Saturday, November 27, 2010
Notre Dame finally gets past USC
By Brian Bennett
Eight long years of suffering are over.
Notre Dame finally beat arch rival USC, 20-16 at the Coliseum on Saturday night, and suddenly Brian Kelly's first year is looking much, much better.
Kelly came to South Bend promising to instill toughness and to make his team better in November than in September. Both those qualities were on full display Saturday night.
Notre Dame is now 3-0 with Tommy Rees as the starting quarterback.
The Irish gave away its 13-3 halftime lead thanks to three second-half turnovers. But when they needed a big drive in the fourth quarter, they came up with one, going 76 yards to score the go-ahead touchdown. And they did it, shockingly, by turning to the power run game. Big back Robert Hughes carried four times for 36 yards on the drive, including the final 5 for the touchdown.
When was the last time you saw Notre Dame grind it out on the ground to win a big game on the road? When was the last time you saw Notre Dame's defense play like this?
The Irish's streak of more than 13 quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown ended in the third period, but you could hardly blame the defense after USC forced a turnover to take over at the Notre Dame 2. Even then, the Trojans needed four plays to get into the end zone, barely, on a quarterback sneak. The defense held USC to just 261 yards, and while this is not a vintage, Reggie Bush/Matt Leinart squad, that's still impressive, especially on the road.
And for once Notre Dame got a huge break late, as Ronald Johnson dropped a sure touchdown pass in the final two minutes after safety Harrison Smith fell down in coverage. The heavy rain played a factor on that play, but it still was the kind of fortune that the Irish never seemed to get in this series in the past decade. Smith came back to intercept Mitch Mustain's final pass attempt to seal the victory.
Freshman quarterback Tommy Rees wasn't great. He threw three interceptions and fumbled after being sacked to set up USC's lone touchdown. But the kid just wins. He's 3-0 as the starter.
That 3-0 record is also how Notre Dame finished in November, completing an unlikely turnaround after the Navy and Tulsa losses and the Declan Sullivan tragedy. People were ready to give up on Kelly at the end of October, but now his team takes a ton of momentum going into bowl season despite a pedestrian 7-5 record. Kelly showed why he was hired in the first place in getting these players to believe, having them conditioned and ready to perform late in the season and -- most remarkably -- getting it done despite the slew of injuries to important starters.
The win opens back up the possibility of a bid to the Champs Sports Bowl, which will have to decide if it wants a hot Irish team or an unranked Big East squad. If not Orlando, Notre Dame should have good opportunities to take a Pac-10 slot now that Stanford appears to be a lock for a BCS bid.
Kelly built up a lot of goodwill simply by beating USC again. The tenor around the program has changed in just one month. A 7-5 record isn't usually much cause for jubilation at Notre Dame, but this may be the rare exception.