SOUTH BEND – SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees broke character and gave an impassioned halftime speech Saturday night with the Irish clinging to a four-point lead over rival USC.
Shortly after the speech, the quarterback many Irish fans blamed for past heartbreaks was gone.
Rees was laid out by Trojans linebacker Lamar Dawson on the Irish’s second offensive series of the third quarter and didn’t play another snap in a 14-10 victory at Notre Dame Stadium.
“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.”
Before the hit, Rees completed 14 of 21 passes for 166 yards with touchdown passes of 7 yards to tight end Troy Niklas and 11 yards to receiver TJ Jones. He also delivered the big speech.
“It might have been the more passionate things I’ve ever heard Tommy say,” said Jones, who finished with four catches for 46 yards.
“He had a lot of the guys almost in tears. It’s the first time Tommy spoke out like that. It was definitely emotional.”
The Irish (5-2) needed all the emotion they could muster to defeat the Trojans (4-3) for the first time at home since 2001.
With Andrew Hendrix at quarterback in Rees’ absence, the Irish didn’t get another passing yard and gained just 44 more yards.
It was an uninspiring performance for a quarterback that may have to take over for an Irish team that kept its dim BCS bowl hopes alive with a third win over USC in the last four years.
“We’ve got to play better, flat out,” Kelly said of the offense with Hendrix at quarterback. “He’s got to play better, and we’ll see where we are obviously in the next 24 to 48 hours when we a full (evaluation) on Tommy.”
Notre Dame’s defense turned in its second straight strong performance of the season, including holding USC to a manageable 121 yards in the second half.
The Trojans, who drove 96 yards on 13 plays and got a 1-yard TD run from Silas Redd on their first drive, finished with 330 yards, and USC kicker Andre Heidari missed field goals from 40 and 46 yards out.
USC started the game without leading rusher Tre Madden, who missed the game with a hamstring injury, and the Trojans also lost their top receiver, Marqise Lee, in the second half to a left knee injury. Lee had two catches for 18 yards in the first half.
USC receiver Nelson Agholor did all he could to keep the Trojans in the game, gaining 89 yards on six catches and returning four punts for 100 yards with a long of 48.
But the Trojans missed too many chances to score with three drives starting inside the Irish’s 35-yard line resulting in only a field goal. USC also lost 95 yards on 11 penalties.
“It seemed that every time we had a first down or something like that, we had a holding call or jumped offsides,” USC interim coach Ed Orgeron said.
Notre Dame’s defense also had something to do with USC’s offensive woes.
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt had two sacks that ended USC drives in the second half. Kelly said Tuitt was given the game ball.
“It was great,” Tuitt said. “USC is a great team. For us to stop them is awesome. It was a great team effort, a great defensive effort as a whole”
Linebacker Jaylon Smith, a Bishop Luers graduate, had his first interception on the second play of the third quarter when he was matched up one-on-one with Agholor.
“It was great,” said Smith, who finished with four tackles with one for loss. “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.”