Noie: Notre Dame does it with defense to dominate Southern California

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – No green jerseys were needed for any additional motivation in this one. Or late pushes into the end zone on a surface that seemingly hadn’t been mowed in months. Or big hits near the goal line that turned momentum from one team to the other.

In a contest between classic college football rivals, this one wasn’t. Almost from the opening kick. But that was by design. By the defense.

Needing to win a big game on a big stage in a big way, No. 13 Notre Dame delivered against Southern California, which came to town 6-1 and ranked No. 11, then departed for a red-eye flight back to Los Angeles after being handed a 49-14 beat-down at Notre Dame Stadium.

Any commotion heard late Saturday around a happy campus may well have been Irish fans scrambling to hop back aboard a bandwagon they scurried off six weeks earlier following the one-point loss to Georgia.

Same old Notre Dame many grumbled that late night/early morning.

Now? Maybe not.

And the head coach’s supposed hot seat, which some wondered may well have heated up again had this one turned out differently? Growing cooler with each passing week. And win.

Saturday was the first time the teams met as ranked opponents since 2009. Notre Dame (6-1) then ran its win streak to five following that loss to now No. 3 Georgia. That night at Notre Dame Stadium, the home team was pushed around in a one-point loss. The second night home game the year, they pushed back.

The Irish delivered because the defense did. In waves.

This week was supposed to be different for a Notre Dame defensive unit that hadn’t been tested in ways it was supposed to be tested Saturday.

By cerebral quarterback Sam Darnold, who picked apart opponents with his precision and passion.

By a talented group of receivers who would run far and deep and wide open against a secondary that was at best suspect at season’s end.

By an offense that was fast, was going to play faster and was going to put some severe stress on a defense that just might be back on their collective heels.

Brian Kelly talked earlier in the week about the back end of his defense – the secondary. They needed to be attentive to detail on the ball, and tough on tackles. They weren’t going to get much help.

They really never needed it. USC went 4-of-13 on third down and was limited to 76 rushing yards, a season low allowed by Notre Dame.

“We just got into some good leverage situations where you can’t get them all,” Kelly said of keeping USC swimming upstream on third downs. “We were prepared.”

Southern California’s longest play from scrimmage covered 34 yards.

Notre Dame’s first play on defense dictated that this was going to be different. Way different.

Darnold tried to scramble following a bobbled snap that nearly sailed over his head. He was swarmed by a host of Irish defenders. Making his first start of the season for an injured Greer Martini, linebacker Te'von Coney swooped in and smothered Darnold. In the process, he also stripped the quarterback of the ball.

Three plays later, the Irish were in a place they’d visit often the first 30 minutes — the end zone to grab a lead they never relinquished.

“What was that, the first play? That was huge,” said defensive end Daelin Hayes, a one-time USC commitment. “Anytime you can take the ball away from the offense, you put them in an uncomfortable position.”

A one-man wrecking crew with a team-high 11 tackles, two for loss and a sack, Coney wasn’t alone. Drue Tranquill delivered a big hit early in the half. Late in it, he jumped all over a muffed punt inside the USC 10 that turned into more points. Nick Watkins, seemingly one of the few defenders on his heels early, delivered his first career interception on a play that middle linebacker Nyles Morgan seemingly was celebrating with two arms above his head before Watkins went high and snared the ball.

Later, Watkins had a big breakup of a potential touchdown pass. Jerry Tillery made tackles. So did Hayes. The Irish defense attacked in waves and from all directions. The defense fueled the offense, which settled into such a groove that it felt like they’d score some sort of points on every possession.

“They’ve been dominant,” quarterback Brandon Wimbush said about the Irish defense. “When they take away the ball, you get so excited.”

The Trojans didn’t hit the 100-yard mark offensively until 2:34 remained in the first half. One play later, freshman Khalid Kareem dropped Darnold for a sack.

Kareem ran wild – right around the right tackle – again in the fourth quarter for a second sack.

Afterward, Tranquill walked toward midfield, almost expressionless. He still was all business. The demeanor said it all — this defensive effort was expected. Required. Delivered. There would be time to celebrate it later, but not just yet.

“This is probably the biggest win of my career,” Hayes said. “It was awesome. It was electric. We put on a show.”

Coordinator Mike Elko has something special brewing with this group. They compete. They close. They’re quicker to the ball than in seasons past. They’re good. They go after the ball; to date, they’ve gotten it.

“The plan,” Kelly said, “has come together nicely.”

Back in a big way from its week off, Notre Dame now is knocking on the door of the Top 10. There may be a whole lot to play for come November. Notre Dame played Saturday as if it can do that, and maybe get to a place (cough, cough, into the four-team playoff, cough, cough) that few outside the program believed it could.

Not so soon after 4-8.

But …

“We,” Hayes said, “had to make a statement.”

They Irish made one. These guys, this defense, is good.

Really good.

Really.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame’s Daelin Hayes high fives fans after a convincing 49-14 victory over Southern California. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)