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.