The offensive line had been a question mark entering the season.
After losing tackle Tyron Smith, tackle Butch Lewis and center Kris O’Dowd to the NFL, three spots had to be filled for a front-five in rebuilding mode.
Despite the uncertainty facing this unit, the young USC offensive line has continued to show improvement all year. Against Notre Dame, the unit did not surrender a sack. The line also won the battle in the trenches, paving the way for the Trojans to register more than 200 rushing yards against the 19th-ranked defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“I think [our offensive linemen] really wanted the challenge,” Kiffin said. “They played very physical in all aspects of the game.”
The rushing attack was impressive, finishing the game with a season-high 219 yards highlighted by junior running back Curtis McNeal’s 118 yards.
Junior quarterback Matt Barkley had plenty of time in the pocket to wait for routes to develop downfield. On one play in particular, Barkley connected with sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods for a 25-yard touchdown on a pump-and-go route. When coverage deep downfield did not relent, Barkley converted three third-downs on scrambles.
“They were dropping deep and you can’t really drop eight into coverage and not get some of the passing concepts that we wanted to,” Barkley said. “Sometimes you just have to take off and run. I was just trying to get positive yards and those happened on big plays where we needed first downs.”
At the beginning of the season, there was a possibility sophomore tailback Dillon Baxter could grab the starting role.
But Baxter has now only appeared in four games and recorded nine rushes for 29 yards.
The San Diego native did not make the trip to Notre Dame, either, but no further explanation was given.
“I’ll meet with Dillon when we get back,” Kiffin said. “He didn’t make the trip. That’s all I’ve got for you.”
Special teams has been an emphasis for USC all season long, but the normally reliable unit did not perform up to par against Notre Dame.
Notre Dame running back George Atkinson III returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, sparking a brief Irish run in the second quarter.
“[Special teams] was a big emphasis,” Atkinson said. “Coach emphasized that we need a big play out of special teams in order to get the win. That’s what we focused on all week and during the bye week.”
It was the first kickoff return for a touchdown USC has allowed all year.
Freshman kicker Andre Heidari was 1-for-2 on field goals for the game. Heidari missed a 37-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter after suffering an ankle injury to his kicking foot early in the second half.
“He’s a warrior,” special teams coordinator John Baxter said. “That hurt like heck, but he did it.”
Heidari is now 11-for-13 on the year.
Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd was limited to four catches and 28 yards on the day, his lowest of the season since notching only four receptions and 27 yards against Pittsburgh.
Floyd is one of the most productive receivers in the country, with 53 catches on the year, good for eighth in the nation.
Sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey, who stands at 5-foot-8, was matched up against the 6-foot-3 Floyd for most of the game.
-USC brings the Jeweled Shillelagh back to Troy. Last year’s loss ended an eight-year streak of USC victories over Notre Dame.
-Saturday’s win was the first USC victory at Notre Dame Stadium since 2001.
-Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees was held without a touchdown pass for the first time in 11 games, the third-longest streak in school history.