After eight torturous losses in a row at the hands of an archrival, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish finally found a way to defeat the Southern Cal Trojans last Saturday night in the LA Coliseum. In heart-stopping fashion the Irish pieced together a beautiful drive to reclaim the lead with under three minutes left in the fourth quarter and then held on for dear life, clinching the victory with an interception at their own goal line with under a minute to play.
There are numerous players and coaches who deserve praise and credit for the Fall of Troy, but we're going to narrow it down to the five that shone the brightest.
Let's get to it!
One Shining Moment: Smith intercepts a Mitch Mustain pass with 36 seconds left to play to ensure a Notre Dame victory.
The Irish defense stepped up in a big way to stymie the Trojans' numerous highly-touted offensive weapons and #22 Harrison Smith played a huge role in that success. Smith entered the season as one of the biggest question marks, saddled with the mental scars of a disastrous '09 campaign where he shuttled between two positions and all but shredded his confidence.
The fine game he played against Southern Cal shows just how far he's come from the ruins of last season.
On the very first play of the game he almost came up with an interception. The opportunity slipped through his fingers, but it set the tone for the entire evening. Smith anchored a secondary that allowed just one explosive play all game (a 34-yard throw to Robert Woods) and limited Southern Cal to just 177 yards through the air.
Fortunately for Irish fans, Harrison chose the right pass to drop and the right pass to secure as he made completely certain that he caught Mitch Mustain's pass to the endzone on the last Trojan drive. His interception set off raucous celebrations across Notre Dame Nation and finally locked down a victory over the Irish's hated rival.
One Shining Moment: Floyd catches a touchdown on 3rd and goal from the 1-yard line in the second quarter to cap a 16 play drive that gave Notre Dame its first lead against SC since 2005.
More than half of Tommy Rees' completed passes found the hands of Michael Floyd. When the final gun sounded he'd accumulated 11 receptions, 86 yards, and a key touchdown on third and goal. While his statline isn't as gaudy as some of the other spectacular performances he's put on over the course of career, what's lost in the numbers is just how vital every one of those yards were.
The Irish offense sputtered for most of the game, but on the few drives where ND started moving Michael Floyd played a prominent role. On the first touchdown drive, Floyd carried defenders and willed himself over the first down marker on two different occasions to convert third down plays. Floyd had five catches for 34 yards, 3 first downs, and a touchdown on that Irish possession alone.
When Southern Cal had taken the lead late in the fourth quarter #3 kickstarted the drive with an 11-yard completion on the first play, which accounted for Notre Dame's second first down of the entire half to that point.
Michael Floyd responded as a superstar and leader should when his team needs him: he picked them up and carried them not only with supreme talent, but sheer will power as well.
One Shining Moment: On back-to-back plays on SC's last drive in the second quarter Smith stuffs a 3rd and short in the backfield and then breaks up the pass on 4th down, halting the Trojans' drive and allowing ND an opportunity to extend its lead before the half.
Few players have been more maligned than Brian Smith over the course of the last four years. After starting his career with a boom, he sputtered over the next three and gained a reputation for producing more with his mouth than his play on the field.
On the biggest stage against Notre Dame's biggest rival he earned a bit of redemption. He played perhaps the most inspired ball of his entire career against the Trojans Saturday night. He did a great job dropping into pass coverage, provided toughness and support for a stout rush defense, and helped keep pressure on Southern Cal quarterback Mitch Mustain every time he dropped back to pass. Smith's leadership with his actions demonstrated just how far he'd come over the course of the year.
A key play that probably is long forgotten by many Irish fans at this point came on the final Trojan drive. Southern Cal ripped off back-to-back gains of 14 and 16 yards to drive deep into Irish territory. At the 23 yard-line a suddenly in rhythm and hot Mitch Mustain dropped back to pass and eyed the endzone. Brian Smith came storming in from the left side on a blitz and delivered a huge hit as Mustain released the ball. The pass was harmlessly broken up and Mustain's groove was interrupted.
