Notre Dame secondary rebounds after sloppy half

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — KeiVarae Russell said it with disgust, like it was a dirty word, something to be whispered in back rooms and shady bars and censored on cable television.

Gimmicks.

Gimmicks, the senior cornerback said following Notre Dame’s 62-27 victory over UMass on Sept. 26, were to blame for several of the Irish pass defense’s most noticeable lapses — a 42-yard reverse pass touchdown against Virginia, and then another 56-yard gadget pass in the otherwise lopsided affair with the Minutemen.

Nearly a month later, gimmicks continued to erode the foundation of Notre Dame’s defense.

At least, that’s where it starts.

Midway through the second quarter of No. 14 Notre Dame’s 41-31 victory over USC on Saturday, redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler took a snap and passed laterally to freshman wide receiver Jalen Greene, who secured it and looked upfield.

What he saw was a teammate, a baffled Notre Dame defense and a sea of open turf.

Greene unleashed a low liner to electric sophomore JuJu Smith-Schuster, who caught it and raced untouched into the end zone for a 75-yard score, as cornerback Cole Luke trailed like an afterthought.

Just like that, USC narrowed a seemingly overwhelming deficit to 24-17.

“It’s just weird stuff that you don’t really plan for,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said of the gimmicks. “And if you do, you might talk about it a couple times during the week, but you’re not going to focus on a trick play or a gadget play. It’s just complicated in general, no matter what team you are.”

Gimmicks aside, the Trojans weren’t done.

On the very next drive, in fact, Kessler found wide receiver/cornerback/return man Adoree Jackson on a screen, and the do-everything sophomore did the rest, zigging and zagging 83 yards as a stunned crowd sunk further into their jackets and scarves. He hit the right corner of the end zone and abruptly hit the breaks, staring holes through the silent Notre Dame marching band.

All things considered, USC stacked up 310 passing yards in the first half alone, trouncing an Irish defense that entered the game allowing just 153.5 passing yards per game — albeit against two option offenses. The Trojans sprinted into the tunnel having climbed out of a significant hole, grasping onto a 24-24 tie inside a suddenly morose stadium.

But in the second half, Notre Dame’s secondary transcended the gimmicks.

“When it was crunch time, I thought they did a really good job to come up with those two turnovers at the end,” USC interim head coach Clay Helton said.

Specifically, Russell broke through with 8 minutes and 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, as the Irish clung onto a 38-31 lead, when Kessler lofted a prayer in the direction of his favorite receiver. Russell leaped and corralled the football with two hands over his shoulder, snatching it over a helpless Smith-Schuster, who crumpled injured to the turf.

It was Russell’s first interception since the 2013 season, and Notre Dame’s first of two interceptions in the game. Perhaps, because of the layoff between picks, the explosive 196-pound senior didn’t have a signature celebration prepared.

Instead, he scampered from the scene and tossed an imaginary bowling ball, knocking down pins a la Jaylon Smith.

"The first interception is always the hardest," Russell said. "After you've touched the ball, it builds a different kind of confidence. It's like, 'Whenever they throw, I want to go try to pick it off. I want to go try to make a play.

“I haven't had a pick in like two years. I forgot how it felt."

Russell had a hand — literally — in the second interception as well, breaking up a pass on USC’s ensuing drive that dropped into free safety Max Redfield’s waiting arms. The embattled junior, who was replaced by Matthias Farley in last weekend’s win over Navy before being benched in favor of Farley on Saturday, wasted little time in proving his worth.

In all, USC managed just 110 passing yards and seven points in the second half, as Notre Dame’s secondary lifted itself out of the perpetual mud.

Gone were the gimmicks.

In their place, the results.

Notre Dame’s KeiVarae Russell (6) celebrates an interception during the Notre Dame-Southern Cal football game on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN