LOS ANGELES — In the end, the skies opened up and the streak finally ended.
Rain swept through Los Angeles and washed the slate clean, as Notre Dame turned the tide on a woefully one-sided rivalry of late, holding on to beat Southern Cal 20-16 in rainy Los Angeles. After nearly a decade of lopsided losses and heart-breaking finishes, the Irish ended up on the on the flip side of the coin, rallying to score on their final drive of the game and getting a much needed break when Mitch Mustain’s pass slipped through the arms of a streaking Ronald Johnson and fell to the ground.
“I think everybody thought it was over,” Trojan running back Marc Tyler said before wryly smiling. “In these conditions, anything can happen.”
That anything finally turned out to be a stroke of luck for the Irish, a team snake-bit for much of the season, especially in crunch time. Four plays after dropping an almost certain touchdown pass, Mustain’s throw sailed high and was intercepted by Harrison Smith at the goal line, and Notre Dame took three knees for a hard-fought 20-16 victory. Notre Dame, the collective, exhaled and finally celebrated.
“Looking at the faces of so many Notre Dame fans that have been waiting for this moment, just to see the look on their face, it’s satisfying,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “Just to get that out of the way.”
That first very big check on a list that many fans have for the first-year head coach.
Here’s what we learned Saturday night during Notre Dame’s 20-16 victory, the Irish’s first victory over the Trojans since 2001.
1. Irish fans, some of you owe Bob Diaco a very big apology.
It wasn’t too long ago that many Irish fans were calling for the head of their young defensive coordinator. But Bob Diaco has responded from his worst day at the office to turn the Irish defense into one of their most fearsome units in the post-Holtz era.
“Unbelievable effort,” Kelly said of his defense. “We put them in some bad situations and they just continued to battle, and they’ve done that all year. This is not a one-time occurrence. This is a defense that has played really well in the month of November.”
Really well is an understatement. The Irish held the Trojans to 80 yards rushing, limited Mustain to less than five yards a pass attempt, and shutdown an offense with plenty of skill and incredibly advantageous field position. While many snickered when the Irish defense coined the rallying cry “B.I.A.” (Best in America) this preseason, the unit has silently morphed into one of the best in the country in the season’s final month, giving up only one touchdown, and that was only after the Irish spotted the Trojans the ball on their own two-yard line, and gave USC four tries to run it in.
Looking at the drive chart, it’s hard not to marvel at the work the Irish did. The Trojans didn’t mount a single drive over 46 yards. More impressively, the Irish handed the ball over to the Trojans four times in their own territory, and USC only managed 16 points. There’s playing “really well,” and then there’s playing dominant.
Diaco’s defense was dominant today.
2. This spread offense was far from finesse today.
The Irish won another game in the trenches, this time behind the running of redshirt freshman Cierre Wood and senior Robert Hughes. The duo combined for 158 yards on 26 carries, just over six yards a crack on a Trojan defense that’s played well against the run. Wood, who Irish fans hoped would break big plays did his part — exploding on two counters for huge gains, including one that sprung a touchdown drive in the final minute of the first half. And Hughes did what many have waited four years to see, bulldozed his way through a Trojan defense that moved backwards on impact with the bruising 250-pound back.
Kelly explained why he put the game in his senior running back’s hands, turning to Hughes on four of the final five plays on the Irish’s game winning drive.
“We felt like we needed to get north and south and down hill,” Kelly said. “He’s starting to run the way I think Robert Hughes should run. That’s low pads, running people over. He’s not a finesse back. He took to that the last month of November and we felt that we needed to get North and South.”
The Irish dictated terms on that drive when it was clear to everybody in the stadium that Tommy Rees wasn’t going to be able to throw the ball. But after a quick Rees completion, the Irish ran it for 26, 6, 12, 13, and finally 5 yards — a dozen yards a carry to win a football game in the fourth quarter. That’s certainly not finesse offense, and Ed Warinner’s troops deserved the In-N-Out Burgers they got on their way to the airport tonight.
