USC quarterback Mark Sanchez threw four touchdowns and the move by Notre Dame to Evan Sharpley underneath center did not pay any dividends for the abysmal offensive unit as the No. 13 Trojans thrashed the Irish 38-0. It was USC's sixth straight win the series, five of which have been by 20 points or more and the biggest margin of victory for the Trojans in the history of the rivalry. The Trojans have turned the series into a one-sided affair in the current stretch of consecutive victories and added another loss to Notre Dame's season to forget.
Were there any positives for the 1-7 Irish? Notre Dame once again failed to score in the first half for the fifth time in eight games. The Irish were dominated on both lines of scrimmage and Sanchez looked like the next great Trojans quarterback. It's bad when the gunner on the punt team, Mike Anello, who made two good tackles on special teams, is one of the few bright spots. USC (6-1) bullied Notre Dame around on Saturday afternoon and the Irish had no way to stop the four quarter beating."USC is a good football team," Weis said. "They're well-coached, they have good players that played well today, and my hats off to them because you see where they are and you see where we are, and we're at different ends of the spectrum at this point right there. They are where we want to be, and that's what we're going to shoot for and that's what we're going to drive for until we get to that point. And I will work till the ends of the earth until that ends up happening."
The biggest storyline this week was the move to Sharpley at quarterback in place of freshman Jimmy Clausen, who Weis said was a bit banged up. The junior had shown flashes of being able to get the offense moving in the right direction in second-half outings against Purdue and Boston College.
But this wasn't the Boilermakers or Eagles defense on the field. Sharpley was facing an aggressive, fast USC unit ranked eighth nationally in total defense. Notre Dame was dead last in total offense coming into Saturday. The stats did not lie as this was a total mismatch from the first snap of the contest.
Sharpley finished the game 17-of-33 for 113 yards and an interception. The offense moved the ball over midfield just twice through three quarters. The offense mustered only 165 total yards and the Trojans sacked Sharpley five times. The Irish were a lowly 4-of-17 on third downs and didn't sustain enough drives. The lone cheers for the group came in the fourth quarter, when consecutive first downs was enough to garner applause from those still left in attendance.
Notre Dame has a bye before it's next contest in two Saturday's at home against Navy. Weis will watch the tape and decide later if it's another start for Sharpley or its back to Clausen at quarterback.
"It's too early to tell," Weis said about the quarterback competition. "Like right now I'm not trashing Evan now after one game. I would imagine Evan would be the guy going into the next game because just like -- I don't think when I go back and watch the tape, I don't think I'm going to find enough evidence that he's the sole responsibility for us splitting the bid on offense, and I've never been big on sacrificial lambs.
"I'll have to wait and see. It'll take me a little time. Tomorrow I'll be scrambling a little bit, but by the time I see you guys, media at lunchtime on Monday, I'll have gathered my thoughts on that."
A bad special teams play set up USC's first touchdown. A Geoff Prince punt hit Munir Prince in the leg and was recovered by the Trojans' Vincent Joseph. One play later, Sanchez hit Fred Davis on a 10-yard touchdown to make it 7-0 USC.
It became 14-0 in the second quarter when the Trojans put together a masterful drive. USC marched 79 yards in ten plays, totaling five first downs. Sanchez capped it off with a eight-yard scoring strike to Allen Bradford to increase the lead to two touchdowns. The Trojans added a field goal right before halftime to give their team a 17-0 advantage heading into the locker room.
The first 30 minutes of action continued a disturbing trend for Notre Dame. The Irish have been outscored 134-24 in the first half of games this season. For an offense that struggles to sniff the red zone, playing catch-up is not a recipe for success.
It went from bad to worse in the second half. A Travis Thomas fumble on the opening possession gave USC the ball at Notre Dame's 13-yard line. Three plays later, Sanchez found Stanley Havili for a five-yard touchdown to make it 24-0.
One series later, the Trojans quarterback struck again but this time it was mostly the wide receiver's part. On a play that perfectly captured the game, Sanchez hit Vidal Hazelton on a pass down the field. The sophomore wideout did the rest, first getting by Ambrose Wooden, then shaking off safety David Bruton and spinning away from Wooden again to score from 51 yards out. That put the score at 31-0 Trojans and it's when most Notre Dame fans decided to exit the stadium.
On the day, Sanchez looked like a veteran in his first true road start. The sophomore, starting in place of injured John David Booty, completed 21-of-38 passes for 235 yards and four touchdowns. All four scoring strikes went to different receivers. When Booty gets back to 100 percent, USC head coach Pete Carroll will have a hard decision about who to start at quarterback.
"With Mark in his first chance he comes back on the road and he puts together a beautiful job of leading our team offensively," Carroll said. "I thought he was really in command, extremely farther along than he was in his first game. He started to show in the fourth quarter against Arizona, but boy, today he was really on. If it weren't for a couple drops he would have had a spectacular day. I'm really excited that he was able to lead us in that regard."
What's next for Notre Dame? Four winnable contests await the Irish to end the season. But if Saturday's performance is any indication, there could be more losses added to the year total. The chances for an outside shot at a bowl games were also dashed at the hands of USC. At best, Notre Dame could finish 5-7 this season. There will be calls for the younger players to see more time on the field and garner experience. But Weis said he has an ethical responsibility to try to win the last four games.
"I think that they understand the next four games are going to determine a lot of their futures," Weis said about his players. "I think that's what they understand. Whether it's a fifth-year guy that wants to go to the NFL or whether it's any other guy that's in the program that wants to set the tone to go into next year, either way they always have a motivational tool."