LOS ANGELES – Kapron Lewis-Moore was on the travel roster four years ago, a freshman redshirting when Notre Dame came to the Coliseum and did not get a first down until the last play of the third quarter.
With Charlie Weis as head coach and an emphasis on flashy offensive recruits like quarterback Jimmy Clausen, running back Armando Allen, wide receiver Golden Tate, and tight end Kyle Rudolph, the Irish lacked the foundation to handle a more physically dominant USC team in the trenches.
On Saturday night, Moore and Notre Dame cemented their remarkable turnaround, turning the tables on the preseason No. 1 Trojans and claiming their own trip to South Florida for the BCS championship game.
“It’s a testament to where this program is,” said Lewis-Moore, the defensive end who had five tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks in the 22-13 coronation. “Four years ago, USC had an excellent defense that year. They really came in and knocked us around. To this point right now that we came in and we played our game.”
USC had the explosive wide receivers this time in Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, the two 1,000-yard running backs in Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd, the big-armed redshirt freshman quarterback in Max Wittek, but lacked the foundation to handle a more-physically dominant Notre Dame team in the trenches.
It was clear when USC ran seven plays inside the Notre Dame seven-yard line, needing a touchdown to try and mount a comeback against its intersectional rival, but could not score. Wittek, a prototypical NFL passer every bit his listed 6-foot-4, attempted two quarterback sneaks on first and second down from the one and could not get in. McNeal ran right up the middle on third down and was prompted dropped for a loss. A fourth-down pass was dropped.
Seven plays to try and get seven yards. Seven plays that resulted in six yards.
“Well if you followed us at all this year, that’s how we play,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We come up big defensively at some time during the game. We did that again, an unbelievable goal line stand.”
Kelly did that by assembling one of the most imposing defensive lines in the nation, anchored by mammoth sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt. They do not yield rushing yards or touchdowns, limiting USC to 95 yards on 27 carries.
Notre Dame isn’t flashy anymore. They run the ball and work the play-action passing game, especially to tight end Tyler Eifert. They grind on defense and establish field position.
At a time when the spread offense is supposedly changing the game, they use a proven formula that works, something Lewis-Moore will notice as he takes in the final weekend of the season, with an eye on the SEC championship game between Alabama and Georgia, the winner set to take on Notre Dame on Jan. 7.
“I think next week I’m really going to relax and just enjoy some good football,” he said. “I’ll definitely be watching that game.”
The Crimson Tide came into the weekend ranked first nationally in scoring defense, second in total defense, third in rushing defense. The Bulldogs have Jarvis Jones to wreak havoc. With their own standout front seven, Pac-12 North champion and title game host Stanford trails only Alabama in run defense.
“You always want to play good defense,” Lewis-Moore said. “Great national teams that are ranked really high, they have good defenses. Coach Kelly, when he got here, he wanted to establish an identity on defense and I think he did that.”
It is still a defensive game, a game won at the line of scrimmage, something USC seems to have forgotten. Lane Kiffin tried to build his team from the outside in, relying on skill players and quick but undersized linebackers, trading away the physical superiority of their national recruiting powers.
Kelly went the other way, building from the inside out, taking a wildly different approach from his counterpart Kiffin, who earlier this season spoke of the need to win with style to capture the fickle attention span of Los Angeles.
“We don’t talk about style points,” Kelly said. “We don’t talk about anything else. Just find ways to win, and these guys continue to do that.”
Notre Dame’s style comes instead from substance.
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.