Noie: Nothing easy about this one for No. 9 Notre Dame - and that's fine

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Somewhere in the script it said that this is how the season’s first half had to end.

Against that team. In that way. For the nation's ninth-ranked team to grind out a close contest at night, at home and win at the end against a rival.

Would you want it any other way?

No way.

If it’s Notre Dame and it’s USC, it’s only right that the closing minutes of the final 15 mean something. It doesn’t feel right when the score’s so lopsided that the stadium’s so quiet. Too quiet. Wasn’t the case Saturday. There was noise. There was drama. There was doubt and determination and disappointment and desire. Notre Dame had to earn this one. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t easy. Neither is this game. This series.

Even when Notre Dame led 20-3, coach Brian Kelly cautioned that this wasn't the USC of old. The Trojans were coming. They sliced that 17-point deficit to three less than five minutes into the fourth quarter. Suddenly, it was again a game.

“They had bite to them,” Kelly said. “This team has some fight to it.”

It was up to the Irish to have a little more. It wasn’t about everyone wearing green or flashing those cell phones at the start of the fourth quarter, or finding other ways to stay warm on a downright cold mid-October night.

When it ended Notre Dame 30, USC 27, it was hard to argue with how the home team got there. What mattered most was they did. The Irish are 5-1 heading into the back half of the schedule. They delivered first downs and yards gained and touchdowns even when the offense seemingly again had its share of stops and starts. Of what the heck is that moments.

Yet when quarterback Ian Book (can he ever do anything right in the eyes of Irish fans?) needed to figure it out and deliver one big drive, guess what the kid did?

He figured it out and delivered one big drive. A game-clinching drive. One that traveled 75 yards in 14 plays and chewed up 6:54. Expected to do it with his right arm, Book instead did it with his feet Saturday. Staring at a third-and-10, Book (again!) bailed from the pocket and scampered for 17.

“I saw it open up,” Book said. “I knew exactly where I needed to go.”

One Irish (Tony Jones, Jr.) lost his shoe during one run. Another (Michael Young) lost the ball during a kick return that might have gone the distance. Both teams also seemingly lost their minds in a halftime dust-up at midfield that didn't rekindle memories of the tunnel and Miami (Fla.) in 1988 but was nice to see.

Nice and needed, especially in this one. That's what makes it a rivalry. Save the hugs and handshakes for later. Get after it, and one another, now.

Still, even in victory, there’s angst about these Irish. Again. Always is around this program. Wouldn’t seem right if there wasn’t, right? Even when all should be right, something’s seemingly wrong. Book’s passing numbers (17-of-32 for 165 yards and one touchdown) were pedestrian. After an early adjustment away from man defense, which Book had success in, USC switched to a two-deep safety look. That made it tougher for Book to find throwing lanes. Those windows closed quickly, so Notre Dame needed to find another route to success.

The Irish had to run the ball. So they ran it and did it with an unlikely dude doing it.

Heading into Saturday, all the talk was about the return of Jafar Armstrong. Whoa, would the Irish run game get back on track with Armstrong back from an injury that sidelined him for all but five plays in the opener against Louisville. Yep, with Armstrong healthy, the offense would hit another gear. Watch out, right?

Armstrong had one carry. He lost four yards. He looked lost. Old Reliable — Jones — stepped in and played the game of his college career. Jones isn’t the biggest or the quickest Irish back. He doesn't have the best vision or the quickest feet. He just may be the best.

Jones ran 25 times — the most carries he said afterward since sophomore year in high school. He gained 176 yards. He looked every bit the part of a featured back, even if he wanted no part of proclaiming himself one.

“You tell me,” Jones joked when asked if what he’d done resembled the work of a No. 1 back.

Why now, why this season, for the quiet, unassuming, just-let-me-do-my-job Jones? Again, he brought some levity to a post-game that sometimes is way too serious.

“Coach (Kelly) let me out of the cage a little bit,” he said. “I always knew I could do that.”

For Notre Dame, it’s six down, six to go. And really right where it expected to be. Notre Dame wasn’t winning at Georgia, even though Georgia hardly looked like itself Saturday in a baffling double-overtime home loss to South Carolina.

So long top five, Bulldogs. So long quality loss, Irish.

There’s been little that’s been baffling about Notre Dame since that night now three weeks and counting. Notre Dame’s handled its business at home. It’s a group that goes into its final bye week feeling good. They could use the break for the body and for the mind. Then it’s back to business.

The proverbial chase to be better continues. Up next, Michigan. But not just yet. Savor this one.

Leave Notre Dame Stadium over two hours after everything goes final, and it’s as if you’ve been transported to a different time. A campus that buzzed for the better part of the previous 15 hours goes quiet. It’s empty. It’s dark. It’s different. It’s kind of eerie. It’s as if the game unfolded days, not hours, earlier.

In the still of the night, or in this case, early morning, it doesn’t matter if the quarterback has struggled (again) or the offense has sputtered (again) or the final outcome was a little too close for some comfort (again).

All that matters is the win. Savor it, now go get a few more.

Notre Dame’s Ian Book (12) dives into the end zone for a touchdown during the Notre Dame-Southern California NCAA Football game Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.