Hansen: Tony Jones Jr. helps Notre Dame survive USC and dream even bigger

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — On a night when Jafar Armstrong was officially — but super-subtly — reintroduced back into the Notre Dame offense, the ninth-ranked Irish got the best version of senior Tony Jones Jr. in his career.

They needed every bit of the toughness and career-high 176 rushing yards against arch-rival and double-digit underdog USC from the man whose playing time and impact figures to become more complementary once ND’s most explosive running back option gets back to being himself.

With a more mortal performance, ND (5-1) doesn’t survive the Trojans, 30-27, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.

As it stands, the Irish probably took a perceptual hit anyway— and not just because their best win of the season — Virginia — was diminished by a Cavalier defeat by Miami (Fla.) Friday night, and ND’s “good loss” to Georgia was diluted by Georgia’s own home loss Saturday to a three-loss South Carolina team.

And perception matters — or at least it should — to a Notre Dame team that’s aiming for something loftier than a berth in the Camping World Bowl at season’s end.

The best-case scenario for the long term, with a bye week ahead before a visit to Michigan on Oct. 26, is that this is team still building toward something more complete, convincing and dominant.

At least it appears to have the mental capacity and maturity to push itself in that direction.

“At halftime they knew that they had to play for four quarters,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “There was no giddiness of, ‘Hey, we've got this thing.’ They knew that USC, they had bite to them. This team had a bite.”

And for once USC (3-3) didn’t self-destruct. A team that came in 122nd nationally in turnover margin (out of 130) and hadn’t won the turnover battle in its last 18 games, didn’t turn the ball over. One of the nation’s most penalized teams had one fewer penalty yard than the Irish (45-44).

And a team that struggled all season in the red zone, was a perfect 4-for-4.

Had USC coach Clay Helton figured out one-time Irish commit Markese Stepp (82 yards on 10 carries, 1 TD) was his best running back and had his Trojans executed successfully an onside kick with 1:04 left, the final minute would have been more suspenseful and perhaps had a different outcome.

The Irish contribution to the warts that came with ND head coach Brian Kelly’s seventh win over the Trojans in 10 tries and third in a row included not finishing off USC after building a 20-3 command early in the third quarter and an admittedly gutsy effort from ND QB Ian Book falling flat statistically.

His 106.8 pass-efficiency rating (17-of-32 for 165 yards, 1 TD) was more than 60 points below his season rating coming into the game and the second-worst of his 16 career starts, with only the 83.7 concocted last December against Clemson lower than that.

He did engineer a 97-yard drive in the second quarter, and a clock-eating 75-yarder (6:54) in the fourth quarter that put the Irish up 30-20 with 3:33 left. Book scrambled for 17 yards on third-and-10 from the USC 30 late in the drive and finished if off with an eight-yard dart into the end zone on a quarterback draw.

Around him were unlikely heroes beyond Jones. Under-used sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy’s biggest contribution came in the Irish ground game, which amassed a season-high 308 rushing yards. He took a pitch on a reverse for a 51-yard TD in what stands as the longest running play for the Irish this season.

Kicker Jonathan Doerer, meanwhile, who looked in the spring ripe for walk-on freshman Harrison Leonard to overtake him in the fall, booted three long field goals in three tries — 43 yards, 45 and a career-long 52. The school record is 53 yards.

The junior is 6-for-7 on the season in following Justin Yoon, ND’s all-time leading scorer and career most accurate field goal kicker.

“We knew the physical capabilities of our kicker when we recruited him,” said Kelly, who awarded Doerer the game ball in the locker room after the game. “We thought he had an exceptional leg, and he was a talent. But there's more to it, right? Again, poor analogy, but he could drive the golf ball 350 yards but he'd be in the trees half the time.

“So it was about: How do we get this young man to really hone in on this exceptional skill that he has? And you know, he's done an incredible job of really building a repetition in his swing, his leg swing, that he is so confident now in what he does that he's unflappable.

“He can go into any situation and he trusts what he is doing, And it's like anything else, when you go on that first tee and you trust your swing, you feel like you can hit it no matter what the situation is. He's in a similar kind of state now.”

Jones played like a guy not ready to go gently into No. 2 status. Included in his career 176-yard total on a career-high 25 carries Saturday night was the longest run of his career — 43 yards. Armstrong, who hadn’t played since the first quarter of Sept. 2 opener at Louisville, had one touch in the game — a rush for minus-four yards.

“To be honest, I don’t know what is going on with Jafar,” Jones said. “I just know that he was ready. When coach called his number, he looked like he was ready to bust one out.”

Jones actually did. And more than once.

“I’ve always been like this,” he said. “Coach let me out the cage a little bit.

“It just feels good that I’m working hard and it’s showing out on the field. Now I just have to keep working harder to make this game look like a regular game.”

For the Irish as a whole, though, this can’t be a regular game. Notre Dame has advanced too far in the past 2 ½ seasons for simply beating a rival meaning celebrating wildly deep into the night.

The dreams are bigger now. The reality could be too. The next step is showing that.

And Saturday night, Tony Jones Jr. gave his teammates a pretty good blueprint.

Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. (6) breaks free for a long run during ND's 30-27 victory over USC, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.