Notre Dame had already lost six starters this season.
On Saturday night the Irish lost a Next Man In when Alex Bars suffered a fractured left ankle in the first half against USC, ending his sophomore season after two starts. Quenton Nelson, sidelined much of the past two weeks with a high ankle sprain suffered at Clemson, replaced the guy who replaced him.
Nelson will remain in the lineup coming out of Notre Dame’s bye week despite playing in pain. He was still in a walking boot on Tuesday.
“Toughness. Just toughness,” said Brian Kelly. “He struggled during the week. He's still not 100 percent, but he went in there and didn't miss a beat. You know, that's the expectation here. You're going to have to play banged up.
“We're never going to put you in there if it's a compromising situation, but he was not 100 percent, but he knew his team needed him and he went in there and he came up big for us.”
Kelly said Notre Dame’s medical team will perform Bars’ surgery on Sunday afternoon. The Irish head coach compared the injury to the broken ankle suffered by Malik Zaire at Virginia last month.
Despite the shuffling and center Nick Martin playing through his own ankle sprain, Notre Dame’s offensive line turned in a stout performance against USC. The Trojans finished with four sacks, but Kelly put three of them on DeShone Kizer and the fourth on a miscommunication among Martin, Kizer and the running back.
Take out the sacks and Notre Dame’s ground game rolled to 30 carries, 236 yards and two touchdowns, both from C.J. Prosise. That’s an average rush of 7.9 yards. It’s the fifth 200-yard rushing performance this season, which matches last year’s total.
Much of that marching came on back-to-back 90-yard touchdown drives in the second half when Notre Dame’s ground game grabbed control of the game’s frenetic pace. Prosise carried eight times on those two series and scored on a twisting six-yard run.
The Irish had just one 90-yard touchdown drive all last season.
Of the 16 plays on those two possessions, 10 were runs. That meant Kizer needed to complete just 2-of-5 passes for 12 yards on those drives, which included the 10-yard touchdown to Corey Robinson. The Irish also got two pass interference calls drawn by Will Fuller and a trick play when Torii Hunter Jr. hit Alize’ Jones for a 35-yard gain.
“Most defenses would say that if you go 90 yards, good luck to you. You're probably going to make a mistake along the way,” Kelly said. “But I think the quarterback and the running game are the two reasons why those drives were effective.”