Defensive MVP: Stephon TuittMidway through the third quarter of Notre Dame's October 5 win over Arizona State in Arlington, Texas, the Irish defensive line began to comport itself in the manner to which its fans had become accustomed. Pressure came from the edges. It came on stunts, it came vs. double teams, it forced the opposing quarterback Taylor Kelly into errors.
Saturday night in South Bend, junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt picked up where he left off, sacking USC quarterback Cody Kessler twice (once on third down, once on fourth), notching two more official pressures, batting down a third-down pass in a three-man rush, earning a crucial third-down holding call to waylay a late Trojans drive, and -- at least for the better part of the second stanza -- wreaking havoc on the visitor's offensive backfield.
In addition to his big plays, Tuitt finished with seven tackles, three of which occurred at or within a yard of the line of scrimmage.
"He got the game ball, he was all over the place," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "They couldn't handle him today…he was a force out there today."
Defensive Game BallsFreshman linebacker Jaylon Smith earns his second in as many weeks, picking off a Cody Kessler pass intended for Nelson Agholor in the left (field-side) flat. Smith first pressed the line of scrimmage, then sank into his zone coverage responsibility, taking the ball from Agholor after baiting Kessler into the throw.
"He sets the edge of our defense which as you know is so important in the 3-4 defense," said Kelly. "He's athletic, great interception…He's bringing pressure. He's a pretty special player. Not a lt of guys like that in the country as a true freshman."
Smith finished with four tackles including one for loss while adding another for just a one-yard gain and later setting the edge allowing Dan Fox to fill for a stop at scrimmage.
"I've been developing my game, my football IQ," Smith said. "It's definitely been progressing."
-- Inside linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox combined for 13 tackles including one for lost yardage (Calabrese) and two more that limited the Trojans to one yard (both from Fox). Former walk-on Joe Schmidt made the play of the day for his inside 'backers unit, breaking up a third-down USC pass with a crushing hit on Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick to help thwart the Trojans final drive. Schmidt took over for injured classmate Jarrett Grace in the dime linebacker role, adding a diving stop from behind on third down two series prior.
"I trust in the scheme, in the coaching, and what they rely on you to do," said Schmidt, adding of his interception, "I got back in my zone, reading the quarterback's eyes. I saw that he was going to make a throw and broke, made a play. It was an amazing feeling."
-- Senior Louis Nix helped limit the Trojans rushing game to 14 yards on 12 second half carries, finishing with two passes defended, a tackle for loss, and two stops.
"We know we had some swag about ourselves last year," said Nix. "We're getting that back. Different team, different people. Different guys stepping to the plate and we're getting it back. I just do out there and do my job. No meltin' this chocolate. Just go out there and keep playing."
Offensive MVP: Tommy ReesWith the senior signal-caller, Notre Dame's offense gained 248 yards, including 148 through the air with two touchdowns on 12 Rees completions. Without him?
Notre Dame's offense didn't merely struggle in the second half, all but six snaps of which were played without Rees at the helm, it spontaneously combusted. Actually, had it been spontaneous, our eyes would have been spared the horror.
29 plays, 47 yards. Third-down conversions? 1 for 8. First downs gained? Two.
Rees provided Notre Dame all of its points, and all the points it needed in the game's first 30 minutes. The offense thereafter was comical.
"We've got to play better, flat out," said Kelly of the Irish offense directed by Andrew Hendrix. "You guys watched it, I watched it. He's got to play better and we'll see where we are in the next 24 to 48 hours when we get a full evaluation on Tommy."
Rees threw the 48th (Troy Niklas) and 49th (TJ Jones) touchdown passes of his career Saturday night. It was his 16th multi-touchdown game of his Irish career (Notre Dame improved to 11-5 in those contests).
Offensive Game BallsJunior Troy Niklas continues to make crucial plays, scoring a third-down touchdown on a smash-route grab on 3rd and 5 from the Trojans 7-yard line to knot the score at 7 late in the first quarter. Niklas has five touchdowns on the season, one short of the program record set by three-time All-American Ken MacAfee in 1977. Saturday was the tight end's third consecutive contest with a touchdown catch, a feat accomplished previously by Tyler Eifert in the 2011 season.
-- Senior T.J. Jones also secured a touchdown pass, his fourth of the season and in as many games. Jones aided the scoring drive, a 5-play, 91-yard march, drawing a pass interference call earlier. Jones has five touchdowns this season and has earned three pass interference penalties after failing to earn a flag during all of 2012.
-- Junior running back Cam McDaniel produced likely his best effort, finishing with a game-high 92 yards on a career-high 18 carries. McDaniel ripped off runs of 36 and 24 yards, the former highlighted by a brutal stop-and-start cut in space at he line of scrimmage that felled two Trojans defenders. He accounted for 60 yards on Notre Dame's aforementioned 91-yard scoring march.
McDaniel though fumbled on Notre Dame's penultimate drive, thereby giving USC possession at the Irish 33-yard line, trailing just 14-10 with 6:27 remaining.
Special Teams MVP: NoneNotre Dame allowed returns of 48, 16, and 34 yards, committed a procedure penalty, and suffered a shanked (30-yard) punt from its own 47-yard line late, giving USC possession at the 25-yard line with 1:35 remaining.
"We were undisciplined in punt coverage," said Kelly. "Out of our lanes, really trying to squeeze the football too hard and got the ball outside of us on a couple of occasions. We've got to do a better job there. Special teams really put our defense in some tough situations."
Numbers of Note
Notre Dame is now 27-3 during the Kelly era when it takes a lead into the halftime break…
- The Irish improved to 23-3 during the 46-game Kelly era when the game score stays below 45 combined points. The Irish are just 10-10 when it creeps over the threshold…
- Notre Dame has won 16 straight when rushing the football more than 30 times in a contest. They've lost three of four since the beginning of the 2012 season when failing to do so…
- Saturday night's win marked the first by the Irish over the Trojans in South Bend since the 2001 season…
- Stephon Tuitt's seven tackles tied his career best, set his freshman season, also vs. USC in South Bend. Tuitt registered the 18th and 19th sacks of his Irish career, moving him into a tie for sixth-place on the program's all-time list and within 5.5 of current New York Giants defensive end, Justin Tuck (at Notre Dame 2002-2004).