Oct. 18, 2015
By John Heisler
The usual crowd of 80,795 fans in Notre Dame Stadium may have thought it was watching a mere football game on a chilly yet still comfortable Saturday night.
In reality this began more like some sort of wild, superhero pinball game where plays kept happening, seemingly every five minutes or so, that made rooters for both sides look at their neighbors, open their eyes wide and say, "Wow."
Thwack! DeShone Kizer found a streaking Will Fuller for 75 yards and a score on Notre Dame's first play from scrimmage. In fact, Kizer was so "on" early that he completed his first eight passes for 143 yards before throwing his first incompletion. Irish coach Brian Kelly called his game-night demeanor "north of confident and south of cocky."
Wham! His team leading 10-7, Notre Dame's C.J. Prosise appeared early to be running in a different (yes, faster) gear. On first down he zipped for 31 yards and four plays later went for 25 more for a score. It was 14-7 Irish.
Kapow! Notre Dame's entire defense seemed to engulf the USC protection to the tune of a punt block by California freshman Equanimeous St. Brown and a scoop-and-score by Amir Carlisle (another Californian and former Trojan).
Bam! On the first play after the Irish kicked a field goal for a 24-10 lead, USC quarterback Cody Kessler flipped the ball left to Jalen Greene who found a wide-open JuJu Smith-Schuster for 75 yards and a touchdown.
Zowie! On the second play after an Irish punt Kessler located Adoree Jackson for 83 yards and the tying score with a little more than three minutes left in the second period.
And all of that was just in the first half! Maybe fittingly, in some bizarre way, the Trojans--once down 24-10--had a chance to take the lead in the last minute of that half, only to have Alex Wood's makeable 36-yard field-goal attempt bang emphatically off the left upright.
The two teams had played to a 24-24 first half standoff--and it could not have been more entertaining (at least for the fans). The first period marked the most points (21) Notre Dame had scored in a single period versus USC.
The conversation in the Irish locker room may have been another matter. Notre Dame had to feel as if it could have/should have been up 35-10. Torii Hunter Jr skirted the USC sideline near the goal line after a second-period reception, only to have the ball come loose and the Trojans recover in the end zone. On the next possession, a 26-yard Josh Adams run set up the Irish at the USC three--only to have a holding penalty and a couple of incompletions force Kelly's crew to settle for a field goal. Notre Dame had to hope those missed opportunities didn't come back to haunt the Irish on a night when it seemed like it might take 60 points to win.
By halftime the Trojans already had thrown for 310 yards --199 of them in the second period. Yet there was no panic for Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
"We played a little more base defense (after the half)," said VanGorder. "They scored on a gadget play, and we almost had a TFL (tackle for loss) on the one long run. We mixed it up a little more on third down.
"The most important thing is that it was zero-zero again. We had to tackle better."
Veteran linebacker Joe Schmidt had his own assessment: "No one was yelling. We gave up some big plays, and we had to address those and clean it up. In the second half we settled in and played them straight up. Other than that early 65-yard run (by Ronald Jones) we executed and it turned out pretty well. We felt good about it."
The Irish benefited from a couple of interceptions in the second half--in particular an amazing pick by KeiVarae Russell against Smith-Schuster (he tried a stop and go route) that could make anybody's highlight reel. That play came with eight minutes left in the game, and the Irish protecting a 38-31 advantage.
Notre Dame played basic offensive football after the break, mixing its play calls to perfection.
Said Prosise, "We just executed the offense. We had those two long drives (consecutive 90- and 91-yard marches that produced TDs), we had some big plays and we controlled the line of scrimmage."
Prosise forgot to mention he contributed 83 second-half rushing yards himself. He ended with 143 for his fifth 100-yard effort in 2015--and Fuller enjoyed his fourth receiving game of 100 yards or more this fall.
"They won the game when it was time." That was USC coach Clay Helton's closing line to the media.
Many coaches, including Kelly, like to talk about "chunk plays." Staffs may have different yardage requirements, but the official Irish online stat forms consider them runs of 10 or more yards and pass completions of 15 or more yards.
USC had four rushes in that category (most notably Jones' 65-yarder that helped catapult the visitors into a 31-24 lead early in the third period)--to go with nine pass plays (only three in the second half).
Notre Dame responded with nine running "chunks"--five by Prosise--and four passing plays.
Two gargantuan aerial plays after the break for the home team became a 35-yard toss from Torii Hunter Jr. to freshman tight end Alize Jones (that set up the go-ahead TD pass to Corey Robinson) and a work-of-art Kizer-to-Fuller 45-yard first-down connection to -prompt Justin Yoon's second field goal and Notre Dame's final points.
Maybe most demoralizing for USC in the third period proved successive Trojan pass interference penalties while attempting to defend Fuller. Those 30 yards in penalties led to Notre Dame's tying score.
Said Kelly: "When you have a back like C.J. Prosise, now you have to put another guy down to defend against the run. You're going to get one-on-one coverage with Will Fuller and, in my estimation, there's nobody that can cover him in the country one on one."
A week ago, from a 24-21 first half, Notre Dame held Navy to three second-half points. Last night, from a 24-24 first half, the Irish limited the Trojans to seven second-half points and held them scoreless the final 25 minutes.
USC has its share of players with world-class speed, and give the Trojans credit early for getting the ball to those guys in space and turning them loose (Kelly's assessment: "They make you pay in a big way if you don't take them down"). Yet the Irish managed to hold the visitors in check when it counted down the stretch.
How much do statistics mean? The Irish gave up 440 passing yards and won, actually convincingly. Notre Dame hadn't given up 400 or more via the air in 10 years (since a 2005 game at Washington).
As the Irish players rolled into their locker room after the game, VanGorder smiled, hugged and high-fived nearly everyone, as satisfied as if his guys had pitched a shutout.
"Way to go, way to go, way to go," he yelled.
Offered Kelly to his players:
"Let's get to the theme. Mental toughness. You were up 24-10 and then it's 24-24. You were down 31-24, and most teams don't have the mental toughness to come back from that. You had two long drives, two interceptions. That's mental toughness. You just did it. You answered every question mark with an exclamation."
He presented the game ball to a shirtless St. Brown (call him EQ):
Kelly continued, "We've only got one more home game left, so cherish every moment in this locker room. What are we gonna do now? We've got to be road warriors the last half of the season."
Notre Dame honored its latest Pro Football Hall of Famers, Jerome Bettis and Tim Brown, before the game.
So maybe it was fitting the first half was comprised mostly of the sort of chunk plays Brown used to rip off regularly.
Then the second half became a bit more of the dominant ground attack Bettis used to love (though, amazingly, the Irish ran for exactly 107 yards in each half).
Surely the current Irish made their all-stars proud.
Thwack. Wham. Kapow.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.
Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled "Sunday Brunch," along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning "Strong of Heart" series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler: