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

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Nothing like a loss to a hated rival to wake up some very nasty feelings amongst Irish fans. But they’re not alone.

Fans of Illinois, Georgia Tech, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Oklahoma all got a similar wake-up calls, when their top 25 team got shocked in games they were expected to win. That’s life in college football, when 18-to-22 year-old kids are dealing with the big stage and the hype of late October games after many teams started the season with inferior competition.

The Irish had played big games this season, but none bigger than Saturday night’s game against USC. But the Irish didn’t respond to the environment, and the moment took hold of a team looking to take hold of that same event, and the quick strike Trojans dug the Irish a hole that they could never truly get out of.

It was a huge opportunity missed for head coach Brian Kelly and his Irish squad, and a Saturday night that will go down in infamy for a lot of Irish fans. While they’ll have time to debate it, it’s Kelly’s job to get the team moving forward.

“I’ve never had a problem with rebounding,” Kelly said Sunday. “I’ve had problems with guys not understanding what it takes to be successful week in or week out. And we’re seeing that. Our guys want to win. They don’t know how to win all the time. We’ll have no problem coming back this week because we’ll have their full attention, because they know how they played. The challenge and the process is to get my team to play the way I want them to play each and every day.”

Let’s take a look at the good, bad, and ugly of the Irish’s 31-17 loss to Southern Cal.

THE GOOD

In a season where the special teams have taken a lot of flack, George Atkinson and the kickoff return team delivered a jolt of energy to the Irish when he returned a second quarter kick 96 yards for his second return touchdown of the year. Atkinson was dangerous on kickoffs all night, return five for a total of 178 yards.

“George has been outstanding,” Kelly said. “He has that second level speed that turns a very good return into a touchdown. As much criticism as our special teams have taken through the year, to have two kickoff returns for touchdowns is pretty special.”

Atkinson has put himself into pretty elite company this season through seven games. He’s the first Irish player to return two kickoffs for touchdowns since Allen Rossum did it in 1997. He’s only the second freshman ever to return two kicks for touchdowns.

The other? Some guy named Raghib Ismail, in 1988.

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A few other quick notes in the good:

* While it was disappointing for Irish fans to see him on the field, Ben Turk had a nice night kicking, averaging 42 yards on four punts. He consistently pushed USC’s return man backwards and got off big kicks with both traditional and rugby punts. No Irish fan wants to see Turk sprinting onto the field so often, but he’s finally gotten out of his own head and let his talent take over.

* Robert Woods may have had 12 catches, but Gary Gray had a great game coming up and making tackles from his cornerback position. Gray set a personal high for tackles with a dozen, often times put one-on-one with short quick throws outside to Woods.

* The Irish didn’t run it enough, but Jonas Gray had another big touchdown run, bursting around the left edge for a 25-yard score. Gray averaged 9.5 yards a carry and has put himself into a position where he’s a legitimate NFL prospect.

* Tyler Eifert was dominant — his seven catches for 66 yards led the Irish. He’s become one of the best tight ends in the country and leads the nation’s tight ends in catches.

THE BAD

The Irish got off to as miserable start as you could ask for. A quick three and out followed by a dominant touchdown drive. And from there it didn’t get much better. After falling in a 17-0 hole, the Irish were lucky to go into half trailing by a score. By Kelly’s calculations, it was the Irish’s worst half of the season.

“We weren’t who we were in the first half,” Kelly said. “That’s nowhere near where we expect to play and our guys know that. I called them out and told them that’s not what’s expected of a Notre Dame football team.”

Of course, one of the killers was the critical personal foul penalty on linebacker Carlo Calabrese, who took a crucial personal foul penalty for taunting after making a tackle on a 4th and five play that would’ve turned the ball back over to the Irish.

“There’s going to be penalties in the game,” Kelly said. “Some of them are subjective some of them are interpretive. You can’t always get the call that you want but you can control some penalties. Those that lead to points are the ones that I can’t stand. Those are the kind of penalties that keep you on the sideline.”

