Game Ball: Defensive MVPCandidates abound but one reclamation project stands head and shoulders above the rest for his all-around effort Saturday night:
Senior inside linebacker Brian Smith: On Tuesday of this past week, I mentioned to Brian Smith that the best 30-minute segment of his collegiate career was last October in the second half vs. USC. Smith acknowledged that fury he showed in the near-comeback win over the Trojans that ended two yards short.
Saturday he and his defensive teammates finished the deal with 60 minutes of defense as the multi-talented but enigmatic ‘backer put forth the best individual defensive effort of the Irish seasons, notching five tackles, two passes defended – as well as a third influenced inside the ND 10-yard line – and the game's key quarterback hurry on the contest's penultimate play.
Smith's first pass breakup ended a USC drive inside the ND 40-yard line. 44 seconds later, Notre Dame scored its second touchdown to take a 13-3 lead into the break.
A third Smith play vs. the pass shut down USC's 1st and Goal penetration as the suddenly solid defender read a tunnel screen into his zone, effectively shutting down the route before it had a chance to develop. And finally, his well-timed blitz around right tackle resulted in a QB hurry (partial deflection) on a pass to the flat that was slammed to the turf by classmate Harrison Smith.
With that hit, the Irish regained momentum, and the second Smith ended the contest with a goal line interception.
Over his last three halves vs. the Trojans, Brian Smith totaled 11 tackles (1 for lost yardage), a sack, three QB hurries and three pass deflections.
Co-Offensive MVPIt's hard to separate Michael Floyd's three quarters of work and Robert Hughes' drive of dominance…so I won't bother.
With just under 14 minutes remaining in the first half, junior wide receiver Michael Floyd had accrued exactly zero catches vs. the Trojans in his college career. Three quarters later, Floyd had 11 grabs for 85 yards and a touchdown. Seven of those receptions resulted in a new set of downs including four gained on 3rd Down throughout the contest. Floyd's last catch, a 4-yard out on the left sideline set up teammate Robert Hughes' game winning burst through what used to be the heart of the Trojans defense.
Hughes carried 11 times for 68 yards but it was his 4-carry, 36-yard effort on the team's final drive that has endeared him to Irish fans everywhere at the close of his collegiate career. Following a 26-yard draw run by Cierre Wood (more on that below), Hughes toted the rock on four of the next five plays, barreling through the middle for 6 then 12 yards; around left end for 13, and finally back up the gut for the 5-yard score.
The 68 rushing yards was Hughes' season high. His 11 rushes more than doubling his season total of carries when a game was decided by fewer than 20 points.
Answering the bellAfter an outstanding final 10 minutes of the first half in which freshman signal-caller Tommy Rees hit on 11 of 15 throws for 97 yards and two scores, the first-year triggerman began to show his age and perceived limitations…in spades.
Two costly interceptions and a fumble in his own end led to all 13 of the Trojans second half points. Rees looked shell-shocked for the better part of the second stanza, that is until he was called upon to aid the Irish in their game-winning, streak-snapping drive near the 6-minute mark.
Rees fired an 11-yard strike to Floyd on a designed roll left (not the easiest pass for a right handed QB to the far sideline). He hit on his only other pass, a sideline audible to Floyd for four yards to set up Hughes' winning score. Two passes, one essential to kick start the drive.
Rees may not start next season for Notre Dame. He has limited arm strength at this stage; limited mobility; stares down his intended receiver and throws more interceptions as a result of all of the above than should any BCS-level QB. He's also 3-0 as a starter and the QB that broke Notre Dame's four-season streak of futility vs. ranked teams; its two-season losing streak on Senior Day; and its 8-season streak of frustration vs. the Men of Troy.
Call him what you want, just make sure you include the numbers 3 and 0, and the word "gamer" in your final judgment.
Call(s) of the YearHe took his hits as a play-caller over the season's first two months, but Brian Kelly dialed up two beauties last night in Los Angeles: two well-time draws that gained a combined 54 yards and set up the team's final two touchdowns nearly 30 game minutes apart.
Leading 7-3 thanks to a lengthy touchdown drive on his previous possession, and the recipient of decent field position at his own 38-yard line with 44 seconds remaining, Kelly called for a delayed draw to tailback Cierre Wood. Wood had gained but 29 yards on his first eight carries of the contest; he exploded through a gaping hole for 28 more on his ninth, taking the ball into USC territory at the 34-yard line.
Four completions later (and one missed PAT later), Notre Dame held a 13-3 advantage, newfound offensive confidence, and serious momentum heading into the break.
The second opportune draw served as the longest gain on the game-winning march. After an 11-yard out to Floyd on a roll left, Rees took two steps to his right on the following snap before wrapping the ball into Wood's gut for a misdirection run back to the open left side. 26 yards (and one heart-stopping Tyler Eifert fumble recovery later), the Irish were in charge with 1st and 10 at the USC 40.
Wood's teammate Hughes handled the rest of the heavy lifting and the Irish left LA victorious for the first time since the turn of the century.
Two draws, both at the perfect time; and for the third time in as many weeks it seems the Midas play-calling Touch has once again found Notre Dame's first year coach after a two-month hiatus.