Notre Dame's mental toughness shines through in win over USC

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — When Brian Kelly went looking for his quarterback at crunch time, he found DeShone Kizer in a really good place.

“North of confidence, south of cocky,” was Kelly’s evaluation.

In other words, a state of mental toughness.

Kizer used that attitude as his weapon against the “wall” he and the Notre Dame football team’s offense hit in an up and down 41-31 victory over Southern Cal Saturday night.

Kizer threw for 227 yards (15 of 24, 2 TDs) and ran for 47, but it was his clutch connection with Will Fuller late in the game that caught Kelly’s fancy.

Notre Dame had just gone up, 38-31. KeiVarae Russell outjumped Southern Cal receiver JuJu Smith on a long pass to give the Irish the ball on their own 33. This was the time for a clincher.

“(Kizer) told Will, ‘I’ll meet you in the end zone,’” Kelly said. “I knew he was a confident kid, but he carries it all the time and people on the football team respect him because of it.”

“There's just a swagger about our offense,” Kizer said. “It's something that we need. We've got to be able to be confident.

“We went into that Texas game, the first game of the year, and you could feel how confident we are in our game plan and in our ability. To be honest, it kind of slacked off here and there from game-to-game, but today I truly felt that we had that, and you could see it in the first quarter how successful we were with our game.

“You know, we hit a wall but we brought it right back and the fourth quarter is a testament to us having that same confidence, as well. Hopefully we can develop and carry that mind-set and those abilities over throughout a whole game, and once we get there, we'll be pretty well -- there's not going to be many defenses out there that can stop us.”

Hitting a wall can lead to a desperate situation. The Irish had a 24-10 lead evaporate to the point that they trailed, 31-24. That’s when Kizer flipped the switch back on.

“Each game brings a different set of challenges,” Kizer said. “This game was more of a -- it's not like they gave us anything too special. It was more of our own internal issues; that we were not completing our assignments.

“I'm not reading blocks right in my run game and stuff like that. When it's all internal, it's all about just finding that switch and turning it back on and getting yourself back into gamer mode. In other games, it's more about game plan situations where the defense gives you something that you don't necessarily know how to go about where this game it wasn't the case. It was more along the lines of ourselves, and once we were able to get over that wall, we got ourselves rolling.”

That’s where it comes down to the mental toughness.

“Our theme all week was the mental toughness that we had to exhibit today,” Kelly said. “That was the one question we had to answer. I didn’t see anything on the sidelines that resembled our guys not believing that they were going to come back.

“We turned a lot of question marks into exclamation points.”

“As a team,” Kizer said, “(Kelly) really preaches that on us and I believe with the seniors leading us the way they are and with our mind-set that we have in our preparation on a week-to-week basis, that toughness is exactly what the Irish team has.”

That mental toughness played a major role in the Irish recovery. In fact, it could even be called a time for redemption.

Receiver Corey Robinson was a forgotten man for the better part of this football season.

Irish corner KeiVarae Russell has taken his share of heat for underachievement after missing last year because of an academic issue.

Saturday night, both rekindled a sense of confidence that may have been missing when their critical plays paved the way for the stunning victory.

Man, they came up big-time.

Pretty soon, milk cartons were going to be printed.

Missing: Corey Robinson. Where’d he go? He hadn’t had a catch of any consequence all season. Until now. Six minutes into the fourth quarter. Game tied at 31. Third down at the USC 10. DeShone Kizer lofted one of those little fade passes toward the back of the end zone and, all of a sudden, the Irish were on top.

Cue Russell.

Dwarfed by unfulfilled expectations throughout this season, Russell finally backed up his incessant jabber on the field with production. He came up with a highlight-reel interception over USC standout JuJu Smith-Schuster to end what was a bid to tie the game.

Now, it’s going to get interesting. The whispers about Notre Dame finding a back door into the playoff picture will gain a little traction. After an off week, the next four opponents will be lopsided underdogs, with a season-deciding showdown at Stanford looming after Thanksgiving.

In spite of all the adversity Southern Cal has faced this week – losing head coach Steve Sarkisian to extenuating circumstances and digging a 24-10 hole after a little over a quarter – the Trojans just kept coming.

It didn’t turn to Notre Dame’s favor until early in the fourth quarter. Southern Cal dominated the second and the third.

But, it’s the finish that counts.

The Irish live to fight another day.

Irish tackling was poor. Southern Cal was fast. And there were plenty of problems to go around. Notre Dame’s most dominant 15-minute spurt of the season eroded into a sluggish effort to keep up with a team loaded with talent.

Who were those guys who only scored 12 points in a loss to Washington last week? “Team Turmoil” uses adversity like a slap in the face.

After catching a 75-yard TD pass just over 3 minutes into the game, Will Fuller disappeared. The Trojan defense decided it was time to shut Notre Dame’s top receiver down. Fuller wasn’t even targeted again until the 8:45 mark of the third quarter.

Before the third quarter ended, Fuller was targeted deep twice and both resulted in pass interference penalties.

When a defense has the talent and the capacity to do something like that, it’s impressive.

Pressure on Kessler was supposed to be a key to slowing the Southern Cal offense. Good luck with that. Even after losing their best offensive lineman, senior center Max Tuerk, the Trojans didn’t give up a sack until early in the fourth quarter.

Giving Kessler time is giving Kessler a license to kill.

And he took advantage of it – often.

What is it those wise football philosophers say about turnovers? They’re killers.

Notre Dame had a fumble at the goal line change the trajectory of its first half.

The Irish had a 21-10 lead and were en route to making it 28. On first and goal at the 10, Kizer hit Torii Hunter with a short pass that Hunter took around the left end of the defense. A TD was in sight. Hunter got hit at the 4 and the ball popped loose. It rolled into the end zone and was smothered by the Trojans.

Instead of a daunting 28-10 advantage, the momentum turned.

For the third time this season, Notre Dame’s defense was hoodwinked by a trick play. This one was a lateral from Kessler to receiver Jalen Greene. Greene, a former quarterback, set his feet and let a strike fly to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Without an Irish defender within five yards of him, Smith-Schuster sprinted untouched for a 75-yard touchdown.

The Irish finally had a little fun with the score tied at 31. They returned the favor early in the fourth quarter. Hunter, who moonlights as a baseball player at Notre Dame, and is the son of a Major League star, took a pitch from Kizer and wobbled a 35-yard pass to Alize’ Jones down the sidelines, giving Notre Dame a first down on the USC 12.

It seemed almost unfair that the Irish, who were so dominant offensively in the first quarter, could have gone into intermission trailing. A late-hit by Sheldon Day helped Southern Cal moved the ball to the Notre Dame 19. Fourth-and-two. Alex Wood was set for his 36-yard field-goal try from the right hash with 20 seconds left. Timeout by Brian Kelly. OK, now… ready? Timeout. Kelly wouldn’t do it again, would he? Yep. Talk about icing. With the temperature in the high 30s, it doesn’t take much.

Doink! Wood hit the left upright and the score was tied at the break.

Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer (14) stands with cheerleaders and teammates during the Alma Mater following the Notre Dame-Southern Cal football game on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN