Not since October 21, 2001 have Irish fans woken to their morning coffee, newspapers, or IrishEyes.com without the hangover of Trojans-fueled discontent.
Notre Dame's 20-16 victory last night in Los Angeles put a perfect cap to a final month comeback effort by Brian Kelly's first Irish team. Rarely has a 7-5 season seemed so full of promise. Then again, rare is the South Bend crew that improves as the months turn cold.
The 2010 Irish played three games in November, allowed one touchdown, five field goals and never lost.
Nor, for that matter as a starter, did freshman quarterback Tommy Rees, who struggled through a miserable second half last night before leading the Irish on a last-ditch, 7-play, 77-yard drive that culminated in a Robert Hughes touchdown and a four-point lead with just over two minutes remaining.
The bulk of that two-minute period provided Irish fans with recurring bouts of angst, as two dropped Trojans passes – the latter a point-blank miss of an easy 53-yard game-winning score – nearly handed USC a victory in consecutive matchup No. 9.
Luck of the Irish? On that play, certainly, but one group of reborn Irishmen played well enough to win this game – or any game – and it's the same unit that's carried Kelly's crew from the brink of bowl ineligibility back to relevance entering the Holiday season.
The defense never restsHughes will go down as the feel-good hero; Rees remains the undefeated starting QB, and Kelly can hold court this off-season as the streak-breaking leader, but Notre Dame defeated Southern Cal Saturday night because its defense refused to lose.
On that aforementioned October 2001 Saturday, Notre Dame beat USC partly because the Irish defense held the Trojans without a touchdown in the second half. Those Pete Carroll-led visitors managed only a field goal as Bob Davie's Irish defeated the Men of Troy, 27-16.
The Trojans hadn't gone without a touchdown vs. the Irish in a single half since, that is until the present day Irish limited their hosts to a single field goal over the first 30 minutes. They allowed 13 second half points though non of it was easy: it took Lane Kiffin's offense four plays to score after receiving the pigskin on the ND 2-yard line; it took 7 plays to travel 18 yards for one field goal; 7 more to move 15 for the other.
The ND defense's touchdown-free streak reached 13 quarters before USC backup QB Mitch Mustain (barely) snuck one in from inside the 1-yard line midway through the third period last night.
The 5th-year senior's plunge brought USC to a 13-13 tie and it, like each of the 16 points USC scored, was set up by a turnover courtesy Rees, who wilted under the contest's immense pressure for the better part of the second half before rebounding to lead the game-winning march.
Rees was picked off on three occasions, twice deep in Irish territory and twice by linebackers who dropped into coverage to snare an ill-advised, telegraphed throw. The still-developing freshman also fumbled deep in Irish territory to set up Mustain's score.
But Rees' teammates, most notably those employed by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco Saturday night, repeatedly stepped to the fore, holding USC's attack to 45 yards on 18 snaps in what should have been a death knell 3rd Quarter for the Irish. They later rallied to limit the Trojans to 46 yards on 13 4th Quarter snaps before the visitors recaptured the lead entering the final two minutes.
And then it got interesting...
One last standMustain never folded in the face of a late four-point deficit, instead rallying his offense from the USC 31 to the ND 23 yard line (despite the aforementioned drops). The drive included a clutch 4th and 7 completion from his own 47-yard line that gained 14 yards to the Irish 39. One play later, the Trojans nearly breached the Irish red zone on a Mustain to Robert Woods completion for 16 yards to the ND 23-yard marker.
Two snaps later, Irish senior safety Harrison Smith redeemed an earlier mistake by leaping for the game-sealing interception on a poorly thrown ball at the ND 2-yard line. Just four plays prior Smith was nearly cast in the role of goat as the vastly improved defender slipped on the Coliseum turf, allowing Trojans wideout Ronald Johnson 20 yards of open real estate for what would have been the go-ahead score.
Mustain's perfectly thrown pass bounced off Johnson's left arm and fell harmlessly to the turf. It was the fifth drop of the day and the second of the drive by USC receivers – three of which occurred partly because of the heavy rain that began to fall midway through the second half.
10:41 of dominanceThe Irish offense was dormant for the bulk of the contest but showed its mettle on back-to-back 2nd Quarter drives to turn a 3-0 deficit into a 13-3 edge at the break.
A masterful 16-play, 79-yard drive bled more than half of the quarter (8:09) before Rees hit junior Michael Floyd for a 1-yard touchdown on 3rd and goal. After Diaco's defense forced a quick three-and-out on the other end, Kelly's offense had but 44 seconds to travel 62 yards.
They needed only 37 of those seconds thanks to a brilliant first play call that resulted in an easy 28-yard gain by tailback Cierre Wood; three completions by Rees and a one-yard back shoulder pass to senior Duval Kamara who reached the ball just past the goal prior to stepping out of bounds.
It was Kamara's third score in as many weeks after posting just one touchdown over his previous 32 contests.
Floyd led the Irish with 11 grabs for 86 yards while the running back tandem of Wood and Hughes combined to tote the rock 26 times for 148 yards including Hughes' game-winning score.
Hughes, who accounted for 36 of Notre Dame's final 40 yards on five determined runs, posted a season-high rushing total of 68 yards in the streak-snapping upset.
Mustain finished 20-37 for just 177 yards while Rees threw for 149 on 20 completions. Notre Dame out-rushed the Trojans 147 to 80, extending the program's streak to 26 consecutive victories when out-rushing the opponent.
The Champs Sports Bowl (December 28 in Orlando) is expected to extend a bid to the now 7-5 Irish. There were reports of Las Vegas Bowl officials present as well.
USC (7-5) will conclude its season next Saturday vs. cross-town rival UCLA. The Trojans aren't eligible for post-season play due to NCAA rules violations.
Kelly became the first Irish head coach to take down the Trojans in his first matchup with the intersectional rival since Lou Holtz guided a 38-37 comeback win over USC in 1986.