I took part in four Notre Dame-USC games in the ‘90s, winning two, tying one – back when you could still tie – and losing one in overtime in the last game of my career with the Irish.
Coming off the Navy game this year and heading into USC week, it was an interesting mix of emotions. With Navy, there’s great respect between the two institutions. You play them tough, you honor each other’s traditions and whatnot, and then you continue on with your seasons.
There’s a mutual hatred between Notre Dame and USC. I don’t care if you’re winning by one point or you smash them, there’s nothing more satisfying than sending those boys on a long flight home after a loss.
USC came into this game with absolutely nothing to lose. They were a desperate team. You knew they were either going to rally around their interim head coach, Clay Helton, or they were going to wilt. They actually rallied and gave us a heckuva game.
We had a lot of trouble early on with Cody Kessler, who was in a good rhythm. We couldn’t touch the guy. We were getting pressure, but he would kind of slide around the pocket like Tom Brady does and create opportunities for his guys to have the time to get open.
The first half felt like a Big 12 game to me. It was up and down the field, big plays, these explosion plays. The big plays our defense gave up were very disheartening. Guys were a little out of position or trying to do too much and not taking care of their fundamental responsibilities, and I’m sure that’s something that Coach Kelly and Coach VanGorder are going to really harp on with this bye week.
The Notre Dame-USC game kind of reminded me of the Notre Dame-Virginia game from the second week of the season with the highs and lows in the different quarters. We jumped out to a big lead in the first quarter, looked like we were going to run away with it, and then we just disappeared on both sides of the ball for the second and third quarters. Then in the fourth quarter, we worked our magic again.
It’s going to be scary to see what we can do once we put four quarters of football together.
The Torii Hunter fumble was a big turning point. We got a field goal after that, but that’s when things really shifted. If we get into the end zone at that point and make it 28-10 early in the second quarter, USC might quit. Instead, we were actually very fortunate to be tied at halftime when Coach Kelly used the three timeouts on their kicker and it worked when he clanked one off the upright.
I was really impressed with the way our offense responded after going through the second and third quarters without doing much. When we were at Notre Dame, we had a pretty potent offense as well, but we did it a little differently. We would run for 250-270 yards – we were always in the top 10 in the nation in rushing – and then we would throw for 180, 200 yards a game, whatever it needed to be.
One of the odd things about the Notre Dame-USC game was the time of possession battle. USC hadn’t won time of possession in any of their first five games. We had something like 2:45 of possession in the first quarter and we were up 21-10. The second quarter we had like 10 minutes of possession but were out-played.
Football is a complementary game. If the defense is down a little bit, the offense needs to pick it up. Where we got a real big spark was on special teams with the blocked punt for the touchdown. Then at the end of the game, I thought Tyler Newsome’s punt downed at the one was enormous because it really sapped the life out of USC down 10, knowing they had to drive the entire length of the field and score just to pull to within one score.
When you get that defensive or special teams touchdown, that really livens everything up, and then Coach Kelly used great creativity by keeping DeShone Kizer on the field on a couple of fourth downs and pooch punting, which didn’t allow Adoree’ Jackson to go back as a punt returner. It was nice to give them a very long field because they have such great weapons offensively.
When you give up 590 yards, you expect to give up more than 31 points, so that’s somewhat of a positive coming out of a negative. That was a little disheartening at times, but after USC’s opening drive of the third quarter, they didn’t score again.
As for Kizer, let me go back to the Clemson game. He set his feet and was ready to get rid of it against Clemson. He seemed more locked in to the rhythm of the game. Some of those sacks by USC were on him. He was patting the ball and looked a little uneasy for a while. Then he got back into the flow of things.
When it came down to it at the end of the game when it really mattered, he pulled it together. I was a little surprised after the 75-yard touchdown to Will Fuller that we didn’t even look his way for quite a while. Maybe that was schematics from the way USC was playing him, but we really didn’t take off again until we got Fuller involved with those two pass interference calls late in the third quarter.
Once we got those two pass interference calls, Fuller was involved going into the fourth quarter, and that’s when you saw what that did for our offense.
I really like this offensive line. You know, when Tarean Folston went down with the injury, everyone said, ‘There goes the running game.’ And when Malik Zaire went down, everybody was terrified. ‘Oh, gosh, there goes our season!’
I just didn’t feel that way because we’ve got what could very well be the best offensive line in the country and Harry Hiestand definitely is one of the top offensive line coaches in the country.
If you’ve got guys up front that are mauling, you can put any running back in there. If you’ve got guys that can pass protect, all these quarterbacks throw the ball seven-on-seven. It’s getting pressured and the decisions they make when they’re getting pressured that differentiates the top guys and the guys who are going to make plays from the other guys.
So because of that offensive line, I wasn’t worried about our offense because that’s where it all starts.
Now with this bye week, those are so key, not only just to get a physical break, but to get a mental break from the week-in, week-out grind. Everybody gives Notre Dame its best. It’s a special place to play. Everybody is fired up to play Notre Dame. Everybody is fired up to knock you off.
So it’s good to get that mental break. They’ll get to go home. They’ll get a couple days off. Some of these guys for the first time in a long while will be getting a real break from the grind. It’s a real good way to recharge everything and then come back out ready to roll.
The great thing for them is it’s fall break as well. During my time at Notre Dame, we never had a bye week coincide with fall break, so that’s a huge thing for those guys.
Now that the USC hurdle is cleared, Notre Dame has a great opportunity. I know going into this weekend, Temple is undefeated and they have to go to East Carolina. But regardless what happens there, Notre Dame coming to Philadelphia to play Temple is one of the biggest games in school history.
I don’t know how good Temple is. They beat a pretty poor Central Florida team this past weekend, but they beat Penn State and won at Cincinnati to open the season. That really could be a stumbling block for Notre Dame. But the bye week gives them a chance to clear their heads, get away, and then come back next week with guys a little healthier. We should be in pretty good shape.
There are some so-called trap games coming up. They’re games in which we’re going to be significantly favored. We’ve just got to go out and take care of business. We need Stanford to keep winning, and then that can be the game at the end of the year with a chance to get to the final four, assuming that both teams can run the table.
We needed to get to this point of the season no worse than 6-1. Here we are.