SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Corey Robinson made a diving catch in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter and No. 14 Notre Dame rebounded to beat Southern California 41-31 on Saturday after squandering a two-touchdown lead.
C.J. Prosise ran for 143 yards and two touchdowns, and DeShone Kizer threw two scoring passes, the second the 10-yarder to Robinson that made it 38-31.
Southern California played for the first time since firing coach Steve Sarkisian, with interim coach Clay Helton directing the Trojans.
The Fighting Irish (6-1) bounced back from an embarrassing 35-point loss to USC in the regular-season finale last year. The victory looked in doubt when the Trojans (3-3) scored three straight touchdowns to take a 31-24 lead. But the Irish rallied to win the Jeweled Shillelagh for the third time in four seasons.
It marked the first time in seven tries the Irish beat the Trojans after losing by 30 or more the season before.
Cody Kessler threw for two touchdowns and ran for another and USC but the Irish picked him off twice in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
Below is a transcript of Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly’s news conference after the ND-USC game:
COACH KELLY: Well, just your normal USC Notre Dame football game I guess.
Outstanding football game. Exciting. Great atmosphere here tonight. Everything that you would expect between the two teams. If you like offensive football, certainly had that tonight. Special teams, a little bit of everything.
But in the end, you know, really proud of the way our football team persevered and found a way to make a couple plays in the second half.
I think some of the things that stand out in particular: You know, in the second half, I’d say the second quarter, being up two scores and then USC rallying back, I really liked our temperament as a football team. They didn’t show any kind of crack at all. They were confident. They believed that they were going to win.
Even when we got down in the second half, you know, fighting back and eventually going up by ten points, I thought that was, for me, I just never sensed that our football team didn’t believe that they were going to win today. I thought those were big things for me to see from our team today. It turned some question marks into exclamation points relative to their mental toughness today.
Big plays that stood out — two things that stood out. I thought KeiVarae Russell’s interception was a big play. Earlier, he got beat by Juju. 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.
And then I think the two 90-yard drives were big plays for us, and those things kind of stood out for us. And making a couple plays late defensively.
So let’s get to some questions.
Q. In addition to the two 90-yard drives, you’re down 31-24 and it third and five at the 15 and DeShone looked like he was going to get sacked that, 23-yard scramble but his overall running today with the read option –
COACH KELLY: Yeah, I thought — he’s very capable. He’s still learning. He had run into a sack earlier. They had rushed three, dropped eight, and you have to attack the pocket inside out in a three-man rush, and he kept escaping outside the pocket where we can’t help him there.
And that time, he attacked the pocket inside out and had some running room, and I thought — that’s the one thing with Kizer that I really like is that you tell them one time, and he gets it. And he’s going to come back the next time and he’s not going to make the same mistake twice.
Q. And then last week, maybe you struggled in the first half defensively, limited them to three points and this week, USC, just seven points in the second half. Anything specific that you were able to do in the second half that led to that?
COACH KELLY: You know, we missed — look, that is as talented — those two kids that had the big plays, Brown, Juju, Adoree’ Jackson; if you miss a tackle, those kids are gone. They make you pay, dearly, and we missed some tackles. We had them in our sights a couple of times. Now, I think the screen to Adoree’ was well executed. They caught us in a blitz. We kind of tipped it, gave it away. They checked it from the sidelines. I thought it was well executed on their part.
But the other two plays, we are in position. Isaac Rochell has the back wrapped up in the backfield and we missed the tackle. Missed a couple tackles. And they are extremely talented and they make you pay if you don’t take them down.
Q. You’ve talked since you’ve been here about how important special teams is, third phase in the game. It looked like you were a lot more aggressive tonight, attacking the punt with the returns, the fake. What made you think could you go after them and how important was it to be able to generate some big plays from the special teams tonight?
COACH KELLY: I think we feel like we have got some guys that are scared; like Equanimeous St. Brown on that team is long and athletic, and we just felt like this week as a week that we wanted to be aggressive when we got the opportunity.
You know, we’ve shown some coverages more than we have attacking the punt and we felt like this was a week that we wanted to do it. We got the right circumstances in situations for it where they were backed up.
And I just think we have got good players on that team and we wanted to let them go. I think that C.J. did a great job on kickoff returns and gave us really good field position. And obviously the big downing of the punts where we went pooch punt (ph) we were able to down the No. 1 yard and really change field position. So we made some good plays. They are a very difficult team obviously with their skilled return men.
And Justin Yoon has been money for us. He’s been so consistent.
Q. Early in the game, they went down, scored right off the bat. You were able to answer. They went up 31-24; you were able to answer. How important was it for you guys to be able to respond to USC early?
COACH KELLY: Well, I think that’s the big picture that — our theme all week was the mental toughness that we wanted to exhibit today. That was the one question that we wanted to answer. And I didn’t see anything on the sideline that resembled our guys not believing that they were going to come back.
Every time we’ve huddled up on the sideline, when we’re backed up on the ten-yard line, it was a positive conversation about us moving the ball down the field. It was really good.
