Updated: November 23, 2013 6:29AM
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After starting quarterback Tommy Rees left Notre Dame’s game Saturday against USC in the third quarter with a strained neck, the Irish’s
offense stalled. Again and again.
Notre Dame put its four-point lead in the hands of its defense. And for the second consecutive game, the unit made the late stops to preserve a victory.
‘‘We didn’t feel any pressure
[after Rees left] because our mind-set is that if something does happen, we need to be there to step up,’’ nose guard Louis Nix III said after the Irish’s 14-10 victory against the Trojans. ‘‘It all comes down to the defense; that’s our mind-set. The defense is going to have to go on the field and win the game, no matter what, even if we’re beating a team by 50. The defense will have to go out there regardless.’’
Defense was supposed to be Notre Dame’s strength, but the Irish gave up big plays and struggled to pressure the quarterback in losses to Michigan and Oklahoma.
The defense, though, seems to be turning things around. Notre Dame had six sacks and came through with two late interceptions in a 37-34 victory Oct. 5 against Arizona State, and that success carried over against USC. The Trojans converted two third downs on their first possession, then went 0-for-11 the rest of the game. USC had 121 yards of total offense in the second half.
‘‘We’re really starting to get that confidence that maybe at times we were lacking,’’ coach Brian Kelly said. ‘‘They’re playing with a lot of confidence.’’
Linebacker Carlo Calabrese led the Irish with eight tackles against the Trojans. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt matched his career high with seven and had two sacks.
USC reached Notre Dame territory on each of its last five possessions, including one that started
at the Irish’s 34 after a fourth-quarter fumble, and came away with zero points.
‘‘Special teams really put our defense in some tough situations,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘Obviously, the fumble put us in a tough situation. Our defense just kept battling. . . . They keep playing every single day, and they don’t really care about where [they are] on the field. They just play the next play.’’