For the first 30 minutes of Saturday night's game, the USC Trojans and Notre Dame Fighting Irish were seemingly on their way to a surprising shootout. In the final 30, Notre Dame's defense proved why it still deserves to be mentioned among the nation's best.
The Irish held USC scoreless in the second half and survived an injury to quarterback Tommy Rees, as they moved to 5-2 with a 14-10 victory over the Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame held the Trojans on multiple fourth-quarter comeback attempts, including a close call to ice the game. USC quarterback Cody Kessler completed two passes to Nelson Agholor totaling 39 yards to bring the ball all the way to the Irish 36-yard line before Notre Dame held tough to close it out.
It was the third time in the fourth quarter USC had the ball in Irish territory—each trip ending without points. That allowed Notre Dame to keep a lead it had built long before Rees left the ballgame.
Rees went down with a possible concussion on the Irish's second drive of the third quarter. The Notre Dame quarterback attempted to evade an oncoming rush from 'SC linebacker Lamar Dawson, who pulled Rees down, slamming his head and neck area to the turf.
Though the school hasn't yet confirmed a concussion diagnosis, Rees' night was over.
Before leaving with the injury, however, Rees led a series of drives in the first half responsible for the Irish victory. He connected with Troy Niklas from seven yards out to knot the game at 7-7, answering a Trojans touchdown by running back Silas Redd on their opening drive. Notre Dame had driven down the field on its first drive to start the game, but Cam McDaniel was stopped on the goal line.
USC took the lead again in the second quarter on a Andre Heidari field goal following a long punt return from Nelson Agholor, but it was short lived. Rees took the ball with 2:42 remaining in the second quarter, got two long runs from McDaniel and capped off the drive with a 11-yard touchdown pass to TJ Jones.
Rees left the game having completed 14 of 21 passes for 166 yards and those two touchdowns. Although Rees often faces scorn in South Bend for his inconsistency, the Irish faithful finally caught a glimpse of what happens when he's gone.
It wasn't pretty.
Backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix took over after Rees went down, and the Notre Dame offense instantly ground to a halt. The senior signal-caller led the Irish on a succession of short, mistake-filled drives that gave USC multiple opportunities. He failed to complete each of his four passes and ran the ball six times for five yards.
McDaniel also struggled to make headway after a promising start. He had 18 carries for 92 yards, but more than half of those yards came on that second-quarter scoring drive and he later fumbled to give USC one of its many chances.
But the Trojans' own offensive struggles left them unable to take advantage.
Kessler and the USC offense took over possession three times inside Notre Dame territory and another time from its own 48-yard line and failed to produce any points. Struggling with an inaccurate Kessler and a rejuvenated Irish pass rush, USC's offensive attack had four or fewer plays in three of those possessions. Stephon Tuitt twice brought Kessler down on sacks, including once on a 4th-and-20 from the Irish 31.
Kessler finished completing 20 of 34 passes for 201 yards and an interception. The Trojans went just 2-of-13 on third-down conversions.
Even when Kessler made a big play or created some momentum, the Trojans offensive line would come up with a penalty to negate the outcome. Running back Silas Redd was often the only bright spot for the Trojans, as he carried the ball 19 times for 112 yards and a touchdown.
USC wide receiver Marqise Lee also aggravated his left knee injury in the first half and did not return.
The win likely keeps the Irish's thin hopes of a BCS bowl berth alive. Notre Dame was just on the outside of the Associated Press Top 25 heading into this week and will likely return to the rankings with multiple high-profile teams falling this week.
The Trojans, meanwhile, are left to pick themselves up again after a difficult loss. Interim head coach Ed Orgeron led USC to a surprising victory over Arizona in his first game after taking over for Lane Kiffin, but he found out Saturday just how hard it can be to compete with this injury-depleted roster.
Cody Kessler (QB, USC): D
Remember the Cody Kessler who looked like a completely different quarterback against Arizona last week? Well, the Lane Kiffin version reappeared on Saturday.
Kessler looked perhaps the worst he has since the Trojans loss to Washington State. He consistently failed to make plays down the field, checking down even when situations called for risks. And then he even struggled to complete his short throws.
The rain probably played a factor, and having Lee still rendered ineffective by his knee injury definitely didn't help matters. But, then again, neither did Kessler's inaccuracy and questionable decision-making.
Tommy Rees (QB, Notre Dame): B+
The phrase "you don't know what you have 'til it's gone" became a cliche for a reason. Because it's true. It's a rule of life that Notre Dame fans learned the hard way when Rees left with injury.
Hendrix, four years into his collegiate career, looked like an overmatched freshman by comparison. While much of the criticism of Rees is rooted in truth, the senior signal-caller was on his way to perhaps his best game of the season. He and McDaniel were making consistent headway against the Trojans defense and could have opened the game up in the fourth quarter.
Instead, USC was able load up the box against the run after Rees left and give itself multiple opportunities to pull ahead.
Life with Tommy Rees might not be the easiest thing in the world, but Irish fans should likely hesitate before disparaging their quarterback again.
Silas Redd (RB, USC): A
The Trojans might be inconsistent throwing the ball, but they quietly have one of the best ground games in college football. With Tre Madden sitting out with injury, Redd took over the primary ball-carrying duties, and the offense didn't miss a beat.
Expected to be the starter heading into the preseason, Redd looked quick on his feet and ran with a purpose. Notre Dame's front seven isn't as vaunted as in 2012, but scampering for a triple-digit yardage total against Stephon Tuitt and Co. isn't exactly easy.
The potential has always been present with Redd. He was a standout during his two seasons in Happy Valley before transferring to USC, but injuries have marred his time with his second school. Now that he looks close to 100 percent, it will be interesting to see how Orgeron divvies up the carries.
Redd definitely earned himself at least a share on Saturday.
Cam McDaniel (RB, Notre Dame): B
It took awhile, but it seems the Irish have finally found their lead back. McDaniel has emerged in each of the past two games as Brian Kelly's top option, burrowing his way into the line and running tough even when the holes aren't there.
The Irish did a nice job of springing him a couple times, particularly on that 36-yard scamper in the first half. McDaniel also made things infinitely easier on Rees. The senior signal-caller is often at his most effective on play-action throws, which rarely worked on opposing defenses early in the season because of the struggles the Irish were having on the ground.
We've probably reached a point where George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle should be change-of-pace backs only. Just as long as McDaniel holds onto the ball, of course.
Notre Dame starts off its back-to-back games against military academies next week when it takes on Air Force. The Falcons have not won a game against an FBS opponent this season. USC heads back to Los Angeles next week to host a Utah team that posted a big upset win over Stanford last week.
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