one of the best in the country.

That the other sideline had a more mentally tough team shouldn’t have been anybody’s surprise. Look at what Notre Dame has done this season. Notre Dame’s two-deep at quarterback is gone from spring practice. So is their running back depth chart. The anchor in the middle of the defensive line went from a top-performing senior to a true freshman. The young, talented depth that looked to be a key part of Notre Dame’s plans in the secondary? Drue Tranquill and Shaun Crawford will both get medical redshirts for the season.

Notre Dame had every right to roll over and blame injuries for decimating their hopes for a special season. Especially after they essentially had the same thing happen during the second-half of last year, a group just not capable of battling through the challenges that faced them.

But the cohesion inside this program prevented that. Brian Kelly going “all in” on both the on-field schematics (the efforts to stop the option led by senior assistant Bob Elliott) were matched by those to build team chemistry (Marcus Luttrell and the extensive leadership immersion training).

After the Irish fractured last season and an uneasy leadership structure at quarterback pulled at the stitching of the team, Kelly and his staff got it right in 2015. And that’s a big reason why the loss to Clemson—and some of the head coach’s tough comments after the game—didn’t derail this group.

None of this guarantees the Irish future success. Nor does it mean that an 11-1 Notre Dame team deserves a spot in the playoff. But with USC ripping off 17 straight points and holding a lead in the fourth quarter, the Irish never blinked. They played with championship effort, their best players rose to the occasion, and they answered with 17 points of their own and an impressive 10-point victory.

 

Quick Hits: 

* Another Saturday, another impressive game by C.J. ProsiseThe senior running back is a touchdown scoring machine, adding two more for an even dozen on the year as he also eats up yards at a prodigious rate.

Prosise’s 1,141 yards from scrimmage rank third in the FBS. He’s also a top-10 player in the following categories:  yards per carry (10th), rushing TDs (t-6th), rush yards (6th), yards per game (9th) and TDs (t-7th).

It sure looks like Brian Kelly’s move to experiment with Prosise in the backfield paid off. And it’s also allowed the Irish offense to created more downfield passing opportunities with defenses needed to slow down Prosise with an extra man in the box.

 

* Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith led the football game with 14 tackles, nominated for the Lott IMPACT award player of the week for his efforts. While the Irish defense certainly needs to figure out how to eliminate the big plays and missed tackles, seeing Smith be the dominant defender on the field was a pleasant sight.

“When you’re playing talented players like USC it’s something where you’re not going to win every battle,” Smith said after the game. “It’s all about persevering and that’s something that we did tonight.”

 

* I tweeted it during the game, but it’s amazing the transformation we’ve seen from DeShone Kizer since this spring. Notre Dame’s starting quarterback has completed 65.4 percent of his throws with 10 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

He opened the game with an absolute dime, hitting Will Fuller in stride for a 75-yard touchdown pass. And while he might have struggled adjusting to some of USC’s defensive pressures and coverage, he made a clutch throw later in the game to Fuller that beat Adoree Jackson again, a big-time throw by a quarterback who is gaining confidence by the minute.

Think back and consider other Notre Dame quarterbacks’ first starts against the Trojans. Brady Quinn completed just 15 of 34 passes in a 45-14 defeat. Jimmy Clausen completed 11 of 22 throws for 50 yards and two interceptions in a 2008 shellacking. In victory, Tommy Rees threw three interceptions and for just 149 yards on 20 completions in the rain.

So Kizer’s ho-hum 227 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers sure looks pretty good when you compare it to what’s happened over the past dozen years.

 

* A tip of the cap to Quenton Nelson. Not sure how you can be in a walking boot on Tuesday and playing on Saturday, but the sophomore’s toughness certainly isn’t understated.

 

* Take a bow, Scott Booker! Notre Dame fans’ easiest assistant to beat up has had a wonderful season running the Irish special teams, and Saturday night was the best effort of the bunch. Equanimeous St. Brown blocked Notre Dame’s first punt since Robert Blanton stuffed one against Utah in 2010. CJ Sanders looked good on kickoff returns and Justin Yoon was clutch on all his kick attempts. Just as important Tyler Newsome has continued his incredible season, pinning USC at the 1-yard line late in the game, and Cody Kessler could do nothing to march the Trojans down the field.

 

* How do you not feel great for Corey Robinson, who scored the go-ahead touchdown on a critical 3rd-and-8 in the fourth quarter? After wearing the goat horns against Clemson after failing to reel in two scoring catches, Robinson extended his 6-foot-5 frame and held on to a Kizer pass in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown that brought the Irish all the way back.

 

* If Adoree Jackson was the fastest man on the field on Saturday, then Will Fuller found a magical way to slow a man down and run by him. Or… Will Fuller might just be even faster. Credit to Doug Flutie for saying it best, something pretty close to: “Fuller is as fast as he needs to be.”

 

* Lastly, it’s good that the Irish put on a great show. With a impressive group of recruits on campus, Notre Dame Stadium was electric and a strong collection of 2016 and 2017 prospects saw everything they wanted in the Irish victory.

