by John Vannie
Notre Dame entered the Los Angeles Coliseum on Saturday with high hopes, but came away with a heavy dose of humility after a 44-24 thrashing by the powerful USC Trojans. Wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett eviscerated the Irish secondary with seven receptions and three touchdowns, while USC’s defense and special teams demonstrated both superior talent and preparation.
The outcome was essentially determined in the opening period quarter as the Trojans scored on their first three possessions against a mere Irish field goal, but second quarter errors by the hosts gave Notre Dame a flicker of hope just when things appeared out of reach. Trailing 21-3, Notre Dame drove to the Trojan three before Darius Walker fumbled on first and goal.
The Irish defense rose up and forced a three and out, however, and Steve Quinn burst through cleanly to block Greg Woidneck’s punt. Brady Quinn capitalized by hitting Marcus Freeman for a seven yard score, and the deficit was cut to 21-10.
Notre Dame had its chances to make it a game as USC’s John David Booty threw interceptions on the next two Trojan possessions. Despite excellent field position, the Irish could not record a single first down and failed each time on fourth down passes, one of which was dropped by Rhema McKnight. The half ended with USC firmly in command.
The Irish special teams opened what would become a disastrous second half by kicking the ball out of bounds. The Trojans quickly moved down the field and scored to extend the lead to 28-10, and the next Notre Dame chance ended with a Sedrick Ellis sack of Quinn. The Irish did score late in the third period on a short fourth down pass to McKnight, but they could get no closer than 28-17.
Booty led USC to a field goal early in the fourth quarter for a 31-17 advantage, and he put the game out of reach on the next series with a 43-yard scoring strike to Jarrett. The Irish doggedly fought back to score on a 14-play drive as time wound down, but the Trojans completed their dominating performance moments later when Brian Cushing caught an onside kick attempt by Notre Dame and ran past the stunned Irish for a 42-yard touchdown.
USC was clearly the better team, both in terms of talent and coaching for this game. The Irish defense was ill-prepared from the start. The linebackers and safeties were invisible in pass coverage and the team failed to put pressure on Booty with either a blitz package or a standard four man rush. Conversely, USC’s defense covered well and caused Brady Quinn to pull the ball down and run on numerous occasions. One such play resulted in a 60-yard gain before Walker’s miscue in the red zone.
Notre Dame’s offense looked quite ordinary, and at times it appeared that coach Charlie Weis simply outsmarted himself. Weis kept shuffling in different personnel packages to little or no avail, particularly in the red zone. The lack of a running threat in these scoring situations was agonizing for Irish fans and considerable grumbling could be heard among the faithful in the Notre Dame section.
More likely, Weis was trying to do what he has done since taking over the program two years ago. He is simply trying to squeeze out as many wins and as much productivity from a few very good players and a bunch of average ones. It’s obvious that Notre Dame cannot yet line up against the elite powers and compete on an equivalent basis, and it will be some time before that is the case.
In the mean time, Weis must now objectively evaluate the performance of his staff. The defense is extremely passive overall and poor against the pass. There has been little discernable improvement during the course of two seasons, and Rick Minter’s job should be in jeopardy.
Weis also stated when he took the position that the easiest and fastest way to improve a program is through special teams. Unfortunately, this area has regressed since the beginning of the season and has been exposed by several recent opponents. A significant upgrade in coaching is required here, as it stretches credibility to pin the blame for poor special teams on the talent level. Finding a strong-legged kicker is an obvious exception to this.
Looking back over the season, many fans (including me) chose to overlook the early warning signs that this team did not deserve its lofty preseason ranking. Quinn’s outstanding play and game management skills, along with the emergence of tight end John Carlson, were enough to beat most teams on the schedule. Michigan and USC were clearly better teams, however, and wide receivers McKnight and Jeff Samardzija were unable to get open with any consistency against top quality defenders.
Meanwhile, the running game struggled except in games where Notre Dame enjoyed a clear physical advantage over the opponent. Unfortunately, this was true against only a handful of teams rather than the majority, which is contrary to the legacy of Notre Dame football.
Looking forward, there are significant holes in the roster beyond the current freshman class, and Weis must aggressively recruit size, speed and smarts to fill the gaps left by his predecessor. If he remains true to his mantra, Weis will not be afraid to pursue the very best qualified players and assistant coaches to build a championship level program. His future, along with the dreams of Irish fans to make “Return to Glory” more than a trite slogan, depend on it.
The Irish will now wait a week for a bowl invitation. This will give the seniors, who failed to beat USC during their careers, a chance to end Notre Dame’s long losing streak in post season play. After the dose of humility administered by the Trojans, Irish fans just want to avoid another embarrassment.
John’s Top 20
1. Ohio State
11. Notre Dame
12. Boise State
13. Virginia Tech
17. Wake Forest
18. West Virginia
John’s Bottom Ten
2. (tie) Miami (Fla.) & Florida State
5. Utah State
6. San Diego State
9. Michigan State
Dishonorable mention: The MAC, the States of Colorado, Mississippi and North Carolina