Notre Dame has now out-rushed six of their opponents this season (Purdue, Boston College, Western Michigan, Utah, Army and USC). The Irish are 6-0 on the season in those games, and own a 26-game winning streak when they outrush the opposition. That’s more than a data-point.
3. All of a sudden, the Irish own November.
If you’re looking for a reason to believe in Brian Kelly, he’s given you the evidence you need this month. Closing October with a heart-breaking 28-27 loss to Tulsa, the Irish reeled off an undefeated November, the first time they’ve done that since 2005.
“All the work we’ve done during the year, points towards where you want to play your best football, and that’s November,” Kelly said. “It validates the plan that’s been in place since day one. Yes, a victory helps in some on those other perceptual issues that are out there, but for us we knew we were on the right track.”
November games at the Coliseum usually are marked with memories of an out-classed Irish team getting run off the field by the better athletes in Cardinal and Gold. But the Irish held their own all evening, limiting the Trojans to only 12 first downs, and just 16 points, the stingiest effort by the Irish defense since 1998, when No. 9 Notre Dame lost to the Paul Hackett-led Trojans 10-0 at the Coliseum.
It’s hard not to see a transformed roster when watching Notre Dame play this month, and the work of Kelly, his staff, and Paul Longo is paying dividends.
4. Redemption is sweet for senior Smiths.
Funny how the Harrison Smith narrative changed before our eyes this evening. Even the veteran safety noticed.
“It was close,” Smith said. “I’m glad I said my prayers.”
Ronald Johnson’s drop gave the Irish new life and Smith snatched the Trojans away with the game-clinching interception. It’s the culmination of an outstanding regular season for Smith, a year that shouldn’t take a backseat to any defender on the roster. Harrison had six tackles, a pass break-up, and the game-clinching interception, once again clocking heavy minutes for a defensive backfield that relies on the Tennessee native’s leadership, especially one down to just three healthy safeties this trip.
In the linebacking corp, senior Brian Smith was putting together another outstanding football game. Smith’s five tackles, and two critical pass break-ups gave a satisfying finish to the senior’s career.
“It just puts an exclamation point on a career that’s had some ups and downs,” Smith said. “I’m just so happy that we got this win against a great USC team in the Coliseum.”
Smith continued to take on a leadership role, rallying the team in the games closing minutes.
“I told the team, ‘Look, we’ve been in these situations before, and came out on the bottom. This is our time right now, what a better time to do it. It’s time for us to put a stamp on this Notre Dame football squad.'”
Thanks to some luck of the Irish, and two great games by some embattled leaders, the senior class is the first to walk out of the Coliseum a winner since 2000, a team that was led by guys like Joey Getherall and Anthony Denman.
5. Seven wins unlocks some intriguing bowl scenarios.
A 7-5 Notre Dame football team is far more attractive than the 6-6 version that could’ve exited Los Angeles. Without a game on the horizon, expect all the focus to turn to the Irish’s postseason plans.
While both Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick were mum after the game, expect the seventh win to punch Notre Dame’s ticket to Orlando for the Champs Sports Bowl, with a potential opponent being one of the top three teams in the ACC.
The win allows the Champs Bowl to select a seven-win Notre Dame team over a Big East team with more wins once during a three-year window, and there may not be a better year to avoid a Big East school as a bowl chairman than this season.
A “prestige bowl” with a late December date is far from what many Irish fans suspected after losing to Tulsa that dreary late October day, and gives the Irish the opportunity to win eight games during season one of the Kelly era — a more than acceptable number considering the turmoil of the season. More important than the win total is the very important ‘W’ that went the Irish’s way this Saturday night.
As the Irish football players filed out of their locker room, smiles on their faces and iPods connected to their ears, it dawned on me that it’s been a long time since an Irish football team has felt this way. How long? Well, consider the last time the Irish beat USC, the iPod hadn’t even been released yet.
Sweet music for Irish fans, indeed.