With Jim Harbaugh rallying Michigan and Urban Meyer still undefeated, it’s important that Notre Dame hold serve and keep momentum in the Midwest. Just as important, beating their West Coast rivals—who now enter the home stretch of recruiting in a flat spin—Notre Dame’s staff should have a chance to make headway with some of California’s top prospects.

 

THE BAD

Defensive Lapses. Maybe this is just what Notre Dame’s defense is going to be in 2015. But if that’s the case, it could be what holds back the Irish from achieving their goals. Big plays nearly killed Notre Dame.

Since Brian Kelly took over in South Bend, Notre Dame had allowed just nine plays of 60 yards or more, third best in the FBS in that time frame. On Saturday night the Irish gave up three.

Sure, tip your cap to Adoree Jackson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and star-in-the-making Ronald Jones. But eventually the Irish need to start looking in the mirror and finding a way to clean up the devastating mistakes.

Kelly broke down the big plays, putting them into context. The screen pass to Jackson caught the Irish in a bad look. Jones’ big run came after he slid out of Isaac Rochell’s grasp. (The double pass? This is turning out to be a fairly gullible group—especially when the wideout catching the backwards pass was a quarterback during training camp.)

On Sunday, Kelly gave this appraisal of his group:

“We play at different times really, really good football. We saw it against Georgia Tech where we were dominating at times. We just haven’t put together four quarters of football defensively, and then there are simply issues of fundamentals and tackling and doing your job and not somebody else’s job.

“So I’m very, very confident that we can put four quarters of this kind of play together. So if we had not put together second half performances in the fashion that we have; for example, 132 yards in 33 plays against USC in the second half, I would be less optimistic. But we did that against Clemson, as well, against very good, talented teams, we’ve been able to put these quarters together.

“So we are going to keep plugging and we are going to keep coaching the fundamentals, and we are going to get it for four quarters.”

The ability to improve over the season’s final five regular season games will likely dictate this team’s fate—crazy when you consider the changes in key offensive personnel.

 

THE UGLY

An electric Saturday night and a victory over the Trojans? Even if it didn’t all go according to plan, this should stay empty.

Except USC came to South Bend without the Jeweled Shillelagh. So when the FedEx arrives, all five of Notre Dame’s rivalry trophies will be sitting outside Brian Kelly’s office.

 

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 41, USC 31

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In a football game that felt an awful lot like a heavyweight brawl, Notre Dame came out victorious on Saturday night, landing a late-game knockout with 17 fourth-quarter points to put USC away 41-31. With nearly 1,100 yards of offense, big special teams plays and dynamic game-changing moments by some of college football’s most talented players, the Irish won in the type of game that leaves you wanting more.

The offense was led by C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller. The defense’s second-half revival was triggered by cornerback KeiVarae Russell, Jaylon Smith’s 14 tackles and Sheldon Day’s relentless pressure. Even the special teams got in on the act, with Equanimeous St. Brown blocking a USC punt and Amir Carlisle scooping it up for a score.

While it wasn’t pretty, it was a 10-point victory over Notre Dame’s bitter rivals. And in a game that swung back and forth and back again, the Irish came out on top thanks to contributions from players big (Corey Robinson) and small (Justin Yoon and CJ Sanders).

Let’s find out what else we learned.

In a game filled with major momentum shifts, Notre Dame took back the game with a dominant final surge. 

With the ball inside USC’s 10-yard line and the Irish marching for what looked like their fourth touchdown of the opening quarter, Torii Hunter Jr. was stripped of the ball by Adoree Jackson and the Trojans recovered and had new life. From that moment, the middle rounds of this slugfest were won by USC, the turnover breathing life into the men of Troy, effort they sustained until the game’s final quarter.

After starting so quickly, the offense got stuck in neutral. And Notre Dame’s defense continued to be boom and bust—too often following up a big defensive stop with a mind-numbing amount of missed tackles or blown assignments.

Yet the criticism can wait until morning. Because the character of Brian Kelly’s football team was displayed in the game’s most important moments, and when game-changing plays needed to be made it was Notre Dame that stepped up and made them.

Offensively, Will Fuller wouldn’t be stopped. And if he was, it was because of pass interference. C.J. Prosise was relentless on the ground, scoring two more touchdowns as he rumbled for 143 more yards. And while DeShone Kizer struggled to find open receivers at times as his throwing windows shrunk against the Trojans’ solid secondary, the redshirt freshman continued to play like a seasoned veteran.

Defensively, the turnaround was even more remarkable. The Trojans were taking huge chunks of yardage on just about every drive, but after halftime scored only seven points. The Irish tightened when they needed to, and it was the Irish defense that made two huge plays picking off Cody Kessler.

Brian Kelly spent all week talking about the effort USC would give. Notre Dame not only matched it, they were the ones to make the big plays when the game was on the line.

