SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame kept its faint dream of reaching a BCS bowl game this year alive with a 14-10 win over USC (4-3) at home Saturday night.
But the Irish (5-2) also experienced what a nightmare it could be the rest of the way without maligned quarterback Tommy Rees.
Rees was knocked out of the game with a neck strain after being sacked by Trojans linebacker Lamar Dawson on the first play of the Irish's second offensive series in the third quarter.
Rees had thrown for 166 yards with touchdown passes to tight end Troy Niklas and receiver TJ Jones before having to leave the game.
"He had a neck strain," coach Brian Kelly said. "He got hit, and they wanted to bring him in for more observation. He's really sore. We'll know more as we kind of move through the next 24, 48 hours."
Notre Dame backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix missed on all four of his pass attempts, including having one ball fall out of his hand on a third-down attempt, and the Irish gained only 25 yards without Rees.
Even though the numbers were so low, Irish players said they have confidence that Hendrix can step in for Rees if need be for the rest of the season.
"Andrew is very capable, and everyone believes in him," left tackle Zack Martin said. "He's been in there before. We know we have a guy that can play behind Tom, if he goes down."
Defense steps up
Notre Dame didn't have the best defensive performance on USC's first offensive series on Saturday.
The Trojans marched 96 yards on 13 plays to score on a 1-yard touchdown run by Silas Redd with 4:03 to play in the first quarter. USC converted on third down twice during the drive and Redd gained 40 yards on the drive.
But after that, Notre Dame only gave up three more points – on a 22-yard field goal by Andre Heidari in the second quarter on a drive that started at the Irish's 20 after Nelson Agholor returned a punt 48 yards and the Trojans got 5 extra yards on an illegal formation penalty called on Notre Dame.
And the Irish didn't allow the Trojans to convert another third-down play after that first drive, holding USC 0 for 11 the rest of the way, and USC only gained 234 more yards and a manageable 121 yards in the second half.
"Our defense just kept battling, and again, like I said, that's just the way our guys compete here at Notre Dame," Kelly said. "They keep playing every single day, and they don't really care about where they were on the field, they just play the next play."
Smith's 1st interception
Freshman linebacker and former Bishop Luers star Jaylon Smith got his first college interception Saturday night.
Smith picked off a ball intended for USC receiver Nelson Agholor on the third play of the second half.
"It was great," Smith said. "I didn't expect (the interception), but I knew I was in the right position. Any time you make a play it is always good. It is always positive when you do something good for the team."
Smith finished with four tackles, including one for a loss, to go along with his interception.
"He's very important to our defense," Kelly said. "He sets the edge of our defense, which as you know is so important in the 3‑4 defense. He's athletic, great interception. He's playing man‑to‑man coverage down the field on a pretty talented player. He's bringing pressure. He's a pretty special player. Not a lot of guys like that in the country as true freshmen. Expectations will be that he continues to grow and continues to develop and continues to sharpen his craft at that position."
Smith said he is feeling more comfortable in the defense as the second half starts.
"I'm a freshman, so each day, I'm getting better and better," Smith said. "I have a lot of stuff I need to work on, but it is going well. It's going in the right direction."
Wild few days
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt created a stir Wednesday when he told Notre Dame's student newspaper, the Observer, that he planned to return for his senior season next year.
Coach Brian Kelly said Thursday that Tuitt didn't mean to say he would return and got caught up in the question.
The junior ended the week with a second straight strong performance.
Tuitt had two sacks and seven tackles against USC. That was on the heals of his three-tackle, one-sack performance against Arizona State three weeks ago.
Kelly said he gave Tuitt the game ball for his performance against the Trojans, and the junior said he was happy to finish an interesting week like he did.
"Winning is hard, and to get a win, especially against a rival, is awesome," Tuitt said. "What I said the other night, I wasn't really thinking. … When the end of the season comes, whatever predictament I'm in, I'm going to talk to Coach Kelly, my mom, my family, and see what the best decision will be then.
"Other than that, I will just focus on the game."
Out of character
Rees broke character at halftime giving an passionate speech with Notre Dame clinging to a 14-10 lead over USC.
"Tommy is pretty quiet usually," Niklas said. "He likes to be careful and choose his words wisely. It was pretty awesome to see him kind of open up and speak for the heart. It was extremely motivating for me."
- Jones’ 11-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter was his fourth TD in as many games
- Safety Austin Collinsworth had a career-high six tackles
- Tuitt’s two sacks Saturday tied him with Ryan Roberts for sixth on the program’s all-time list with 19
- Cam McDaniel gained a career-high 92 yards on a career-high 18 carries. He also had gains of 36 and 24 yards against the Trojans
- USC running back Silas Redd, playing in his second game this season, ran for 112 yards with a TD
- USC receiver Marqise Lee didn't play in the second half because of a knee injury after gaining 18 yards on two catches in the first half
- USC receiver Nelson Agholor had six catches for 89 yards and gained 100 yards on four punt returns