Notre Dame Football: Defensive Grades vs. USC

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Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) celebrates with students after defeating the USC Trojans 41-31 at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s a consistent, reliable characteristic to be observed in the Notre Dame defense, it is, without a doubt, the unit’s inconsistency.

In the Fighting Irish’s 41-31 victory over USC on Saturday, ND defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s squad again showed both a maddening inability to stop anyone and an impressive proclivity for playing shut-down defensive football, all in the span of 60 minutes.

To begin the contest, the Notre Dame defense started slow and in unimpressive fashion, allowing the Trojans to drive 71 yards for a touchdown in just over 3 minutes of game time on the opening series, and subsequently surrendering a field goal on USC’s next possession. They then improved a bit, though, getting a couple stops that led to turnovers (Equanimeous St. Brown’s blocked punt and a turnover-on-downs) and generally looking comfortable and capable thanks to the offense’s quick start that gave ND a 21-10 lead heading into the second quarter.

In the second and third quarters, however, VanGorder’s defense showed the same major flaws they’ve displayed all year – missed tackles, blown assignments, and extreme gullibility in falling for trick plays. In that time span, the defense gave up touchdowns of 75 and 83 yards to Juju Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson, USC’s best and most explosive receivers. USC RB Ronald Jones II broke off a 65-yard run early in the third quarter, setting up another Cody Kessler touchdown pass and putting USC up 31-24, scoring 21 unanswered points.

VanGorder’s squad showed its typical resiliency, however, along with a knack for making plays when it counts most, as they held Southern Cal scoreless for the final 24:40 of the game, forcing a couple big 4th quarter turnovers and enabling the Irish offense to mount its comeback to win the game.

So, considering all of that, let’s look at each specific unit of the defense, grading them on their wild, up-and-down performance.

Next: Grades: Defensive Line