Brian Kelly's 'someday' team arrives as Notre Dame bullies USC, 49-14
SOUTH BEND — In between spates of defiance, Brian Kelly embraced humility long enough, in his postgame postmortem, to blurt out what he wanted his Notre Dame football team to look like someday.
It just happened to be in the winning locker room that September afternoon in 2010 — a physical, fearless Stanford team that bullied Kelly’s finesse-heavy Irish, 37-14, handing the Irish head coach a third loss in his fourth game as Charlie Weis’ successor.
Saturday night, Kelly’s “someday” team finally arrived. Belatedly, perhaps, but definitely in spades.
Perhaps more impressive than the shockingly lopsided margin in the 49-14 bludgeoning Kelly’s 13th-ranked Irish (6-1) delivered to the highest-ranked team to visit Notre Dame Stadium in his eight seasons as head coach, 11th-ranked USC, was how ND went about it.
It started with the Irish offensive line being the most dominant position group on the field, the ND defensive line being the most surprising position group on the field, and junior Josh Adams running himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation.
All with a large dose of physicality in everything they did.
“They won the battle in the trenches tonight,” USC coach Clay Helton understated.
What it looked like numerically was a 377-76 command in rushing yards for the nation’s fifth-ranked running team, almost 70 yards above average on the offensive side of that equation. ND’s defensive front did its part with five sacks, four of them coming from the defensive line.
ND’s defensive line garnered three sacks all of last season and the two players responsible for those three are no longer on the roster.
Overall USC (6-2) churned out 336 total yards, nine away from the fewest in USC quarterback Sam Darnold’s 18 career starts. And the Irish forced the nation’s fourth-most turnover-prone team into three more Saturday night — converting each of the three into touchdowns.
“I challenged our football team,” said Kelly, now 9-1 at Notre Dame and 20-2 in his career in post-bye week games. “I said, ‘Look, we're going to stick with our process. Our preparation has been great. But this game will be won by who's more physical.’
“I think when you run for 370-something yards and you hold them to 70-(something), I think we know who the more physical football team was.”
No. 16 North Carolina State (6-1), idle Saturday and next up in the Irish second-half schedule gauntlet, will test the sustainability of ND’s offensive evolution with the last top 40 rushing defense the Irish will see this season (seventh nationally coming into this past weekend’s action).
Kelly is determined to make sure his team’s mindset matches its burgeoning muscle.
“We won the shillelagh back,” Kelly said of the trophy awarded to the winner of the rivalry game. “That's an important thing. We like trophies. And so that's an important thing for our guys.
“But I will say this, that we talked about it as a staff. We want to be unique. So unique means that this is not the crown jewel for us, if you will.
“We want more. This was a great victory. We're excited about the win, beating a very good USC team. But our guys want to be unique. So there's more out there for them.”
For a program that too often has gotten stuck in its own rich-but-distant history during the post-Lou Holtz Era instead of making it, Saturday night showed convincing signs of this Irish squad being capable of the aspirations toward which Kelly is coaxing his team.
Two more pieces fell into place against USC — the best all-around performance of the season from first-year starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush — after missing the last game because of a foot injury — and a breakthrough finally from formerly exiled wide receiver Kevin Stepherson.
Wimbush passed for two TDs and ran for two scores, giving him 10 rushing TDs for the season. That ties DeShone Kizer’s school record by a QB with five regular-season games and a postseason game left to play.
His 106 yards on 14 carries pushed him to the 508 mark for the season. That’s the fifth-most ever for an Irish quarterback in a season and on pace to overtake Tony Rice (884 yards, 1989) as No. 1.
In the passing game, Wimbush was 9-of-19 for 120 yards with a 23-yard scoring strike to Stepherson and a 29-yarder to Equanimeous St. Brown.
“Still have to be way more effective when it comes to the passing game,” Wimbush said, “and I think that will come in these next couple of weeks here.”
Stepherson’s emergence would seem to increase the odds of that happening.
The sophomore was ND’s third-leading receiver last season and its most convincing deep threat. But he was on the back burner throughout the spring and August training camp, on the bench for disciplinary reasons for the first four games of the season, and shaking the rust (one catch for minus-3 yards) in the first two games since reinstatement.
Saturday night he had three catches for 58 yards and ran the ball twice for 24 yards.
“Proud of guys like Kevin Stepherson, who has been in Siberia mostly this season and comes out and really impacts the game,” Kelly said.
Actually there was a seemingly endless list of game-impacters, including linebacker Te’von Coney, whose role increased with the bye-week injury to time-share partner Greer Martini. Coney had a game-high 11 tackles and forced and recovered a Darnold fumble on USC’s first possession of the game.
The Irish have a staggering 94-10 advantage over their opponents in points off turnover this season.
There was reserve defensive end Khalid Kareem with two sacks, rover Drue Tranquill with a fumble recovery on special teams, and cornerback Nick Watkins with an interception.
The junior came up big in a big game with 191 yards on 19 carries and three touchdowns. Combined with Wimbush’s two rushing scores, the Irish now have a 28-1 command in rushing TDs over their opponents.
Adams’ 84-yard run late in the third quarter was his seventh run this season of 59 yards or more and pushed him past Jerome Heavens into sixth place on Notre Dame’s career rushing list.
With 967 yards this season and 2,745 for his career, Julius Jones is next up at No. 5 (3,018).
And the Irish offensive line is reveling every bit in shared ownership of those numbers.
“This is the best win by far in my five years here,” said a jubilant grad senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
Some notable postscripts. A USC team that had put up 93 points this season in the fourth quarter and outscored its opponents by 40 in that period got outscored 7-0 in the fourth quarter Saturday. The Irish defense is one of only three teams in the country — Penn State and Washington are the others — that has held every one of its opponents to 20 or fewer points.
Kelly improved his record at ND in games in which the Irish have won the turnover battle to 34-4 (.895) and in games when the Irish won the rushing battle to 49-7 (.875).
Why did it take eight years for Kelly to realize his vision? Perhaps the answer resides in the response to the team’s 4-8 meltdown last season.
“I just said, ‘The rebuild starts here right now,’ ” Kelly said of his post-USC-game speech in 2016, following a 45-27 season-ending loss. “ ‘I mean, everything that we need to do is a commitment that you'll all have to make.
“ ‘So you've got a couple of weeks, make a decision, whether you want to be back here, because it's going to be very difficult. You're going to have to make a 100 percent commitment to bringing this program back.’ And they did.
“Those guys that were there in that locker room decided that what was most important was to bring Notre Dame football back to the standards that it needs to be at.”