It Was Over When…Joe Schmidt broke his ankle? Cody Riggs' right foot worsened? Sheldon Day sprained his knee? Brian Kelly's offense became one dimensional and USC proceeded to destroy that dimension? A mistake-prone, shell-of-his-former-self quarterback repeatedly took the field with no repercussions?
Take your pick. Choose all of the above. But rest assured, it happened prior to today.
Whatever the definition of a "bad week of practice" might be, Kelly's Irish were doubtless stricken with it over the six days preceding this road debacle, number two in as many outings during the season's final month that resulted in one too-close-for-comfort win and a continuous quartet of defeats.
With its injury-riddled, backup-heavy defense hanging by a thread, Notre Dame had little chance to record an upset Saturday in Los Angeles, and that faint trickle of hope evaporated when its suddenly, inexplicably rudderless offense missed on two potential big gains on Notre Dame's first two drives.
On the first, quarterback Everett Golson failed to see an uncovered Will Fuller 25 yards downfield on 3rd-and-14, throwing it away intentionally instead. More maddening: Fuller was on the (right) sideline to which Golson rolled.
One series later, Golson's previously sprained right shoulder appeared to come into play when the normally strong-armed triggerman threw errantly and out of bounds to a wide open Fuller who had more than five yards on the nearest Trojans defender almost 50 yards downfield -- a certain 85-yard touchdown opportunity lost.
Asked post-game about the health of Golson's shoulder, Kelly offered injury was not at play, "There's no physical limitations there."
Meanwhile, quarterback counterpart Cody Kessler sliced and diced the Irish secondary to the tune of five touchdowns in the game's first 27 minutes. His sixth one quarter later set a record by a Notre Dame opponent.
Golson spent the better part of the season's first seven games as the best player on the football field. Saturday, mentally broken, he barely qualified as No. 3.
"Disappointed in their play today from an offensive standpoint and we didn't get the play out of the quarterback early on that we needed on the road against a team like USC," said Kelly.
How (or why) backup Malik Zaire couldn't have helped Notre Dame prior to this contest, even through intermittent action, cannot be explained outside of the program's walls.
Offensive MVP -- Malik ZaireProvided a stagnant offense with life late in the first half, completing the first pass of his career on his second snap vs. the Trojans, a 49-yard strike down the left sideline to junior Chris Brown. Brown's subsequent stiff arm and ensuing run took the ball to the Trojans 11-yard line where Zaire capitalized with a read-option keeper and sprint to the right pylon for Notre Dame's first touchdown.
The touchdown however trimmed the Trojans lead to just 35-7. A comeback was not in the cards.
Zaire finished 9-20 passing for 170 yards, adding six carries for 31 yards not including 13 lost to a sack and stuffed run along the way.
"We tried to get a spark offensively," said Kelly. "I think Malik gave us that spark. We had a couple of drops on one drive that could have kept them alive. We missed a field goal. I don't think we punted when he was in the game.
"He missed some things in the red zone which is to be anticipated in what was his first significant time."
Asked how Golson responded when Kelly informed him that Zaire would replace him, the head coach offered, "Like anybody else would when they're taken out of the game and they're the starter."
Offensive Game Balls-- Greg Bryant: The redshirt-freshman added punch to the running game albeit with the outcome no longer in doubt. Bryant led the Irish with 79 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.
“It was nice to get him in and get him some more touches, and those were our intentions," said Kelly of his heretofore little-used runner. "Thought he ran well. We got him in on kickoff (return). The more he gets in the game, the more comfortable he is running the ball. He’s a nice addition to our offense."
-- Junior wide receiver Chris Brown caught just two passes but both were notable: the first a one-handed snare of a bubble screen that had he not corralled it, was headed for a sideline interception. The other the aforementioned leaping grab of Zaire's first throw to set up Notre Dame's only meaningful touchdown.
-- Sophomore wide receiver Will Fuller finished with a team-high five receptions and 75 yards. Fuller was also open for an 85-yard touchdown early on a Golson throw that misfired. Fuller though dropped two Zaire passes, one a dead-to-rights post route in the fourth quarter that would have resulted in a 70-yard score.
"We made too many mistakes on the offensive side of the ball," said Kelly. "Drops. Uncharacteristic. I was just praising our wide receiver group this week and they com in and drop way too many balls."
Defensive MVP -- NoneThis courtesy Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated: The 2014 Irish have surrendered 40 points four times this season. In the four previous seasons of the Kelly era, Notre Dame's defense allowed 40 or more points just twice: a 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship game and a 41-31 loss in Ann Arbor to Michigan in 2013.
As well, the 2010-2013 era Irish led by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco yielded 30 or more points 11 times in 52 games. Today's loss in Los Angeles with the seventh in a row that Notre Dame's opponent topped that total.
Defensive Game Balls-- Jaylon Smith: Finished with a game-high 14 tackles to tie his career-high (Stanford 2014) including a third-down sack of Kessler and a pass defended.
In a public flogging such as the one endured by the Irish defense Saturday afternoon, "the little things" are rarely celebrated. But one Smith defensive snap described below encapsulates his level of play in the midst of a hideous season for the unit as a whole.
On a Cody Kessler scramble to the right for eight yards, Smith diagnosed a short out-and-up route by USC receiver-supreme Nelson Agholor. The Irish sophomore backpedaled, then ran with Agholor down the left sideline, taking away what would have been an easy Trojans touchdown. negated Agholor, got the 3rd-down-sack
Asked post-game about the direction of the defense, Smith offered, "A lot of motivation. Assessing the problems that went down in the game. Really just sticking together. One of the things about going to one of the best schools in the country in Notre Dame -- not on the football field, where we aren't' displaying it this year -- but academically and as a family, we have no issue with staying together."
-- Elijah Shumate: The junior safety didn't necessarily play well in his first start back after a two-game benching, but he did play hard and kept hitting, registering a career-high 13 tackles.
-- Freshman Greer Martini registered five tackles including one for loss in the first half. Martini was lost to a quad injury late in the opening stanza. In his stead, and continuing to struggle with the occasional crucial pass and run fits was freshman middle linebacker Nyles Morgan who in one half of football, fought hard and finished with a career-high 11 tackles including one for loss.
Morgan was suspended for the first half as part of a two-half penalty for a targeting ejection in the second stanza against Louisville last week.
-- Junior Romeo Okwara authored his most active effort of the last two months, finishing with six tackles including two at scrimmage with a pass breakup.