ND’s mettle passes stress test

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Survival is sweet.

It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t statistically pleasing to anyone. It hardly answered any long-standing questions there might be about this Notre Dame football team.

But the 14-10 Irish victory over Southern Cal Saturday night was a test of mettle.

Notre Dame held up to the stress.

Even though a lot of the second half was played in Notre Dame territory, the Irish wouldn’t budge.

“Crazy Train” played over the loudspeaker five times in the last 3 minutes, an unofficial Notre Dame Stadium record.

And it worked.

With the game on the line and the Trojans driving late in the fourth quarter, two holding penalties, a false start and a bull rush from Stephon Tuitt that evolved into a drive-killing sack of USC quarterback Cody Kessler ended the doubt.

Boy, was there doubt.

Offenses took center stage in the first quarter. The rest of the way frustration filtered onto both sidelines.

OK all you Tommy Rees haters, you got what you’ve asked for over the last six weeks.

The Notre Dame football team’s much-maligned quarterback spent a chunk of the second half in the locker room Saturday night. A whack to the head ended his night.

Too slow. Prone to bad decisions. A penchant for turnovers. The criticisms were harsh and often personal.

But with Rees went the Irish offensive confidence.

His replacement, Andrew Hendrix, struggled making anything happen. Hendrix’s crowning moment of frustration came when a rain-slick football slipped out of his hand before his arm came forward deep in Irish territory — with a wide-open Troy Niklas helplessly loping downfield. Cam McDaniel pounced on the fumble.

Rees took a legal monster hit from Southern Cal linebacker Lamar Dawson with 9:16 to play in the third period. The upper body smack was high, but more shoulder pads than helmet were impacted on the first sack yielded by the Irish line. After being on the ground for a while, Rees walked off the field but was taken to the locker room with an apparent head/neck issue.

Notre Dame’s defense did its part.

Midway through the second quarter, Southern Cal freshman speedster Nelson Agholor had a 48-yard punt return that gave the Trojans possession on the Irish 25. The Notre Dame defense stiffened and USC settled for a field goal.

In the third quarter, USC had just 32 net yards on 13 plays. Included in that, carried over from the second quarter, were nine straight missed third-down conversions.

The first 27 minutes of the game were defined by one play — Notre Dame’s fourth-and-goal malfunction from the Southern Cal 1-yard line.

The final 2:42 of the first period belonged to McDaniel.

Ironically, it was McDaniel who had trouble putting a period on the first Irish possession of the first half. So, he applied the exclamation point on a late one.

Tempo and efficiency marked Notre Dame’s opening march of the game. Rees to TJ Jones for 26. Rees to DaVaris Daniels for 23.

First-and-goal from the 8. Bring on the battering ram. McDaniel for three. McDaniel for three. McDaniel for one. Fourth down.

Remember, this was the same guy who tried the gauntlet from the wrong direction in training camp. He bounced off the Trojan defensive wall just like that. Three-yard loss. A wasted opportunity.

Creativity on second- and third-down calls may have lacked a bit.

Southern Cal returned the favor: 96 yards, 7-0.

No big deal. Plenty of time.

The USC defense was vulnerable, but mostly against the pass. Rees threw for 148 yards and two touchdowns (12 of 18) in the first 30 minutes.

But the two-minute drill was the best.

McDaniel, seemingly programmed for three yards and a collision, was out of his element in the open field. He had runs of 24 and 36 yards with the clock winding down — giving the Irish a respectable 100 rushing yards in the half — and set the table for Jones to make a nifty touchdown catch near the sidelines.

574-235-6318

ALesar@SBTinfo.com

Notre Dame players take the field for the college football game between Notre Dame and USC on Saturday, October 19, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN