On a night when NBC introduced Notre Dame Stadium to prime time television for the first time in more than two decades, things did not go as planned for Brian Kelly and his Fighting Irish.
The helmets on their heads were glistening and new with the lights shining brightly overhead, but a 17-0 first quarter hole was too much for a mistake prone Irish squad to climb out of in their 31-17 loss to their biggest rival.
“(It is) disappointing we could not play better football in what I considered a great environment,” Kelly said to open his post-game press conference. “It’s the kind of environment we want to create here. We just have to play better football.”
Notre Dame turned the ball over three times in the loss, but that was not the problem in the game’s opening stanza. The Irish went 3 and out on their first two possessions and were forced to punt the first four times they had the ball in the first half.
“Sloppy football,” Kelly said of the game’s first quarter. “(We) didn’t tackle well, timing was off. Just unacceptable for the amount of time we had off to play that way in the first half.”
The Irish had outgained their first six opponents by a combined 847-355 in total yardage this season and outscored the opposition 63-22 in the first quarter this year, but that first quarter dominance ended under the Saturday night lights in South Bend. Southern Cal outgained Notre Dame 128-14 with a 17-0 point advantage after the game’s first 15 minutes.
While the first quarter was damning, other things contributed to the Irish loss as well.
The Ground Game Grinded To A Halt…
Fighting Irish running backs Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray were all but MIA in the loss. The two combined to average a little over 26 carries and nearly 175 yards-a-game through Notre Dame’s first six games, but together they ran the ball just 9 times for 43 net yards in the loss.
“We were running the ball in the third quarter and were very effective in mixing things up,” Kelly said of his team’s “rhythm” in the mix of runs and passes. “Early on, we didn’t get in that kind of rhythm, because we got down 14-0, started throwing the ball. We are best operating offensively with that kind of balance. And I think we only had it for spurts in the third quarter.”
Jonas Gray’s 25-yard touchdown run at the start of the 4th quarter was the longest run of the night for either team. The senior finished with 38 net yards on 4 carries, while Wood was mostly absent from the game plan with 5 net yards on 5 carries. He did catch 6 passes for 41 yards.
“They did some stuff up front that makes it difficult to run the ball,” Tommy Rees said of the lack of a ground game. “But when that happens, we have to take advantage.”
In Notre Dame’s two wins over Purdue and Air Force they averaged better than 550 yards of offense with a balanced attack, but the complete lack of a running game on Saturday night led to just 267 total yards, compared to 443 for the Trojans.
On The Other Hand…
Meanwhile, USC running back Curtis McNeal ran the ball 24 times for 121 yards. His longest run was for 15 yards, but he and Marc Tyler ran the ball effectively early on to help set-up play-action passes for Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley.
Notre Dame’s defense was allowing just an average of 136.5 yards-a-game on the ground, but Southern Cal managed to gouge the Irish for 219. In the last two games, ND has allowed a total of 582 rushing yards for more than a third of the 1,478 yards on the ground it has given-up this year.
Return Of The Turnovers…
Turnovers didn’t put Notre Dame in the early 17-0 hole, but they halted Notre Dame’s efforts at a late comeback. The Irish were a heartbeat away from tying the game at 17-17 when Dayne Crist’s fumbled snap inside the 5-yard line turned into an 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Jawanza Starling and a 24-10 knockout blow to ND’s comeback hopes.
“That’s the toughest part is when you think you’ve moved past that kind of self-inflicted wounds,” Kelly said. “To come back and have those hit you again, it’s disappointing.”
The Irish committed another fumble on a lateral pass from Tommy Rees that was intended for Wood. Rees was also intercepted on Notre Dame’s last possession of the game. The pick by Nickell Robey in the 4th quarter ended a streak of 135 consecutive passes without an interception by Rees. It’s the third longest such streak in Notre Dame history.
Crist's fumble was also his team’s first red zone turnover since Rees was picked-off at the 4-yard line by Pittsburgh on September 24.
The Fighting Irish had gone two straight games without a turnover prior to the three giveaway game. Notre Dame turned the ball over a combined 10 times in its two losses to open the season, but had just five total turnovers during its four game winning streak.
Notre Dame now has 18 turnovers through seven games. USC had committed 12 turnovers for two a game prior to Saturday night, but had none in the victory.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley was not spectacular, but he played a mistake-free game that allowed his team to win. On the other hand, two Notre Dame quarterbacks made a trio of costly turnovers in the loss.
Barkley was 24 of 35 for 224 yards and three touchdown passes. He completed 68 percent of his passes, which is exactly his season completion percentage. He also ran the ball 4 times for 19 yards, including a pair of crucial conversions on 3rd down and long. The junior has just four interceptions this year.
Tommy Rees was knocked out of the game when he hyper extended his knee while throwing the ball away on a third quarter incompletion.
“It’s the same one that went out on him against Miami (in last year’s Sun Bowl),” said Kelly of the injury. “That’s something that’s a bit chronic for him, but he toughened it up, came back and did a nice job.”
With Rees out, Kelly turned to both Dayne Crist, who hadn’t played since being benched at halftime of the season-opening loss to South Florida, and to Andrew Hendrix, who was playing in his second straight and second career game.
“Dayne went right in, did a nice job, moved us down there,” Kelly said. “We put Hendrix in to run the ball a little bit down there, ran some zone option and then we fumble the snap.”
Rees was 23 of 37 for 190 yards and an interception. Crist was 4 of 5 for 36 yards. Hendrix did not throw a pass, but ran the ball twice for 4 yards.
Red Zone Chances…
Notre Dame was 18 of 25 (72%) in red zone scoring chances (16 TDs) this season heading into today’s game. Since going just 5 of 11 in its first two games (losses to South Florida and Michigan) the Irish were 13 of 14 in its next four games after crossing the opponent’s 20-yard line. That included a perfect 6 of 6 in red zone chances two weeks ago vs. Air Force. The only red zone missed opportunity was against Purdue when ND went 4 for 5.
The Irish were just 1 of 2 in the red zone on Saturday, but the one missed opportunity turned swung the entire second half on the 80-yard fumble return.
A Tale of Two Receivers…
Both Notre Dame and USC boasted All-American quality receivers, but only USC’s Robert Woods left the stadium happy. Woods came into the game with 60 catches for 783 yards and 6 touchdowns and an average of 130.5 yards-a-game.
He finished his night with 12 grabs for 119 yards and two scores.
One of Notre Dame’s less experienced defensive backs, Lo Wood, was covering Woods on his second TD of the night with 7:47 left in the game.
“We lost Zeke (Motta) to a concussion ,” Kelly said of the situation. “Which put out nickel situation in a very difficult personnel situation. Could we have done something different? Well, Robert (Blanton) is our back-up nickel, and so the next best player for us is Lo Wood. If he lines-up as the slot. Blanton is on him. Jose one of those things when we lost a player, and we lost Zeke, we went to the second nickel, and the next best player for us is Lo Wood.”
While Woods shined, ND’s All-American candidate, Michael Floyd did not. Floyd came in averaging 106.5 yards-a-game, but finished the night with just 41 yards on 6 catches.
“We were out of sync, rhythm,” Kelly said of Floyd’s absence from the Irish offensive attack. “We had Mike two or three times and we didn’t connect with him.”
All six of Floyd’s catches came in the second half.
“I think in the second half we made a more concerted effort to get him the ball,” Kelly said. “We just were out of sync in the first one.”
Atkinson Strikes Again…
One of the lone bright spots for the Irish was George Atkinson’s 96-yard kickoff return to give the Irish their first touchdown with 3:22 to play in the first half.
“I saw two great blocks on the outside,” Atkinson said of his dash down the left sideline. “I just ran off of those blocks and I saw the kicker and just gave him a little step inside. He looked like he was falling back, so I just kept running down the sideline and just kept running.”
It’s the freshman’s second kickoff return of the season. He took one back for 89 yards back on Sept. 17 in the 31-13 win over Michigan State. Atkinson is the first Irish player to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same season since Allen Rossum in 1997.
The 90-yard return is the longest for a Notre Dame player since Julius Jones returned a kick 100 yards against Nebraska on Sept. 9, 2000.
What’s On The Playlist??
The color of the sky wasn’t the only difference inside Notre Dame Stadium for Saturday night’s game. In an effort to try to add to the frenzied atmosphere, rock music blared through the stadium’s speakers at different points in the game. Ozzy Osborne’s “Crazy Train” blared to incite the crowd every time USC faced a third down.
That fact was not lost on USC head coach Lane Kiffin.
“I thought the crowd was awesome tonight, they were electric,” Kiffin said afterward. “Playing the music when we were at the line of scrimmage when we were on offense really helped us a lot.”
“I’m Shipping Up To Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys was played before the start of each half, ‘80s anthem “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses filled the air after George Atkinson, III’s 96-yard kickoff return in the second quarter and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” played after Jonas Gray’s 25-yard touchdown run.