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  • Not Ready for Prime Time

    by John Vannie

    USC rolled into town as a nine point underdog and left with its fifth straight victory in Notre Dame Stadium, a dominant 31-17 victory over the Irish. Matt Barkley led a perfectly balanced offense and the Trojan defense suffocated Notre Dame’s running game while holding Michael Floyd to four irrelevant receptions for 28 yards.

    Curtis McNeal, at 5’8″ and barely 180 pounds, paced USC’s ground attack with 121 tough yards as he ran through Irish tacklers all night. The Trojans gained 219 yards at a five yard clip while Notre Dame gave the ball to its backs only ten times all night and recorded a measly 41 rushing yards.

    The Irish returned to their mistake-prone ways in disastrous fashion, as safety Jawanza Starling picked up a third quarter fumble and ran the length of the field for a 24-10 advantage when it appeared Notre Dame would tie the score at 17. Dayne Crist, in briefly when Tommy Rees was briefly injured, could not handle the exchange from center Braxton Cave at the Trojan one yard line. Starling grabbed the bouncing ball and ran untouched the other way for the score.

    Notre Dame had spent most of the night attempting to fight back after quickly falling behind by 14-0 as USC ran at will and carved up the Irish defense. The Trojans extended the margin to 17-0 before George Atkinson returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards to get Notre Dame on the board in the second quarter. The offense finally started to click late in the first half as Rees began to find Theo Riddick and drove the team inside the Trojan 10. The Irish had to settle for a field goal, however, when Rees missed a wide open Tyler Eifert in the end zone on third down from the seven.

    USC opened the third quarter with a promising drive, but a holding penalty forced a punt. Rees responded by connecting with Eifert, but Crist was forced into action when Rees limped off after a scramble near midfield. Crist kept the drive alive with his own passes to Eifert, and Coach Brian Kelly inserted Andrew Hendrix when his team reached the Trojan three. Hendrix kept the ball on first down and pushed inside the one, but Kelly elected to get cute at this point by re-inserting Crist and calling for a pass.

    After Starling’s touchdown, Rees came back to lead a successful Irish drive to cut the deficit to 24-17 at the start of the fourth quarter. USC missed a chance to put the game away when Andrew Heidari missed a short field goal, but the Trojan defense reasserted itself and forced turnovers on Notre Dame’s next two possessions. Barkley converted one of these miscues into a touchdown pass to Robert Woods, and the game ended with a long, punishing drive by USC to run out the clock.

    The fumble by Crist leading to Starling’s score underscored Notre Dame’s football frustrations during the past decade. It seems that every time the Irish are poised to make a statement that they are returning to football relevance, they find a way to regress. In this contest, however, it was more than one play that did them in. The Trojans physically dominated the line of scrimmage throughout the evening and Notre Dame’s coaches and players were simply not ready to face a team of USC’s caliber.

    Let’s review the pregame questions for additional insight:

    Will Rees be able to adjust to the speed of USC’s defense? Rees had flashes where he was effective, but he was not able to carry the offense by himself. The Trojans took away Floyd and Kelly inexplicably abandoned the running game.

    Can the Irish pass rush make a dent in Barkley’s completion percentage? Not at all. Barkley was a 68% passer coming in, and was 24 of 35 for 68.5% in this game. He was not sacked and even scrambled for a couple of key first downs.

    Will Woods and Lee torch Notre Dame’s secondary? Woods displayed his exceptional talents by making people miss in the flat and with an acrobatic touchdown catch, but the Irish secondary was not as inept as seven players in front of them.

    Which team will be able to sustain its running game? The surprise answer is USC, and by a wide margin. More than any other factor, their success in this area determined the outcome.

    Will the Irish shoot themselves in the foot at an inopportune moment? I hate it when I have a nagging hunch about stuff like this.

    Did Notre Dame’s special teams improve during the bye week? George Atkinson provided a terrific spark, but Woods blew through the Irish punt coverage team to set up an early score.

    Will the night time atmosphere and home crowd be a positive factor for Notre Dame? USC dampened the enthusiasm with 14 first quarter points, and the piped-in music dissolved into black comedy as the evening wore on. The traffic jam following the game added a final insult to my injured sensibilities.

    The Irish dropped to 4-3 and will attempt to regroup against a relatively weak Navy squad. Any lofty goals for this season have been destroyed, however, as Notre Dame’s date with destiny was simply more of the same old song that has played at every meaningful game since Lou Holtz paced the sidelines. That the music was louder and more obnoxious on this occasion almost seemed a fitting complement to the team’s poor effort and the abject failure of the coaching staff to develop a cogent offensive or defensive game plan. The Trojans won by executing the things they are built to do with precision, while Kelly’s Irish failed to stop the run, threw the ball 75% of the time and grab-bagged themselves into oblivion in the game’s defining moment.

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