SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame lost Tommy Rees, but it didn't lose the game. For the first time since 2001, the Irish topped USC at Notre Dame Stadium, beating their arch-rivals, 14-10, Saturday night.
The game quickly devolved into a war of attrition with little firepower. USC lost running back Tre Madden before the game and wide receiver Marqise Lee after the first half, and Rees was knocked out on a vicious sack in the third quarter. Both offenses ground to a halt in the final 30 minutes, with Notre Dame gaining 49 second-half yards to USC's 121.
After the game, a few Notre Dame players pointed to an impassioned halftime speech from an unlikely source as to helping them keep plugging away in the second half. The player who gave that speech was the generally-reserved Rees, whose message resonated with both the offense and defense even after he was knocked out of the game.
"It was a passionate speech, one of the more passionate things I've ever heard Tommy say," wide receiver T.J. Jones said. "It was really just keep your head in the game, don't give up. We've got this, 30 minutes wasn't enough. We need another 30 to win this game.
"He had a lot of the guys almost in tears. It's the first time Tommy spoke out like that, and it was definitely emotional."
While it didn't translate into success, at least on offense, it was a mentality that permeated the team as the game slowed to a crawl.
While Rees didn't directly address the defense, his speech came within earshot of them. The extent of its effect is difficult to nail down, but Notre Dame won the game on the backs of its defense, which turned in a stout defensive effort buoyed by an avalanche of USC mistakes.
Despite starting four of its final five drives in or near Notre Dame territory, USC failed to score on any of them. Stephon Tuitt and the Irish pass rush played a large part in that, with Tuitt notching two sacks, two tackles for a loss and two quarterback hits.
"Our defense just kept battling, and that's just the way our guys compete here at Notre Dame," coach Brian 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."
Mistakes aside, this was a USC team that scored 41 on Arizona State and 38 against Arizona in its last two games. Whereas Notre Dame began to do some things right on defense Oct. 5 against Arizona State — a game in which it still allowed 27 points to the Sun Devils' offense — this time, the Irish did those things right and kept the points off the board.
That was key, because Notre Dame's offense quickly slipped into ineptitude in the second half.
Andrew Hendrix completed none of his four pass attempts and rushed six times for five yards and struggled more than his stat line indicated. USC loaded up the box after Rees was injured, successfully selling out to stop the run. Cam McDaniel gained 83 of his 92 yards in the first half and averaged just over one yard per carry in the second half.
"We were jamming it up there knowing that we were two hats short on virtually every running play," Kelly said. "We tried to pull a couple with Andrew and tried to get them on the perimeter, but it was tough sledding up in there."
This was the kind of game Notre Dame always won in 2012. When the offense sputtered, the defense stepped up, and there was plenty of emotion along the sideline.
While, to reiterate, it's difficult to point to the exact impact of Rees' halftime speech, it was something Notre Dame players said helped propel them to a close win.
"It was a special moment for us," offensive lineman Zack Martin said. "I guess it did the job."