It sure wasn't easy.
The Fighting Irish outlasted Southern California in a game of attrition Saturday night as Tommy Rees threw two touchdown passes in a 14-10 victory that ended a five-game home skid to their rivals that dated to 2001.
"We battled and mentally and physically continued to play every play. That's what we ask of them," coach Brian Kelly said. "That's what I expect from our group is to keep competing regardless of what happens in the game."
Notre Dame's odds of winning didn't appear good when Rees left the game for good after being sacked with about 9 minutes left in the third quarter. But neither team scored in the second half and the Irish hung on. Rees was 14 of 21 passing for 166 yards with TD throws to Troy Niklas and TJ Jones in the first half.
Kelly said Rees had a neck strain. He said it will be a day or two before Rees knows how long he will be out.
"He's a little sore tonight, but he's clear and talking," Kelly said.
USC managed just 121 total yards of offense in the second half. After converting both third-down conversions on their opening scoring drive, the Trojans went 0-of-11 the rest of the game.
"We started trying to make stuff happen and it seemed like they always had a guy there," USC quarterback Cody Kessler said. "We were killing ourselves with penalties and missed assignments. You can't win a game when you do that. If you can't convert on third down and keep drives alive, you can't really win a game and you can't put up points.
The Irish (5-2) beat the Trojans (4-3) for the third time in the past four games, after losing the previous eight straight, but won at home for the first time since Pete Carroll's first year as USC coach in 2001. USC won last week in Ed Orgeron's first game as interim coach following Lane Kiffin's dismissal, but this is the earliest the Trojans have three losses since starting that 2001 season 2-5.
"We have a hurt team in there," Orgeron said. "They gave it everything they had. "
In only the third night game at Notre Dame Stadium in the past two decades, there were a lot of mistakes and both teams lost players to injuries.
Marqise Lee, who sat out against Arizona with a sprained knee, had two catches for 18 yards in the first half but didn't play in the second half. Silas Redd, the Penn State transfer who missed the first five games with a knee injury, got the bulk of the carries in the first half with leading rusher Tre Madden out with an injured hamstring, but had just two carries five yards in the third quarter. He finished with 19 carries for 112 yards.
Orgeron said Notre Dame's pressure up front hurt the Trojans.
"It just seemed that we couldn't get things going," he said.
With Rees out, the Irish attempted just four more passes and Andrew Hendrix wasn't close on any of them as the Irish could only muster 47 yards total offense in the second half -- 27 of them while Hendrix was in the game.
"We've got to play better, flat out," Kelly said. "You guys watched it, I watched it. He's got to play better."
Cam McDaniel led the Irish rushing game with 92 yards on 18 carries. USC's Kessler was 20-of-34 passing with an interception, with Nelson Agholor catching six passes for 39 yards. USC also was hampered by 11 penalties for 95 yards and Andre Heidari missed field goals of 40 and 46 yards, leaving him 2-of-7 on field goals of 30 yards or more this season.
"Obviously the penalties hurt us tonight in crucial situations, and we didn't punch it in the red zone when we needed to," Orgeron said.
Both teams squandered scoring opportunities in the first half. The USC defense was the first to come up big as safety Su'a Cravens was unblocked and tackled McDaniel for a 3-yard loss on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. The Trojans responded with a 96-yard touchdown drive, with Redd rushing for 40 yards on six carries.
The Irish tied the game on a 7-yard scoring pass from Rees to Niklas. The Trojans blew a chance to take a lead when Heidari missed a 40-yard attempt wide right early in the second quarter.
Agholor returned a 47-yard punt by Notre Dame 48 yards to the Notre Dame 25, with another five yards added on because Notre Dame lined up in an illegal formation on the punt. But after Kessler threw an 11-yard pass to Lee, the Trojans had to settle for a 22-yard field goal.
The Irish took the lead with a 91-yard drive on five plays, highlighted by two runs by McDaniel. On the first, he started right and cutback left for a 24-yard spinning run to the Notre Dame 41. After an incomplete pass, McDaniel cut left again for a career-long 36-yard run to the 11. Jones, who was shaken up two plays earlier, then caught an 11-yard TD pass to give the Irish their first halftime lead at home against USC since the "Bush Push" game in 2005.
The Irish players said they finally were able to play well enough to beat the Trojans in South Bend.
"Good players made great plays. That's what we needed to do to win the game," linebacker Carlo Calabrese said.
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