NOTRE DAME, Ind. - It may not have gone quite exactly as Brian Kelly would have scripted, but the Fighting Irish found a way to fight off their oldest and most bitter rival Saturday night in a 14-10 win over USC.
"We battled and mentally and physically continued to play every play," head coach Brian Kelly said after watching his team shutout the Trojans in the second half. "That's what we ask from them. That's what I expect from our group is to keep competing regardless of what happens in the game."
The biggest obstacle the Irish had to overcome was the loss of Tommy Rees. The Irish quarterback threw a pair of first half touchdowns, but he was sacked by linebacker Lamar Dawson and forced out of the game with 9:30 still on the clock in the third quarter.
"He had a neck strain," Kelly said of Rees's initial diagnosis that sent him to the locker room. "He got hit and they wanted to bring him in for more observation. He's really sore. We'll know more as we kind of move through the next 24 (to) 48 hours."
"He's clear and talking," Kelly continued. "(I) just got a chance to talk to him. He was able to talk after the game, but he's pretty sore right now."
Rees was 14-of-21 for 166 yards and no interceptions before leaving the game. With Rees out for most of the second half, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin turned to senior Andrew Hendrix to manage the offense the rest of the way.
"We've got to play better - flat out," Kelly said when asked about Hendrix running the offense. "You guys watched it. I watched it. He's got to play better."
Hendrix was 0-for-4 passing the ball and ran for just 10 yards on six carries in the game. The Irish were just 1-for-7 on 3rd down conversions with Hendrix at the helm.
Changing the Tempo
USC won the opening coin toss and opted to put the Notre Dame offense on the field to start the game. The strategy nearly backfired. The Irish came out of the gates fast in a no-huddle offense that saw Rees complete 2-of-4 passes for 49 yards.
"I thought we got some really good things out of it," Kelly said of the up-tempo offense. "We had been trying to settle on a few plays that we really felt like Tommy could handle well without putting us in a position where he had to check anything."
The strategy gained 74 yards on the first 11 plays of the opening drive, but fell short of the end zone when Cam McDaniel was stopped for a three-yard loss on 4th and goal from the one.
USC marched right down the field to score a touchdown on the ensuing possession, but Notre Dame stayed up-tempo when it got the ball back. Rees was 6-for-7 for 56 yards on the next drive. His only incompletion was a dropped ball by running back Amir Carlisle. Rees hit tight end Troy Niklas for a seven-yard touchdown strike to cap the possession.
That touchdown pass pushed Rees past the 6,000-yard mark for his career. He is just the fifth Notre Dame quarterback to pass for as many yards. Rees added an 11-yard TD pass to T.J. Jones later in the half for the 49th touchdown pass of his career.
Stephon Tuitt came up big on a night that saw the Irish defense shutout Southern Cal in the second half. Tuitt had a pair of sacks on Trojan quarterback Cody Kessler and a career-high seven tackles in the game. He also had a critical 3rd down pass deflection in the second half - the fourth pass deflection of his career.
"He got the game ball," Kelly said of Tuitt. "He was all over the place. He was in the run game...they couldn't handle him today. If you're wanting to talk about a defensive lineman that was dominating, you could throw that word out there. He was a force out there today."
Tuitt's efforts helped the defense limit USC to one first down, seven rushing yards and 32 yards of total offense on 13 plays in the third quarter. The 32 yards was the fewest allowed by Notre Dame in any quarter this season. The Trojans gained just 121 total yards in the second half after a 96-yard touchdown drive on their first possession of the game.
Freshman outside linebacker Jaylon Smith had another exceptional performance. Smith intercepted Kessler on the first USC drive of the second half.
"Great interception," said Kelly. "He's playing man-to-man coverage down the field on a pretty talented player. He's bringing pressure. He's a pretty special player. (There are) not a lot of guys like that in the country as true freshmen."
Smith finished with four tackles, including a tackle for loss of two yards.
Third and Futile
Neither team was particularly good on 3rd down conversions, especially in the second half, but USC was downright awful in that department. The Trojans converted both 3rd down opportunities on their first drive of the game, but then went 0-for-13 after that. Notre Dame was just 4-for-14 on its own 3rd down opportunities.
Noting the Win
Notre Dame lost eight consecutive times to USC under Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis from 2002-2009. That is the longest losing streak the Irish have ever had to Southern Cal. Included in that stretch were five straight home losses to the Trojans.
Saturday night's Fighting Irish victory is their first at home over USC since 2001. Notre Dame has also now won three of its four meetings with the Trojans under Brian Kelly. The Irish have also now won in back-to-back years against USC for the first time since 2000 and 2001.
The 14-10 halftime advantage marks the first time the Irish held a halftime lead over USC since 2005.