Notre Dame football: Tuitt, Irish front stop Trojans cold

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- There weren’t just ghosts this time. There were very real legends pacing the Notre Dame sidelines Saturday night.

The discerning eyes of roughly 60 members of the 1988 Irish national championship team, the modern standard of ND football, probably didn’t see a whole lot at Notre Dame Stadium that reminded them of their era … until adversity rained down on the Irish.

With starting quarterback Tommy Rees knocked out of the game – and maybe longer -- midway through the third quarter in what was shaping up as a breakthrough night for the senior, the Irish defense turned the 85th rendition of Notre Dame vs. USC into a retro party, showing throwback heart in a 14-10 grinder over the Trojans Saturday night.

It was ND’s third win in the past four years over its most bitter rival, but only the first victory over the Trojans at home since 2001. For just the 12th time in the series, the two teams met as unranked.

Sophomore cornerback KeiVarae Russell put the finishing touches on it for ND (5-2), jarring the ball loose from USC receiver Nelson Agholor on a fourth-and-8 play from the Irish 41-yard line with 54 seconds left. But it was resurgent junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt who drove the most dominant half of football since the Irish put up historic defensive numbers with regularity last season during their run to the BCS National Championship Game.

After allowing two third-down conversions during USC’s opening drive, a 96-yarder that culminated in a one-yard scoring plunge by Trojan running back Silas Redd, the Irish defense held USC to 0-for-12 on third down for the rest of the game. And Tuitt was in the middle of it all.

The 6-6, 322-pounder, who caused national ripples earlier in the week with his awkward way of pushing away speculation about his pro future, amassed a career-high seven tackles, tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage to truncate one drive and recorded the 18th and 19th sacks of his career, hopping over former All-American Bryant Young and into a tie for sixth place on the career sack list. He’s now 5.5 away from Justin Tuck’s ND career record.

“He got the game ball,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “He was all over the place. They couldn’t handle him today.”

As dominant as the defense was, the offense wilted once Rees was out of the game. Kelly called the injury a neck strain and said Rees was in a lot of pain.

“We’ll know a lot more in the next 24 to 48 hours,” Kelly said.

What he does know is if backup Andrew Hendrix is elevated to No. 1 status next week against defense-challenged Air Force, he is going to have to take quantum leaps forward.

The Irish generated only 27 yards in total offense – all of it on the ground -- once Hendrix entered the game for good at the 9:31 mark of the third quarter. The only first down converted during Hendrix’s time on the field was fumbled away by Cam McDaniel two plays later.

It was just the second lost fumble for the Irish this season, having come into the game tied for the nation’s fewest among the 123 FBS teams.

USC freshman safety Su’a Cravens scooped it and returned the ball to the Irish 34 with 6:27 left in the game, but USC (4-3) drew three of its 11 penalties during the ensuing possession, and Tuitt slammed the door on a fourth-down-and-20 play, sacking USC quarterback Cody Kessler.

“Pressure, a lot of pressure,” USC interim coach Ed Orgeron said of how ND slowed a Trojan offense that surged last week under the new regime but that lost star wide receiver Marqise Lee to injury in the first half.

The only other scholarship quarterback on the ND roster is freshman Malik Zaire, whom Kelly had finally decided to redshirt – unless there was an injury suffered by Rees or Hendrix.

“I don’t want to get into those hypotheticals at this point,” Kelly said.

What he can think about is that scouts for the Sugar and Fiesta bowls didn’t make a wasted trip. The Irish remain in play for a BCS berth at the end of the season, but realistically need to extend the current two-game winning streak to a season-ending seven.

The closest either team came to scoring in the second half was when with 9:25 left, USC kicker Adam Heidari’s 46-yard field goal fluttered woefully short. Heidari is now 2-of-7 from 30 yards and beyond this season.

An intermittently rain-soaked crowd and a gaggle of the nation’s top prospects on official and unofficial recruiting visits saw what looked to be shaping up as an offensive shootout in the game’s opening minutes.

Notre Dame came out in a retro uptempo mode, blasting down the field and into the red zone. Three runs from McDaniel, who made this first career start, had the Irish facing a fourth and goal from the one.

Kelly elected to go for it and for the fifth time in six tries this season, the Irish failed to convert on fourth down. Cravens, a distant relative of former Irish linebacker Manti Te’o, blew up the play in the backfield for a three-yard loss for McDaniel. He finished with 92 yards on 18 carries, both career-high numbers.

Silas Redd carried the ball six times on USC’s ensuing 13-play 96-yard scoring drive, including the one-yard scoring run and twice from the Wildcat formation for 27 yards.

It was just the fourth rushing TD the Irish defense had yielded this season. Redd finished with a game-high 112 yards on 19 carries, but only 21 of those came in the scoreless second half.

The Irish quickly answered with Rees capping a 77-yard drive with a seven-yard pass to tight end Troy Niklas to end the opening quarter. Rees during the drive passed Rick Mirer and moved into fifth place on ND’s career passing yardage list.

Heidari missed a 40-yard field goal, but came back later in the second quarter with a 22-yarder to give the Trojans a 10-7 lead with 7:50 left in the first half.

The Irish surged ahead 14-10 on an 11-yard pass to TJ Jones 1:13 before halftime, set up by two long runs by McDaniel of 24 and 36 yards in the 91-yard drive.

The 36-yard run was the longest of McDaniel’s career. For Jones it was the fourth straight game in which he registered at least one touchdown reception.

The third quarter was a punt fest with no Rees. While the Irish struggled on offense, the defense tightened – allowing USC 32 yards in the quarter – the fewest yielded in a quarter to any opponent this season.

Even though Rees couldn’t provide an offensive complement, he did provide some inspiration.

“It was a passionate speech,” Irish receiver TJ Jones said, “one of the more passionate things I’ve ever head Tommy say. It was really, ‘Keep your head in the game and don’t give up.’ He had a lot of guys almost in tears.”

574-235-6112 EHansen@SBTinfo.com Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, left, sacks USC quarterback Cody Kessler (6) on fourth and 20 during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER