Saturday night’s win over USC wasn’t particularly pretty. In fact, it was one of the uglier wins we’ve seen from the Irish this side of 2007, but any win over USC is sweet and even with some warts, there was quite a bit to like in Notre Dame’s 5th win of the season.
The return of a dominant Stephon Tuitt
Stephon Tuitt was not himself at the start of the season. Teams like Purdue, Temple, and Michigan State should have been eaten alive by Tuitt, but the junior was still regaining strength after the time he lost in the weight room after off-season surgery. The last few weeks though, we have seen the glimpses of Tuitt we expected to see all season long and Saturday night was Tuitt’s best game of the season by far.
Tuitt picked up two sacks last night for his first multiple sack outing of the season giving him four sacks in the last four games and three in the last two. Tuitt also got his hand on a pass at the line of scrimmage to stall a USC drive in the first half. Throw in a couple of hurries that produced some back breaking holding calls and Tuitt turned in the first All-American caliber performance of the season. With some weaker opponents on the upcoming schedule, hopefully Tuitt can continue this pace the rest of the season.
The continued ascension of Jaylon Smith
It’s rare for a 5-star recruit to step in and immediately live up to the hype the way Jaylon Smith has been doing all season long, but at this point, big plays from Smith should no longer be surprises – they should be expected. Smith was a beast two weeks ago against Arizona State and was back at it again last night with one of the most impressive interceptions recorded by a Notre Dame linebacker not named Te’o in some time. Smith dropped back in coverage and made the kind of play on the ball that very few college linebackers can make to pick off Cody Kessler early in the second half.
Smith ended the game with four tackles including one for a loss with an excellently timed blitzed to make a play in the Trojan backfield giving him 31 stops with 3.5 for loss on the season. Smith is going to be a nightmare for opposing offenses the rest of the season and the rest of his career in a gold helmet – a career that is very obviously going to be a hell of a lot of fun to watch for Notre Dame fans.
Notre Dame’s 4th quarter defense
Notre Dame’s defense in the entire second half was outstanding – by far the best we’ve seen this unit perform since prior to the Title game – but the defense in the 4th quarter was especially impressive. The Notre Dame offense put the defense in some compromising situations in the 4th quarter, but the defense was up to the task responding with a second half shut out.
Here’s how all of USC’s drives started and ended in the second half.
- 3rd – Started at USC 25 – 3 plays, 16 yards – Interception
- 3rd – Started at USC 6 – 3 plays, -1 yard – Punt
- 3rd – Started at USC 31 – 3 plays, 3 yards – Punt
- 3rd – Started at uSC 48 – 3 plays, 5 yards – Punt
- 3rd – Started at ND 33 – 3 plays, -6 yards – Punt
- 4th – Started at ND 47 – 5 plays, 19 yards – Missed FG
- 4th – Started at ND 34 – 6 plays, -4 yards – Downs
- 4th – Started at USC 25 – 5 plays, 34 yards – Downs
USC started three straight drives in the late 3rd, early 4th quarters in Notre Dame territory that resulted in 14 plays, 10 yards, and no points as the drives ended in a punt, a missed field goal, and a turnover on downs. Overall in the second half, USC’s longest drive came on their last possession with the Irish allowing them to complete a few underneath routes with no timeouts left.
USC helped along the way with some back breaking holding calls, but those penalties were the result the USC offensive line being beat badly off the line of scrimmage and having no other answer than to hold. Tuitt along with Louis Nix, Sheldon Day, and the rest of the defensive front seven was as stout as we’ve seen in a while. If they play like that the rest of the season, the Irish will be ranked again shortly and the Thanksgiving weekend showdown with Stanford will be the only game the Irish don’t win convincingly (assuming Rees starts the rest of the games).
The running of Cam McDaniel in the first half
Before Tommy Rees’s injury, Cam McDaniel was well on his way to a huge day. McDaniel had over 80 yards by halftime and a 100 yard effort looked likely by the end of Notre Dame’s first drive in the second half. Once Rees went down though, McDaniel and the rest of the IRish ground game was completely shut down by USC as they stacked the line with Andrew Hendrix unable to move the ball in the air.
While McDaniel had an inexcusable 4th quarter fumble that could have been costly, he still turned in one of the best halves of football we’ve seen from a Notre Dame running back this season (along with Atkinson’s second half against Oklahoma). McDaniel would be the clear cut #1 running back on the roster right now had it not been for that fumble, but even with it, it’s likely he will see the bulk of the carries again this weekend and that is a good thing – especially against a slower defense. If he gets the same share of the carries that he got a week ago and Rees is able to go, I wouldn’t be surprised if he eclipsed 100 yards for the first time in his career.
Winning 3 out of 4 from USC
Notre Dame’s three wins over USC under Brian Kelly haven’t been particularly impressive and they haven’t been very pretty. Matt Barkley sat out two of the three wins and last night USC was starting a redshirt freshman under center after firing their head coach a few weeks ago. Guess what though? These three wins all count the same in the history books and after the decade of dominance the Trojans had in this rivalry, it feels pretty darn good to beat the Trojans back to back years for the first time in in twelve years.
Last night’s game should have been a much more lopsided Notre Dame victory with the way the Irish defense played – and it probably would have been if Tommy Rees didn’t get hurt at the start of the second half – but it was a win none the less and it snapped a 5-game losing streak to USC at home for Notre Dame. USC’s roster is not going to be fixed overnight by whoever their next coach is and the Irish offense should be in much better shape next year which could lead to a three game winning streak over USC.
We all wish last night’s game would have been more convincing since there won’t be many more opportunities for Notre Dame to beat up on a wounded, down and out USC squad like last night but at the end of the day, the Irish sit at 5-2 this season with a more than manageable schedule until the Stanford game and the Irish are now 3-1 vs. USC under Brian Kelly after being 0-8 against them under Willingham and Weis.