Q. You talked about Adoree’ and Juju being able to rip off the big plays, Jones; you were able to find that in your own offense. How important is it for you in this offense to be able to have those big plays, speed guys, that you can counter with your own?
COACH KELLY: Well, obviously we’re starting to see that when you have the ability — when you have a back like C.J. Prosise, now you have to put another guy down to defend against the run. You’re going to get one-on-one coverage with Will Fuller and in my estimation, there’s nobody that can cover him in the country one-on-one.
That’s the balance that we have now within this offensive structure that at times we haven’t had. So we’re very difficult to defend because of that.
Q. Your secondary allowed 440 yards, but I think 450 of those probably came on two plays, and they made two big plays at the end. Can you just assess the secondary and how they played?
COACH KELLY: You know, we want to be better each and every week. But I think when you look at it, we are who we are. We played both Max and Matthias. I thought Shu is playing well at one safety position. I think KeiVarae is coming on. He’s playing the ball better. He’s playing more aggressive. I thought he had a great week of practice this week. Cole gets a little nosy. We’ve got to keep him disciplined. He wants to do a little too much.
And so we are who we are. We’ve just got to keep working with them. They are our kids. They are our players. And you know, Todd is coaching them every single day and we are just going to keep working with them to get them better each and every week.
Q. You put Max in in the second and third quarter for Matthias. Can you talk about that decision?
COACH KELLY: Yeah, we’re going to play them all. They are all good players. They are all — I don’t think there’s one guy that separates themselves to take that over. The backups for the two corners are young guys and then you’ve got some veterans at that position with Matthias.
So we feel like we want to get them all in the game.
Q. Do you have an update on Alex Bars?
COACH KELLY: I don’t have one right now. I didn’t get a chance to see him. It was an ankle and I did not get a follow-up with Rob Hunt.
Q. In answering the mental toughness question, how important can that be to the team going into the month of November and the final five games?
COACH KELLY: I think for me, it was — you know, now we have to take that and be road Warriors. 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.
Q. With Will, getting back to the play making, the two pass interference calls back-to-back that he was able to beat Jackson and force those two ones, just what did that do for the overall flow of the offense after Kizer’s run?
COACH KELLY: Well, certainly, you’re trying to get them off you a little bit because we want to run the football. I think both of those were, you know, messages that you need to probably double zone and give us an opportunity, which it did, to run the football a little bit more effectively.
Q. You mentioned the mental toughness sort of when the offense slipped out of gear but at the same time your staff had to find some new buttons to push. Where did you go and where did you feel like the offense could get a flow back after really stalling out?
COACH KELLY: Well, we went back to try to find a way to run the football. C.J. Prosise provided some tough running for us.
Because you don’t want to throw it back on DeShone Kizer. My feeling is, this is not about throwing it on his shoulders. It’s C.J.; it’s Chris Brown; it’s Corey Robinson; it’s Torii Hunter. It’s that cast and it’s that offensive line.
So it’s going back to those cards, if you will, and making sure that we use those assets, instead of, just dropping back and whipping it all over the place and say, hey, DeShone, win us the football game. We had two third-and-two situations where he didn’t complete a couple passes.
I said: That’s enough. We are not going to put him in this situation where he has to pick up all these third down situations. We have to do something and call on some of those other playmakers that we have.
Q. He’s a developmental guy now. Do you think USC did some things to not trust what he was seeing; hold on to the ball?
COACH KELLY: There was only probably one or two occasions. He’s experiencing some new things that every time he goes out there. Like when he took the sack to pull us out of field goal range, he knew before I even said something.
And that’s what’s great about coaching him is he knows it before I even say anything. He’s like, “I can’t believe I did that. I mean, I’ve got to throw that ball away.” So he’s learning and he saw some things and things occur out there that are learning pieces for him every single game.
Q. What was the vibe on the sideline after Torii’s fumble, you could have gone up 28-10?
COACH KELLY: Go make a play. We are going to get back down there again. I went over to Torii and said, “Hey, listen, you can’t fumble the football down there. You have to take care of the football.” There’s always accountability with mistakes.
Then, all right, they were all sitting together, the
receivers. I went over and said, “Hey, listen, we are going to get back down there again. Let’s go make a play.” They were all positive, and they did.
Q. Did you feel like at that point in time that you really let USC stay in the game?
COACH KELLY: No. You know, those are always missed opportunities. I didn’t feel like, oh, you know, we’re not going to win this game because we fumbled. I just felt like, there was too much confidence on our sideline. Our guys believed that they were going to win today. That’s how I felt.
Q. You said a couple times already, you had never really felt like you were going to lose this game. How much comes back to the confidence in a guy like Kizer and how surprising is that, given where he was just a couple months ago?
COACH KELLY: He definitely has a confident demeanor. When he threw in the fourth quarter late there when we threw the ball down the field to Will, he told Will, “I’ll meet you in the end zone.”
I said, that’s north of — that’s north of confidence, south of cocky. That was pretty good. That’s the kind of kid he is. It shows a lot about his confidence.
Q. Did you know you had that in him before the season?
COACH KELLY: I knew he was a confident kid. But he carries it all the time, and people on this football team respect him because of it.