Notre Dame was a 32-point underdog on Saturday night at USC; the most points that the Irish have given any team in recent history. The Trojans covered that spread with a 38-3 victory and in reality the game was not even that close.
Even more telling than the 35-point margin of victory was the Trojans' 22-4 advantage in first downs, but even that figure is a bit skewed. The Notre Dame offense did not move the chains until James Aldridge's 15-yard carry on the final play of the third quarter when the score was already 31-0.
Of Notre Dame's eight offensive possessions in the first half, five ended with Eric Maust punts after three-and-outs, two died with interceptions by Jimmy Clausen and the final drive consisted of a three-yard run by Robert Hughes before time expired in the half.
Eight offensive possessions, 20 plays, nine yards, five punts and zero first downs. Meanwhile, USC used its seven first-half drives to rack up 265 yards on 35 plays for 11 first downs and 24 points.
The Irish lost the time of possession battle in the first half by more than six minutes and it would have been even worse, but USC had three scoring drives at the end of the half that lasted less than five total minutes combined.
It took Joe McKnight just one play to cover 55 yards after Clausen's second interception. After Maust's fourth punt of the night, USC drove 67 yards in just 2:33 for another touchdown and concluded the half with a 32-yard drive that lasted 2:09 and ended with a 35-yard David Buehler field goal.
Notre Dame gained a total of 10 yards on its first three possessions of the second half; all three resulted in three-and-outs. Before Aldridge's first-down carry on the last play of the third, the Irish had gone virtually 45 minutes without a first down while the Trojans had 17.
It is hard to imagine that in 45 minutes you don't just luck into a couple of first downs. A blown coverage here, a mental mistake there, a penalty, something.
Charlie Weis seemed confident that Clausen would get plenty of chances to throw deep down the field against USC's predominantly man-free defense. But instead of challenging Clausen and the Irish receivers, Pete Carroll and the Trojans decided to make the Notre Dame run game beat them and committed an extra safety in coverage rather than run support.
The Trojans were able to pressure Clausen while rushing just four and were able to stop the run with just seven defenders in the box. That success carried over and rendered Notre Dame's number one playmaker, Golden Tate, virtually useless.
After catching a quick-out for eight yards on the very first play from scrimmage, Tate did not get another offensive touch until a seven-yard reception on Notre Dame's final possession of the game. What is worse is that Tate's 15 receiving yards were tops for the Irish.
Even Carroll seemed surprised at the effectiveness of his defense.
"We just didn't give up many yards," he said. "We continually controlled the line of scrimmage. Notre Dame is a very good passing team and it just seemed that series after series, it just wasn't happening for them."
Aldridge had a 16-yard carry following his 15-yard gain that set up Brandon Walker's 41-yard field to put the Irish on the board. Tate's seven-yard grab gave the Irish their third first down and they picked up their final first down on a personal foul penalty after things got really chippy.
Weis told his players after the game that if they ever want to be contenders then they have to be able to beat teams like USC. But before they can beat teams like USC they need to be able to get first downs against teams like USC.