SOUTH BEND – "Does Notre Dame have a No. 1 running back?"
The question was directed at Tony Jones Jr. who had just run for a career-high 176 yards on 25 carries, by his count the most he'd had in a game since his sophomore year of high school. It was his third straight 100-yard performance, helping the No. 9 Irish to a 30-27 win over rival USC. In essence, Jones has staked his claim to that No. 1 running back title over the first half of the season after coming into the year as a co-starter with Jafar Armstrong.
When Jones heard the question, he smiled a little and looked at his shoes:
"I mean, you can tell me," Jones said.
In truth, Jones is absolutely the No. 1 running back for the Irish right now. Although he won't run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, as Brian Kelly admitted after the game, Jones has all the hallmarks of a lead back: toughness, physicality, an ability to fall forward and stay up after first contact. He kept USC on its heels all night.
He wasn't alone, however. The Irish ran for 308 yards against the Trojans, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Late in the game, Notre Dame had a 14-play touchdown drive on which the Irish ran the ball 12 times. They imposed their will on USC and shoved the ball down their throats in key moments of the game. For an offensive line that has been up-and-down this season, it looked dominant tonight.
"The growth of our group has been immense," said right tackle Robert Hainsey, a second-year starter and a captain. "After the Georgia game (a 23-17 loss), I challenged the guys and told them, 'We need to play to our potential, individually and as a group.' With everyone working as hard as they can we'll reach our potential and when we're playing to the highest level we can, it's a scary group to go against."
Coach Brian Kelly was impressed with the offensive line's performance, as well, but he emphasized that it was actually the passing game that set up the run. Early in the game, quarterback Ian Book hooked up with receiver Chase Claypool on a 26-yard completion when Claypool was in one-on-one coverage on the outside. After that, Kelly said, the Trojans put two safeties over the top to take those types of pass plays away and dared the Irish to beat them on the ground. Notre Dame obliged.
"If you're going to play two deep, we've got to run the football," Kelly said. "If we can't, we're not good enough. If you're going to play man and pressure us and load the box, it's hard to run the football, we'd better be able to throw the football, and that effectively is what happened. We had fair numbers to run the football today, and that's how we won the football game."
There were some stretches where the offense struggled to move the ball, but by and large the Irish had their way and marched down the field with little trouble when they really needed a score. That was evident on the 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that sealed the game in the fourth quarter. The Irish mixed things up on that drive with a couple of designed quarterback runs and Book made them work, running in for an 8-yard touchdown to seal the win. The biggest play of the drive was one of the few called pass plays on the series, but Book saw daylight and ran 17 yards on a third-and-10 to pick up a crucial first down and set up the score.
"(USC) had it covered pretty well and I just saw the line open up pretty big with nobody there, and I knew exactly where I needed to go, needed those 10 yards, biggest third down of the game," Book said of the scramble. "I was going to do whatever I can to get to that yard marker. But I saw it open up. I might have been able to still probably go through my progression on that play, but it opened up. I knew I could get 10 yards."
The play was indicative of Book's performance in this game. He wasn't perfect (he missed some throws that he should make), but he made good decisions all night and showed the type of pocket presence that he has struggled to bring out of himself all season. For the first time this year he stepped up in the pocket on a consistent basis and kept his eyes downfield, rather than bailing out to the side or backwards. He made plays with his legs, found receivers after stepping up and generally played the way the Irish needed against an athletic USC defense.
On defense, the Irish mastered the bend-but-don't-break philosophy in the first half, but gave up too much in the passing game in the second half. Obviously, it was going to be difficult to keep USC's receivers down the whole game and Amon-Ra St. Brown broke free for a 38-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter to draw the Trojans within a score. That was Notre Dame's only big defensive miscue of the night, however. Otherwise, the Irish kept everything in front of them and refused to allow the Trojans to make big plays. The end result was 426 yards for the USC offense, but a win for the Irish.
This wasn't the best USC team the Irish have faced in the history of this rivalry, but coach Clay Helton had the Trojans ready to play and, as Kelly said, USC had some fight to them tonight. They came in with plenty of energy and weren't intimidated by the raucous Notre Dame crowd or the chilly weather. This turned into a very good football game between two talented teams. The Irish had to play a very good game to win and they did exactly that. On to Michigan.