NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Years from now, when players from the 2013 Notre Dame football come back to celebrate with their former teammates, they'll talk about defeating USC three-out-of-four years and finally ending a five-game home losing streak to the Trojans.
The details of how they did it may be fudged a bit.
Notre Dame's offense accounted for just 47 yards in the second half after quarterback Tommy Rees left the game with a neck injury, and the defense limited the Trojans to just four first downs after the intermission and 0-of-7 on third down en route to a 14-10 victory in the 85th meeting between the historic cross-country rivals.
Notre Dame has now won 12 of its last 13 games decided by one score.
"Winning three out of four over USC sets the tone for upcoming classes and classes that are already here now that Notre Dame is now able to rival USC," said senior wideout TJ Jones, whose 11-yard touchdown reception with 1:13 left in the second quarter proved to be the last points of the game and the game-winner.
What looked like a high-scoring game in the making - the teams combined for 216 yards total offense in the first quarter - quickly evolved into a wrestling match once Rees left the game early in the third quarter and the Irish defense rose to the occasion when it became clear that an Andrew Hendrix-led attack wasn't going to cut it.
Hendrix misfired on all four of his passes, and head coach Brian Kelly decided quickly that he would run the football and lean on his defense to claim the victory. The Irish defense held USC to just 121 yards on 30 second-half snaps.
Stephon Tuitt recorded a pair of second-half sacks as the Irish harassed USC quarterback Cody Kessler into repeated misfires on third and fourth down as the Trojans tried everything to make a dent in the Notre Dame defense.
"A lot of pressure," summarized USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron. "That was a good front. Those are big guys to block, 350 pounds (Louis Nix) in the middle. It seemed every time we had a first down or something like that, we had a holding call or jumped offside. We shot ourselves in the foot, and then it was 2nd-and-20. But give them credit, they've got a good front."
The Trojans committed 11 penalties covering 95 yards, including several in the second half that negated positive runs or passes. Every time USC appeared on the verge of recapturing the lead from the Irish, Notre Dame made a play defensively to stem the tide.
"We battled, and mentally and physically continued to play every play," Kelly said. "That's what I expect from our group is to keep competing, regardless of what happens in the game."
For the fifth time in seven games, Notre Dame fell behind. The Irish took the opening kickoff and marched inside the USC 10-yard line, only to have four Cam McDaniel runs fall short of paydirt. Safety Su'a Cravens tackled McDaniel for a three-yard loss on 4th-and-goal from the one.
The Trojans then embarked on a 13-play, 96-yard touchdown drive that used 6:25. Silas Redd, playing just his second game of the season, scored from a yard out. But the Irish responded with a 10-play, 77-yard drive as Rees connected on 6-of-7 passes for 49 yards, including a seven-yard scoring toss to tight end Troy Niklas.
USC kicker Andre Heidari missed a field-goal attempt from 40 yards, but would come back to connect on a 22-yarder to give the Trojans a 10-7 lead.
Notre Dame took its first halftime lead at home against USC since 2005 when the Irish marched 91 yards on five plays, featuring 24- and 36-yard runs by McDaniel, and an 11-yard scoring pass from Rees to Jones for a 14-10 halftime lead.
The Irish couldn't capitalize on tremendous field position early in the second half. Outside linebacker Jaylon Smith intercepted Kessler on the third play from scrimmage in the third quarter. But an illegal shift on 3rd-and-3 led to an Irish punt.
Rees suffered his injury on the next series, and from that point on, Notre Dame did not enter USC territory the rest of the game. The Trojans went three-and-out on four consecutive series in the third quarter. Andre Heidari missed a 46-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. The Trojans marched down to the Irish 26 late in the game. But a false start and Tuitt's second sack on 4th-and-20 stalled another drive. The Irish would hold the Trojans on downs one more time in Notre Dame territory to end the game.
"We've got to play better, flat out," Kelly said. "You guys watched it. I watched it. (Hendrix) has got to play better, and we'll see where we are obviously in the next 24-to-48 hours when we get a full eval(uation) on Tommy."
Rees finished 14-of-21 for 166 yards and two touchdowns, raising his TD-to-interception ratio to 15-to-6. McDaniel rushed for 82 of his 92 yards in the first half.
USC running back Silas Redd was a handful for the Irish, whether running out of a conventional backfield or as a wildcat quarterback. He finished with 112 yards on 19 carries. Nelson Agholor paced all receivers with six catches for 69 yards. Agholor also helped keep the Trojans in the game with four punt returns for 100 yards, including a 48-yarder.