Kelly handled Calabrese perfectly, telling the junior linebacker to take off his helmet and go sit down. Calabrese eventually returned, but that mistake cost the Irish three points and a big momentum swing.

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Since Brian Kelly arrived, one position he’s had no margin for error at has been defensive end. Luckily, the Irish made it through last season with both Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson staying healthy, allowing the Irish to hide their astounding lack of depth behind the two front-line players.

That hasn’t been the case this year.

With Johnson out with a high ankle sprain, the Irish have had to rely on freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, and that youth has been easily spotted, even if both guys look physically impressive.

The Irish might have gotten another bad break when Lewis-Moore came out of the game hurt with his own ankle injury. Without KLM, the Irish defensive front was lost, helpless when the Trojans ran the ball ten consecutive times to take the game’s final six minutes off the clock.

There’s no official word on the injury, as MRI results were set to come back after Kelly addressed the media. That said, Lewis-Moore’s Twitter account hinted at bad news, and heading into Navy the Irish might be short their two most important front-line defensive players against the Midshipmen’s offensive attack.

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On the game’s clinching touchdown, the Trojans caught the Irish in a terrible mismatch, with Lo Wood on an island against Robert Woods. It was a product of the Irish being short-handed on the back end of their defense as well, with Zeke Motta suffering a concussion during the game.

“Well, we lost Zeke to a concussion, which put our nickel situation in a very difficult personnel situation,” Kelly explained after the game. “So the next best guy, is Lo Wood. As you know, they moved Robert Woods around everywhere. If he lines up as the slot, Blanton is on him. Just one of those things when we lost a player, and we lost Zeke, we went to second nickel, and the next best player for us is Lo Wood.”

Both areas where the Irish are thin on defense came back to bite them on Saturday.

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THE UGLY

There was plenty of ugly, but Dayne Crist’s fumbled snap, and the ensuing calamity was disastrous for Notre Dame, who were on the verge of bringing the game back to even with the fourth quarter just ahead.

“We’re third and goal from the one, had what we thought was the perfect play call,” Kelly said, describing the scene. “It’s 17-10, it’s a great atmosphere, we’re about to tie the ballgame up and go to the fourth quarter at 17-17 and we put the ball on the ground. I don’t know if I’ve seen a 99-yard or 98 yard fumble return for a touchdown. I’ve seen two of them in six games. That’s just hard to see. That just changed the complexion. But the nice part is that even with that, we can right off that and scored and made it 24-17.”

Crist’s redemption would’ve been a great storyline, but instead — he’ll have another ugly memory from a season that certainly has gone the wrong way for the senior quarterback.

That’s been the story for all three losses for Notre Dame.

“Self inflicted wounds,” Kelly said. “The fumble going in on the one, the turnover on the 20, and obviously the personal foul penalty. That’s 17 points really. That’s the difference in the ball game.”

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Lastly, the Irish ended the game with three timeouts in their pocket, as the Irish defense wasn’t able to stop Curtis McNeal and Kelly was unwilling to stop the clock from ticking away.

It was that decision that spurred Trojan linebacker Chris Galippo into a pretty ugly quote:

“They just quit. That’s what Notre Dame football is all about. They’re not anything like USC.’’

Galippo has had a bone to pick with Notre Dame all the way back to his days as a five-star recruit, where the Orange County native felt then head coach Charlie Weis failed to pay enough attention to him, so it’s hard to take what he says too seriously.

While it’s certainly easy to be the toughest guy at the press conference, Galippo hopefully will take those big words to the field, forgetting that the Trojans’ lost five of their last nine games last year and just a few weeks ago gave up 22 unanswered points in the second half to Arizona State, the first of two straight games giving up 40-plus points.

When asked about the senior linebacker’s comments, Kelly wasn’t going to take the bait.

“To the victors go the spoils. I think we probably would have said the same thing last year. You know, again, how we evaluate our players, we didn’t play the kind of football we wanted to play,” Kelly said.