Jaylon Smith led the Irish with 14 tackles against USC.

Irish Extra: Irish Show Mettle and Fight On

Oct. 18, 2015


By Curt Rallo

By the time USC pulled ahead of the University of Notre Dame’s football team by a 31-24 score in the third quarter, the Trojans had piled up 458 yards of total offense.

By the time the bright lights on the Notre Dame Stadium scoreboard counted down to 0:00 to end the game, the Fighting Irish defense raised their gold helmets to a sellout crowd afterward and celebrated one of the more remarkable sagas of mental toughness in the history of the storied series. Notre Dame’s victory gives the No. 14/13 Irish a 6-1 record and a 46-36-5 lead in the rivalry with USC.

Stung by big plays, aching from a brutally physical game, weary and worn by fatigue and near-freezing temperatures, the Irish defense was at its best when it had to be.

In the final 24 minutes of Saturday’s renewal of the top intersectional college football rivalry, the Fighting Irish defense handcuffed the heralded Trojans’ offense. USC would only gain 132 yards of total offense in the final 24 minutes, and were kept out of the end zone by a stonewall Irish defense.

Notre Dame’s secondary turned into men of steal. It was pair of spectacular fourth-quarter interceptions — an amazing over-the-shoulder grab by KeiVarae Russell, and a leaping pick by Max Redfield — that were daggers that finished off USC’s hopes of knocking off the Irish.

“I think it’s just how we’re raised, and the kind of guy Notre Dame attracts, and the kind of guy the coaching staff is looking for,” Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt said of how Notre Dame’s defense was able to hit the brakes on the high-octane USC offense. “It didn’t matter how many bad plays we had. There were so many plays we’d love to have back, but we knew, we just had to make one more play than they did, and we just managed to do that. We played so strong in the fourth quarter, got a couple of big turnovers … it was really a gritty performance and a gritty victory. I’m really proud of that.

“We don’t care about how tired we are. We don’t care about the elements. It’s about doing everything possible to get the victory. We were looking at each other, knowing we’re going to win this game. I walked up and down the sideline. We all said to each other, we’re going to win this football game, and we did.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his staff preached mental toughness all week, and the Irish responded with counter-punches in the late rounds to deck the Trojans.

“I thought KeiVarae Russell’s interception was a big play,” Kelly said. “Earlier, he got beat by (USC receiver Juju Smith-Schuster). He didn’t play the ball in the air and I went to him and said, listen, you’re in great position, you’re in phase, you have to play the ball in the air. I thought he played the ball in the air on that play. I thought that interception was a big play for us, a momentum swing.”

Russell said that he took the coaching staff’s instructions about mental toughness to heart.

“The way you finish off in the fourth quarter eradicates a lot of stuff in the first half,” Russell said. “Of course, you go back and correct it. But when you finish off strong, you show more of your character. You’re not worried about the first half.”

According to Russell, he had to bring his confidence and toughness to the surface to make his stunning interception against a streaking Smith-Schuster.

“I’m on my own all day,” Russell said. “I’m going against a good player. I had to realize that he’s going against a good player, too. I am the best corner he’s going against all year. I was like, `Let me start playing.’

“The times they threw at me in the fourth quarter, they didn’t have a completed pass, because I started really challenging the receiver. I started playing the ball more. I mentally took on myself. I said to myself, `Be the athlete you are. Be the player everybody knows you can be, and the player you know you can be. Start making more plays.’ I had to turn it on. It’s the fourth quarter, and the game is close. We keep talking about making the big play on defense, but we haven’t made it. Just go out there and make it. I told my team, I always make plays against S.C. I said, `I’m going to make a play. I always make plays against USC.’ I told the staff, `I’m going to make a play against USC.’ That’s what I do. I find a way.”

Schmidt, who is from Orange, Calif., reveled in the heart that the defense displayed in knocking off a bitter rival that he grew up near.

“It’s incredible to beat a rival like USC, especially when they have so many guys who are talented and great players,” Schmidt said. “This was a team victory. We played well on special teams, offense and defense. I’m so proud to be a part of this football team. I’m so proud to wear the gold helmet. I’m just happy to beat the Trojans.

“I’ve been dreaming about this moment since I was five years old, playing catch with my Dad, with the lights on in the front yard. I remember vividly thinking to myself what the crowd would look like, what the opposing team would look like, with the Trojans on the helmet. It’s even better than you imagine, winning a game like that. I’ll never forget, turning around and seeing the final score on the scoreboard as I walked out of the tunnel. It’s dark, the fans are going crazy … it’s really special.”

For Kelly, the character of the defense will be vital when Notre Dame returns to the field on Oct. 31 in Philadelphia to take on Temple.

“Now we have to take that and be road warriors,” Kelly said. “That’s the next question. You know, we have to beat Virginia late on the road and we lost to Clemson. That’s yet to be determined about how we’re playing on the road. So that’s the next challenge for this football team. And you’ve got to be mentally tough to handle the crowd. You’ve got to be mentally tough to be disciplined to go on the road and beat somebody. And that’s the next thing that we need to continue to cultivate and develop with this group.”