The Notre Dame defense wouldn’t have it any other way. In seemingly heroic fashion and with the game on the line, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s group came up with another dramatic goal line stand that shut the door on any hopes USC had of making a last minute comeback. The “bend don’t break” defensive philosophy was put to the test another week, but was passes with flying colors as the #1 Irish held a potentially explosive Trojan offense to just 13 points. Let’s take a look at each defensive series and go in depth with what went right and what went wrong.
First Quarter – 1st Series (Notre Dame 3 USC 0)
Give credit to USC’s offensive line as they latched on to the Irish front seven and made some holes for their running back the first four plays of the series. The Irish were slanting up front, got sealed off in whichever direction they were going, and the back made a nice cut off those blocks to gain yards.
Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson passed his first test against USC receiver Robert Woods when he ran stride for stride with him as a Max Wittek deep route fell incomplete in the end zone. It was great coverage that built Jackson’s confidence in his ability to run with the dangerous and talented Trojan wide receivers.
I’m guessing the amount of screen prevention review the Irish defense has had to endure the last month in practice was immense. The good news is it’s starting to pay off as senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore read one perfectly on the last play of the series and forced a USC punt. He did a nice job of recognizing the play as it developed and grabbing the running back before he could make his way into his route.
First Quarter – 2nd Series (Notre Dame 10 USC 7)
Well, the first play of the drive true freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell gets his baptism of fire into what it’s like to cover USC’s Marqise Lee. Lee takes him on a fly route and has a step on him, but Russell does the smart thing and draws an interference penalty instead of giving up the big play. This is all part of the learning process for Russell and will add invaluable experience to the incredibly talented freshman.
The Trojans, aided by 30 yards of Irish penalties, cut the lead to three with a slant route to Woods. On the touchdown pass safety Zeke Motta gets caught too close to the line of scrimmage worrying about Lee and gets beat over the top by Woods. Jackson was in man coverage and I believe he was taking away the outside fade with the expectation he would get help from Motta if Woods went toward the middle of the field.
Second Quarter – 3rd Series (Notre Dame 13 USC 10)
USC running back Silas Red joins the party this series and gains 46 yards on his first three carries. Linebacker Carlo Calabrese takes a poor angle to Red on one of the runs and Manti Te’o scrapes to shallow on another. Te’o never gets the angle he needed to make the tackle. This series seemed to wake up the likes of Louis Nix III and Prince Shembo in terms of defending the run as they were pretty much lights out from this point forward.
As USC is about to get inside the red zone Danny Spond does a great job defending a reverse to Lee and doesn’t let him get outside. This sets up a second a long from which the Trojans never recover and are forced to kick a field goal to cut the Notre Dame lead to three again.
Second Quarter – 4th Series (Notre Dame 13 USC 10)
With 1:34 left in the half, and on the only play of the series, Wittek goes deep to Lee, but Russell, whose running stride for stride with Lee, intercepts the pass. What seems like a great play that ends the half ends up turning into three points for the offense that extend the Irish lead to six.
Third Quarter – 5th Series (Notre Dame 16 USC 10)
Te’o makes quick work of USC this series as he has complete awareness of who is entering and leaving his zone in pass coverage on the second play. He sees Woods leave, turns his attention to Lee who’s crossing in front of him, and steps in front of the Wittek pass for the second Irish interception of the night. Unfortunately the Notre Dame offense can’t take advantage of the tremendous field position as they miss a field goal that would have increased the lead to nine.
Third Quarter – 6th Series (Notre Dame 16 USC 10)
There were some great individual efforts this series as the Irish defense force USC into their first of two consecutive “three and outs” in the game.
On first down Jackson makes a great one-on-one tackle against Lee on a quick screen that only gains one yard. This is not an easy task considering the talent of Lee. Linebacker Dan Fox shed a block on second down and made a perfect form tackle on running back Curtis McNeal. Finally, on third down, Kapron Lewis-Moore split the guard and center and sacked Wittek for a seven-yard loss.
Third Quarter – 7th Series (Notre Dame 16 USC 10)
The Irish run defense is alive and well in this “three and out”, holding USC on third and one and forcing another punt. One of the great plays of the game came on that third and one when Nix executed a swim move on USC’s center and tackled McNeal in the backfield for a one-yard loss. Quickness and power all rolled into a nice 330 pound package.
Fourth Quarter – 8th Series (Notre Dame 19 USC 10)
The Trojans needed to put a drive together and responded with some big chunk plays of their own, including a stretch of four plays that went for 13 yards or more. However, keeping with the “bend but don’t break” philosophy, the Irish stood tall for three plays inside the five and forced USC to kick a field goal.
Te’o made a great play on first and goal when he shed a block and stood up Red for no gain. On second down Mathius Farley and Zeke Motta game flying off the edge on a double crash blitz and stopped Red for a two-yard loss. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a team that is as resilient in their goal line defense as Notre Dame is – it’s quite amazing.
Fourth Quarter – 9th Series (Notre Dame 22 USC 13)
Here we go again. The first play USC finally connects on a long ball to Lee and the coverage by Jackson is not actually that bad. Lee made a nice adjustment to the ball right before he made the catch.
If I was KeiVarae Russell I would have interfered every time the Trojans threw a fade from the two-yard line. He made the right play, but I would have loved to see him look back for the ball after about four steps as may have been able to even intercept one of those passes from Wittek.
Give credit to the interior of the Notre Dame defensive line on stopping the two quarterback sneaks in a row from the one-yard line, but if I’m being honest Lane Kiffin needs to be more creative with his play calling. Don’t tell me with the history Notre Dame has had this season in not only the red zone, but inside the five, that he couldn’t come up with something a little more creative? Grant, stopping anyone inside the two is difficult and once again the Irish rose to the occasion and got the job done.
It’s funny, I’m rarely at a loss for words, but there’s just something about the confidence of this group that can’t be explained. Even when it looked like USC was getting the best of them they kept fighting, as they’ve done all season, to keep the Trojans out of the end zone. It’s almost like they play better when their backs are against the wall, as if playing defense when the ball is at midfield isn’t enough of a challenge. Obviously that’s not the case, but like fighting an animal that’s wounded, these men put the fight in Fighting Irish. They sure are fun to watch.