Oct 23, 2011, 1:57 AM EDT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The stage was set for magic. Notre Dame Stadium was electric, bringing the evening to life on the type of crisp autumn night that football was meant to be played on. In Southern Cal and Notre Dame, two of college football’s most storied programs had the perfect canvas for another classic match-up. Only one team forgot to show up.
Playing the role of scrappy underdog, Lane Kiffin’s USC Trojans walked into South Bend and knocked the Irish to the mat early and often, soundly beating the heavily favored Irish 31-17. The win was as shocking as it was complete, with the Trojans dominating on both sides of the ball and capitalizing on critical Irish mistakes during a second half that saw Notre Dame and the home crowd a yard away from rallying back to life.
Yet it was Kiffin’s team that had the answers on Saturday night, as the Trojans were the team able to better shelf the distractions and concentrate on simply playing winning football.
“Our whole thing this week was not about the hype,” Kiffin said. “It was about the prep. It was about preparing really well and finishing games off and not letting the other stuff get involved.”
The Trojans certainly did that, putting together their most complete game of the season and dashing any big-picture hopes the Irish had for the season.
Here’s what we learned in Southern Cal’s 31-17 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday night.
Notre Dame’s defensive front seven got thoroughly dominated by Southern Cal.
It was a sign of things to come. After forcing a three and out on Notre Dame’s first series, USC took possession of the ball and ran the ball right into the teeth of Notre Dame’s defense. Marc Tyler burst through the line of scrimmage for 15 yards on the Trojans’ first play and from there it was off to the races. USC needed the cagey play of Matt Barkley to extend the drive on 4th and 1, when a pump fake took Prince Shembo off his feet for an easy first down, but the drive was pure brute force by a Trojan team that came in ranked 77th in the country running the football. On the 13 play, 66 yard drive, the Trojans only passed the ball twice, with sixty yards coming on the ground before Barkley dumped an easy pass to Randall Telfer for the touchdown.
Without injured senior Ethan Johnson manning his defensive end spot, the Irish suddenly look very average against the run. Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt may be the most heralded duo of defensive linemen to come into Notre Dame in two decades, but as every down players they looked over-matched against a much maligned Trojan offensive line. The Trojans ran the ball for 219 yards Saturday night, with diminutive Curtis McNeal running for 118 yards and Tyler chipping in 67 a week after dislocating his shoulder.
The power running game allowed the Trojans to dominate the time of possession battle nearly two-to-one, and the running game opened up a deadly play-action passing game that Notre Dame struggled to counter. For the Irish, the struggles along the line of scrimmage come at a terrible time, with Navy on the horizon.
For the first time in a long while, the Irish defense looked helpless against the Trojans, who finished the game with a ten-play drive that rode the back of Curtis McNeal for all ten carries. With everyone in the stadium knowing USC was going to run the ball, McNeal averaged 4.7 yards a carry until Kiffin mercifully allowed the clock to run out at the Irish two yard-line.
It’s back to the drawing board for Notre Dame, with the clocking ticking before Navy — the No. 4 rushing team in the country — comes to town.
With the game’s momentum finally back in Irish hands, catastrophic turnovers sealed the Irish’s fate.
It was setting up for a drive that could’ve gone down in Irish lore. With Tommy Rees nursing a hyper-extended knee, senior quarterback Dayne Crist was called into duty, and he kept the Irish moving down the field, completing four of five passes including a crucial fourth down conversion to Tyler Eifert.
With the Irish not missing a step, Crist had steady nerves as he pulled the Irish within yards of the endzone and a tying score. After Andrew Hendrix charged the ball down to the Trojan one yard line, Crist lined up under center. From there, Notre Dame’s worst fears revealed themselves.
Crist never got a handle on Braxston Cave‘s snap, and the fumble squirted out of Crist and Cierre Wood‘s grasp before Trojan safety Jawanza Starling scooped it up and ran 80 yards for the back-breaking score. For the second time this season, the Irish found themselves on the verge of a momentum stealing touchdown, only to have the most painful punch in football catch them in the proverbial jaw.
“To turn the ball over in the ridiculous fashion that we have, I just — it just makes me crazy,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “I just don’t understand how something so easy can come out the way it does.”
That it happened this time to Crist was particularly heartbreaking. It was the hard-luck senior’s storybook opportunity — the Southern California native thrown into duty against his hometown team. After getting nothing but bad breaks for four years at Notre Dame, Crist had the opportunity to earn one special moment and unfortunately coughed the ball up.
Under the lights, USC’s stars were better than Notre Dame’s.
Going into the game, everybody in the stadium knew that the Trojan offense depended on Robert Woods and Matt Barkley. Yet the junior quarterback still connected with his dynamic wide receiver 12 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns, the second sealing the game for the Trojans.
Just as important for the Trojans was the supporting cast of guys like McNeal, Tyler and freshman Marqise Lee, the latter two both playing through injuries that had them questionable even to suit up.
“You have Marc Tyler, a fifth-year senior and Marqise Lee, a true freshman, and for both of them to come with the same attitude immedaitely after their injuries — they said, the whole time, I’m playing,” Kiffin said after the game. “And really our doctors after last week’s game did not think those guys would play. They willed themselves to play today.”
Lee didn’t make a difference in the stat sheet, but he kept the Irish defense honest opposite Woods. More important than that, Barkley’s ability to buy time in the pocket and make things happen with his feet made life next to impossible for Notre Dame. He played close to flawless football, completing 24 of 35 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns.
On the opposite sideline, the Irish couldn’t get any of their key players on track. Falling behind early took Notre Dame’s ground attack out of play. Tommy Rees and Michael Floyd struggled to connect, with the deep shots the Irish took falling incomplete.
“We were out of sync and rhythm,” Kelly said. “We had Mike two or three times and we didn’t connect with him.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Manti Te’o and Harrison Smith played nice games on paper, but neither made the impactful play the Irish needed. Desperate for a big sack or a forced turnover, none of the front line players on the talented Irish defense could come up with anything against a Trojan team that dominated the Irish both on the ground and in the air.
Notre Dame’s traditions have been updated. But the team on the field can’t take another step back.
The first night game in 21 years might not have been a success on the field, but it provided the best atmosphere the Irish have had at home in a long time.
“I thought the crowd was more electric that the times I was here before, even in 2005,” Kiffin said after the game.
After a week of demanding their supporters’ best, the football team didn’t do their part. With a week off to prepare, the stage got too big for the Irish, as uncharacteristic play on both sides of the ball dug the Irish a deep hole they could never get out of. The offense sputtered out of the gate, the defense played sloppy and made critical mistakes. Coming into the evening 12-1 after an off week, Kelly wasn’t interested in questioning how he handled the extra time to prepare.
“You know, generally I’m going to fall on the sword nine out of ten times,” Kelly said. “But I know what I’m doing on a bye week. I’ve had great success. I know what it looks like. And for us to come out and be less than what we should be, I’m not happy about it.
“But I’m certainly not going to go back and second guess the way I’ve prepared over 21 years in a bye week. Sometimes there’s some accountabilituy from everybody — coaches and players alike — and sometimes it falls on, as a group, all of us. They just didn’t play as well as they needed to play.”
The night start turned the stadium into a madhouse. The Irish pumped in the Dropkick Murphys, Ozzy Osbourne (a dozen too many times), the White Stripes and others. In may make the traditionalists angry, but it served its purpose. Unfortunately, for that purpose to matter, the Irish need to play better football when the spotlight is shining, otherwise it’s all for naught.
While the football game is lost, Kelly and his staff must salvage both the weekend and the season.
For those wondering, there is no true correlation between the Irish’s result on the field and getting a recruiting commitment. Manti Te’o visited Notre Dame for the Irish’s dreadful loss to Syracuse. Michael Floyd watched USC clobber the Irish. The recruits that were here on official and unofficial visits saw everything that was good about Notre Dame on Saturday, and sometimes the shortcomings on the field can help make a coaches recruiting pitch even more persuasive. That said, there is no more important 48 hours for the Irish football program than the next 48. The coaching staff still has dozens of important recruits in town that need attention, and some of those players will be the future of the football program.
Just as important, the coaching staff will spend Sunday putting together the gameplan for Navy, a game that still haunts this football team a year later. With the Irish 4-3, they can kiss any chance at a BCS birth goodbye, yet there’s still much to play for even with the Irish out of Brian Kelly’s hypothetical playoffs.
“I’m not worried about that,” Kelly said of their dashed BCS dreams. “Their gift bag won’t be as big. The fact of the matter is, they have got to play Navy and they have to get ready in a short period of time. So the moment for us, it never gets too big. In other words, we don’t think in big picture terms. But those guys, all they know is, Monday is not going to be a great place to be around me. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, that’s what they are thinking about. They are not thinking about those bigger picture items.”
It’s probably for the better. On a night where the stage was set for a classic, sneaking a look at that big picture is what got the Irish players in trouble to begin with.