by John Vannie
USC’s defense smothered Notre Dame’s struggling offense on Saturday and won their sixth straight over the Irish by 38-0. The Trojans’ methodical offense stuck with its plan to wear down the Notre Dame defense until the third quarter, when the demoralized Irish were no longer able to put up a fight. After what has arguably been the worst stretch of football in the history of this storied program, Notre Dame finally has a bye week to lick its wounds and try to salvage some respectability from this dismal season.
The game began as the defensive struggle most predicted. Mark Sanchez started at quarterback for USC, and he was able to throw crisp, short passes to a variety of receivers in stride. Notre Dame held on the first three Trojan possessions, but the game’s first major break predictably occurred on special teams.
A USC punt veered off line and hit Notre Dame’s Munir Prince in the back, thus turning it into a live ball. The Trojans fell on it at the Irish ten yard line. Sanchez hit sure-handed tight end Fred Davis on the next play for the score, and USC had a quick 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Notre Dame bounced back to force a Trojan mistake as the game moved into the second period. David Bruton blocked a punt right off the shoe top of Greg Woidneck at the Trojan 29, and the Irish seemed poised to tie the game. The offense was stymied again, however, and USC blocked a 40-yard field goal attempt by Brandon Walker.
The Irish defense tried to hold things together, but a succession of three and outs by the offense kept Corwin Brown’s charges on the field for nearly 11 minutes of the second quarter. The dam broke when the Trojans put together a 79 yard drive to extend their lead to 14-0 with four minutes left in the half. They were able to add a field goal with 11 seconds left after Notre Dame failed to convert a third and one on the prior series.
Any hopes the Irish had to get back in the game ended abruptly on the first series of the second half. Following a sack on Evan Sharpley on the first play, Travis Thomas fumbled after catching a screen pass at his own 13. Keith Rivers recovered for USC, and Sanchez threw a scoring pass to Stanley Havili moments later.
A 24-0 deficit utterly demoralized the Irish, who had now handed two easy touchdowns to the Trojans. Meanwhile, USC’s defense began to tee off on Sharpley since Notre Dame was forced to the air. The Trojans recorded five sacks and an interception while refusing to give Irish receivers room to breathe.
As the game moved toward its inevitable conclusion, USC added two long scoring plays against the exhausted, arm-tackling Irish defense. Vidal Hazleton grabbed another short pass with room to maneuver and wove his way through the Notre Dame secondary for a 48-yard touchdown, and Joe McKnight added a 51-yard scoring run early in the final period.
Once the game mercifully concluded, the embarrassment of another inept performance was replaced by a profound sense of relief that this eight game stretch of horror was over. It is too soon to tell what mindset the Irish will have when they return to action in two weeks, but fans and players alike filed out of the stadium in a zombie-like trance.
For what it’s worth, here are the answers to the questions I asked in my game preview:
– Which team will be able to run the ball effectively? – USC outrushed ND by 227 to 48.
– Which quarterback will put the ball up for grabs? – Sharpley
– Will the Irish refrain from handing the ball to USC in its own territory? – Regrettably not.
– Will any Notre Dame receiver have success against the talented Trojan secondary? – No
– Will the Irish be able to cover USC’s tight end and backs on third down? – Davis, Havili and Allen Bradford each caught scoring passes.
– Which team will create a scoring opportunity with its special teams? – Both teams created a scoring opportunity with turnovers on punts, but USC capitalized on its chance while ND suffered a blocked field goal.
The 1-7 Irish are clearly the worst Notre Dame team I have seen in the 44 years I have followed the program, and there is plenty of blame to distribute. I will refrain from piling on at this point, but each player, coach and administrator must be critically evaluated at the end of this season. Changes will have to be made in the coaching staff and in their overall approach to the job. Notre Dame has a significant investment in Charlie Weis, and the parties must work together to make this regime successful. Failure is simply not an option.