Notre Dame rises to the occasion in rocky win over USC

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — When the euphoria finally loses its effervescence and Brian Kelly peels back the layers of an emotional, fourth-quarter about-face, he’ll be confronted by a confusing big picture.

For now, the Notre Dame head coach and his 14th-ranked Irish glide into a bye week with an ever-improving offense, the chance to improve into a college football playoff contender and the sweet taste of his fourth victory over arch-rival USC in six tries, 41-31 on Saturday night.

And maybe, just maybe he and a sell-out crowd that included decorated pieces of Notre Dame’s past — including All-American Tim Brown, Jerome Bettis and Joe Theismann — might have started to see the glimpses of a defensive evolution he’s been hinting about all season.

And maybe not.

At the very least the defense rose to the occasion when it mattered.

The Irish limited the Trojans (3-3) to 87 benign yards in the fourth quarter after leaking for 503 in the first three periods, recorded their only two sacks of the game against a reordered offensive line and limited USC to zero third-down conversions in four tries.

And most emphatically, the Irish (6-1) coaxed two interceptions from Cody Kessler, USC’s all-time leader in passing-efficiency and fourth in the nation this season coming into Saturday, as ND outscored the Trojans 17-0 in the final period.

"I'm really proud of the way our football team persevered and found a way to make a couple of plays in the second half," Kelly said.

It marked just the eighth time in the 22 games the Irish, under Kelly, have trailed going into the fourth quarter that they’ve been able to win.

“Well, just your normal USC-Notre Dame football game, I guess,” Kelly quipped.

KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield came up with fourth-quarter picks for the Irish. Russell actually had a hand in both of them.

With 8:18 left in the game and the Irish leading 38-31, Kessler unloaded a long pass to USC’s leading receiver this season, JuJu Smith-Schuster. Russell, running stride for stride with him, leaped and plucked the ball on a perfect trajectory for Smith-Schuster’s hands for his first interception of the season.

The Irish cashed in that pick for a 32-yard Justin Yoon field goal and a 41-31 lead with 5:39 left. That put ND in the 40s for the first time against USC since the 1977 “Green Jersey” game, a 49-19 Irish rout of the Trojans.

Two plays later Kessler tried to force a pass into tight coverage. Russell broke up the pass that popped up into the air and Redfield came down with it, then ran 19 yards before getting tackled.

Redfield, from Mission Viejo, Calif., and a USC recruit for most of the 2013 cycle before flipping to the Irish, didn’t start the game. Instead Kelly opted for grad Matthias Farley, but Redfield finished. And he finished with four tackles and the interception.

Redfield’s interception swung the turnover battle in ND’s favor, 2-1. The Irish are 28-1 under Kelly in games in which they win the turnover battle. Kelly is 131-12 in his career when that happens.

“We don't make excuses,” said USC interim head coach Clay Helton, who took over for deposed second-year head coach Steve Sarkisian less than a week ago. “It's our job as coaches to find answers, and that's why they pay us.

“We have a talented football team that was very hungry to come prove something in this game. We just didn't get it done tonight. Did we have enough time? Yes, sir. Everybody else has the same amount of time in the country.”

Notre Dame’s offense came alive in the fourth as well after a couple of dormant quarters. Redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer led the Irish on 90- and 91-yard scoring drives after the Irish fell behind 31-24.

C.J. Prosise covered the final six yards for the tying TD, pretty much on his own, twisting, bulling, willing himself into the end zone for his second score of the game 40 seconds into the fourth quarter.

Prosise has 12 TDs for the season, 11 by rush. The converted wide receiver finished with 143 yards rushing on 19 carries, his fifth 100-yard rushing game, and added a team-leading five receptions for 32 yards.

The go-ahead TD came on a 10-yard pass from Kizer to Corey Robinson on third-and-8, his only catch of the game. The catch at the 9:06 mark was the junior’s eighth reception of the season after catching 40 in 2014. He had two games in 2014 when he had eight receptions — a win over Syracuse and a narrow loss to Florida State.

Kizer completed his first eight passes and finished 15-of-24 for 227 yards and two touchdowns.

That included a 75-yard strike to Will Fuller on ND’s first offensive play of the game, after the Irish had fallen behind 7-0.

“The one thing with Kizer that I really like is that you tell him one time and he gets it,” Kelly said. “He's going to come back the next time and he's not going to make the same mistake twice."

More offensive pyrotechnics and some special special teams play helped Notre Dame to its highest scoring quarter ever in the 87-game history of the series, 21-10.

Freshman wide receiver Equanimeous Brown, like Redfield a southern California product, blocked a USC punt and USC transfer Amir Carlisle scooped it up and carried it five yards into the end zone for ND’s third TD of the quarter.

It was Notre Dame’s first blocked punt for a touchdown since Robert Blanton did so against Utah in 2010.

Then the Irish hit a lull on both sides of the ball, especially on defense. And a shot at a special season seemed to be slipping away.

Included in the USC surge was the third trick play of the season to fool the Irish defense for a long gain. This time it was a 75-yard pass from wide receiver Jalen Greene to Smith-Schuster. Greene, a redshirt freshman, was converted from QB to wide receiver in fall camp.

The 590 yards ND yielded on defense for the game was a Kelly Era high, 13 more yards than the previous high set in the 49-14 dismantling USC handed an injury-ravaged ND defense last November.

“You know, we want to be better each and every week,” Kelly said. “But I think when you look at it, we are who we are.”

A four-yard pass from Kessler to Taylor McNamara at the 9:40 mark of the third quarter gave the Trojans the lead, 31-24, and sparked something in ND to flip the script in the fourth quarter.

“I really liked our temperament as a football team,” Kelly said. “They didn't show any kind of crack at all. They were confident. They believed that they were going to win.

“Even when we got down in the second half, fighting back and eventually going up by 10 points, that was, for me — I just never sensed that our football team didn't believe that they were going to win today.

“Those were big things for me to see from our team today. They turned some question marks into exclamation points relative to their mental toughness today." | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Max Redfield (10) gives a fist pump after intercepting a Cody Kessler (6) pass and returning it in the fourth quarter Saturday, October 17, 2015, during the USC-Notre Dame football game at Notre Dame Stadium. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