A Long Way Down

The tunnel sounds were familiar. Celebratory. The sense of conquest and accomplishment palpable as the team headed through the historic Los Angeles Coliseum's lone exit.

Fans hung from the stands to beg for game-worn souvenirs and players happily obliged. Smart phones captured otherwise ephemeral moments precious to the victors who'd earned the adoration and spoils of victory.

That was the scene for Notre Dame as they exited the Trojans turf, 12-0 on Nov. 24, 2012. Undefeated, No. 1, and on their way to Miami to play for the national championship.

That was the scene today for USC on Senior Day. A pedestrian 8-4, but 200-million light years better than 7-5 Notre Dame.

The Irish have won just 16 and lost 10 since the conclusion of the 2012 regular season when head coach Brian Kelly and his then impenetrable defense unleashed 60 minutes of dominance followed by unbridled post-game celebration in Troy.

It's a long way down indeed.

"We have to remember where we are after today's loss," said Kelly. "It's a red-letter day for our football players and coaches alike. Two years ago we were playing for a national championship. Today we got our butts beat. And it wasn't as close as the score. I thought coach (Steve Sarkisian) was very generous today running the football to keep the score where it was."

It's been that kind of half-season for Notre Dame's new look defense, feted early for their work against a quintet of opponents that apparently couldn't score in a Hollywood night club, otherwise they surely would have riddled these Irish.

43, 31, 39, 55, 43, 31, and 49 points against. An unbroken string of utter failure. Unable to stop anything wearing cleats.

"They're playing as hard as they can, but there's a deficiency there with personnel, particularly on defense," said Kelly. "We loaded up against the run and were in man coverage all day. We knew it was pick your poison today and we just don't have a lot of answers in that situation."

Agreed. But they should have plenty offensively along a unit that has not suffered a major injury to its top 15 competitors since mid-September.

The defense was the worst unit on the football field today for either team. The offense, however, is at fault. Punchless and without purpose. Scattershot. Soft.

And at full strength.

"They got punched in the nose today," said Kelly of the team, and I assume he and the coaching staff as a whole. "They're young, but I want to see some bite too. I want to see some bite. The bowl preparation, we're going to have to see a response. All jobs are available. We're going to have to see something from this group."

Offering that all jobs are available might not be prudent for a coach with an approval rating south of El Paso, which, coincidentally appears to be a destination among those in play for Kelly's free-falling Irish.

It''s where the 2012 Trojans found themselves a month after undefeated Notre Dame celebrated at their expense.

"Undefeated" Notre Dame is now 7-5 Notre Dame, the worst team of the five-season Kelly era to date, at least at season's end.

"We have a lot of young players and I'm very confident as to where they want to go," he said. "We expect to be back in the spot were were a couple years ago, but we're in a tough spot right now."

Physically, Notre Dame had nothing left to give as the 2014 regular season mercifully concluded. Mentally, they checked out. For the first time this season, there was no fight. Perhaps that's why the new guy saw fit to find some.

"The only message I wanted to convey is we have to play with heart at all times and have a no-quit attitude," said backup quarterback Malik Zaire, one of two bright spots offensively along with heretofore forgotten runner Greg Bryant. "I felt we were in the game until the clock hit zero. That's my mindset. Moving forward, we cannot quit. We have to play with a lot of heart, even if the scoreboard says differently."

At some point, it will.

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