“In the end, I’m really proud of the way our football team preserved and found a way to make a couple of plays in the second half,” Kelly said. “I really liked our temperament as a football team. They didn’t show any kind of crack at all. They were confident, they believed that they were going to win.”

You can’t stop Will Fuller. Even Adoree Jackson. 

After all but disappearing against Clemson cornerback Mackenzie Alexander, Will Fuller went out Saturday night and dominated USC’s secondary. That included All-Everything three-way threat Adoree Jackson.

Fuller beat Jackson for a touchdown on Notre Dame’s first offensive play, sprinting past the Trojans speedster on a 75-yard bomb. He had him beat again until Jackson dragged Fuller down for a pass interference, a drive that included two 15-yarders trying to stop Fuller. And that was before Fuller all but put the game on ice with another long catch on a perfectly thrown ball by Kizer.

Fuller’s stat line was a ridiculous one: three catches for 131 yards, nearly half a football field on every touch.

“In my estimation, there’s nobody in the country that can cover him one-on-one,” Kelly said.

As the Irish ground game continues to thrive with C.J. Prosise running hard, defenses are forced to make choices on how they want to slow down Notre Dame. And the Trojans tried to do that by utilizing man coverage on Fuller, and the Irish speedster made them pay.

Big plays on defense are a big problem.

USC nearly put up 600 yards of offense, scoring long-distance touchdowns from 75 and 83 yards, along with Ronald Jones’ 65-yard run that set up another score. Missed tackles killed the Irish, so did another trick play—the Trojans utilizing a double pass that caught Cole Luke looking in the backfield.

So while the second half turnaround is a great rally, the eye-opening yardage totals and big plays very nearly doomed the Irish.

“We want to be better each and every week. When you look at it, we are who we are,” Kelly said, when asked about the secondary and their play thus far. “We’ve just got to keep working with them. They’re our kids, our players and we’re going to keep working.”

USC’s skill talent is second to none. But too often the Irish defense finds a way to cancel out a good play by a bad one, perhaps the function of diminished margin for error in Brian VanGorder’s scheme. And while you can’t blame Xs and Os for missed tackles, the Irish made USC struggle when they challenged Kessler and the Trojans to move the ball down the field five and ten yards at a time, especually during a two-minute drill that played right into Notre Dame’s hands.

Joe Schmidt missed a few tackles early. But he wasn’t alone. And while Matthias Farley earned his reputation as the ultimate plug-in and thrive defensive back, Max Redfield relieved him and enhanced the Irish’s speed on the back side, making a huge interception late in the game after KeiVarae Russell got a hand on a pass intended for JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Notre Dame’s offense managed 41 points in the win. But it was the yards and points the Irish gave up that will get most of the attention after the week off.

Notre Dame’s special teams were a huge piece of the winning formula. 

A group that’s served as a piñata over the last few years keyed Notre Dame’s victory on Saturday night. Scott Booker’s special teams made an impact in every phase, the biggest coming from the outstretched hands of Equanimeous St. Brown and Amir Carlisle’s scoop and score.

Notre Dame attacked the three-man secondary wall in front of USC’s punter and very nearly had four guys get their hands on the football, the Irish scheming up a perfect punt block.

“We feel like we’ve got some guys who are really skilled,” Kelly said. “We felt like this week was a week that we wanted to be aggressive when we got the opportunity.

That aggressiveness wasn’t just on the block. CJ Sanders had a strong day returning kicks, keyed by some fake reverse action that helped open up running lanes. Tyler Newsome also had a good day, keeping the ball away from Adoree Jackson and pinning the Trojans at their 1-yard line late in the game, forcing USC to march the length of the field, something they couldn’t do.

Sometimes criticized for a lack of creativity, Kelly even used DeShone Kizer as a punter, forcing the USC defense to stay on the field and not allow them to set up a return for Jackson. It was a heady move by the Irish staff, showing a ton of respect for the Trojan return man, unwilling to let USC’s special teams turn the game on a big play.

After an anonymous first half of the season, KeiVarae Russell made him biggest play in the game’s largest moment.

In one-on-one coverage with one of the nation’s most dynamic playmakers, KeiVarae Russell pulled off the best play of his career. The senior cornerback made an acrobatic interception late in the game, attacking the football in the air as he ran stride for stride with JuJu Smith-Schuster, one of two late-game turnovers that came from Russell in tight coverage.

Notre Dame’s senior cornerback played like the star many expected him to be this year. He had 10 tackles, nine solo stops. And after getting beat early by Smith-Schuster when he was in tight man coverage, Russell kept his patience and seized the day when the lights were the brightest.

It took half a season for Russell to play like this. Part of that is rust from being forced away from football for a calendar year. Another is the type of offenses that Notre Dame has faced, not easy for a cornerback to build momentum.

But earlier in the week, Kelly talked about Russell as a player who was emerging. And Saturday night, the Irish’s most loquacious player talked a big game on the field, pulling out one of the game’s biggest plays in a matchup that Russell had looked forward to for over a year.