On the very next play Harrison Smith intercepted the Trojans' last gasp attempt and the game was over. Brian Smith deserves all the credit in the world for greatly contributing to one of the best defensive performances in years, for the things that will be remembered (like the back-to-back plays in the second quarter), and the things that many will forget (the pressure he got on Mustain on the final drive).
Congratulations to the senior for stepping up in a huge situation and having his best game on the biggest stage.
One Shining Moment: Hughes bullies into the endzone for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:23 to play in the fourth quarter, barreling over Trojans in the process.
Here's another senior who came up with huge plays down the stretch to help secure an Irish victory. Like Brian Smith, Robert Hughes burst on to the scene as a freshman and seemed destined for great things after his strong efforts against Duke and Stanford ended the season on a strong note. Unfortunately things didn't go as planned as Hughes seemed to get caught between being a power back and a finesse runner.
There was no debating what style he adopted in the slop Saturday night.
Brian Kelly called Hughes' number five times on Notre Dame's go-ahead scoring drive late in the fourth quarter and the senior responded with bulldozing runs every time. On three consecutive plays he ripped off runs of 6, 12, and 13 yards while leaving scores of Trojans flattened in his wake.
When Notre Dame had just five yards left to paydirt Kelly went to his bellcow one last time. Hughes would not be denied; he carried two Trojans on his back and into the endzone for what proved to be the winning score.
Robert Hughes will leave Notre Dame as one of the most popular players in this graduating class. He overcame personal tragedy his freshman year, turmoil on the coaching staff, scores of heartbreaking losses, and weekly rises and falls on the depth chart. But through it all he he faced every bit of adversity with the class. He's proven to be a great leader and teammate and through it all made Notre Dame fans proud to call him one of their own.
It's only appropriate that the game ball for the final regular season contest would find its way into the hands of #33. Congratulations, Robert Hughes.
One Shining Moment: Ronald Johnson drops a sure touchdown after his defender had fallen down and he got behind the Irish secondary.
Some times it just takes a little luck to finally get over the hump and for the first time it what seemed like an eternity, Lady Luck seemed to be wearing Blue and Gold instead of the opposing team's colors. Over the course of the game there were multiple times where Trojan receivers bumbled catches that could've turned into huge, deflating third down conversions. As any Irish fan will attest, these good breaks have not been very common since Lou left town in 1996. Notre Dame Football seemed to be completely governed by Murphy's Law.
But there's no clearer evidence that Lady Luck finally was an Irish fan again than Ronald Johnson's drop. He took off on a post to the middle of the field and the Irish defender (Harrison Smith) slipped on the wet turf, allowing Johnson to run free for what appeared to be the back-breaking touchdown Notre Dame fans have become so accustomed to seeing. Mitch Mustain delivered a ball right on the money...and then a funny thing happened.
The ball hit the turf.
It was as if God had delivered a divine mandate that Notre Dame had experienced enough heartache and enough bad luck and their penance for whatever they'd done to tick him off was complete. Lady Luck reached out, tipped the ball out of Johnson's hands, and the Irish Faithful collectively exhaled.
Notre Dame Nation had been through a decade plus of bad breaks. From Jarious Jackson's freak injury against LSU in '98 to Ron Israel slipping and falling on the Michigan State logo in 2000 to Matt Leinart's perfect pass, a terrible spotting of the ball, and an illegal push in '05 to Duval Kamara slipping on the ultimate play of last year's contest. As Brian Kelly deadpanned in the post-game press conference, "It's about time we caught a break."
Make no mistake, this victory was not one based on luck. Notre Dame's defense completely dominated Southern Cal's offense the entire game and when the offense needed to it delivered a drive for the ages to emerge victorious. This was a victory the Fighting Irish earned through grit, determination, and execution.
But too many times over the last fifteen years Notre Dame performances that deserved victories didn't ultimately get rewarded with one (see: Nebraska in 2000, Southern Cal in 2005, etc.). Saturday night Lady Luck was finally in Notre Dame's corner again and on what should have been the dagger that devastated the Irish Faithful, she smiled and gave a little wink as that Mitch Mustain pass to Ronald Johnson fell incomplete.
A tip of the cap to you, my lady. It's good to have you back in the fold.