Trojans turn 'What if' into what happened

USC made up for last week with a tough, smart, aggressive romp over Notre Dame Saturday at the Coliseum where the Trojans answered not only "what might have been" but they hope, at least, what might be coming for a young team that started seven true freshmen (five on offense, two on defense) in the final regular season game of 2014.

What if . . . or maybe, what might have been.

You know you're thinking it. You're not alone. So are the USC players and coaches. Although as Leonard Williams said after Saturday's 49-14 thrashing of Notre Dame to give the junior All-Americna his first win over a USC archrival, "You can't do anything about the past."

Only USC did. Using the UCLA game as the template for what not to do, USC came out and played fast and physical, confident and with a clear gameplan, aggressive and attacking. It felt good. Like that's the way you're supposed to do it.

Steve Sarkisian praised a team with such "great resiliency," a team that has "a couple of gut-wrenching losses that will haunt us but our future is ridiculously bright. We are going to be really good . . . and we are not going anywhere."

Sark said that last sentence twice. Maybe a message to the critics of a team that, despite its youth and numbers, should not have come in here with four losses. And yes, this game was different. Sark did, as he said he must, improve his coaching. But the players are the same guys who for whatever reason didn't walk away winners in games they should have.

So how did Sark improve here. Because as Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly noted of Cody Kessler, whose six touchdown passes were more than any Notre Dame team has ever given up to one quarterback in a game.

"I think those numbers stand up with all the quarterbacks in the country," Kelly said of Kessler. "He came in with 30 touchdowns against four interceptions . . ." and now "he's 36-4."

"Ridiculous numbers," Sark said. But the numbers -- even Cody's 16 straight completions in one especially efficient streak -- didn't tell what happened here. This did.

Sark and his quarterback were on the same page, they were going to tempo a Notre Dame damaged defense that didn't look comfortable with teams playing fast on their good days, the gameplan was clear, no doubts about what USC could do, or would do.

USC would spread the ball around. And just keep going for it. To George and JuJu, Nelson of course, and Buck and Justin and maybe more importantly, Randall and Bryce. The tight ends were back in the offense.

"Nine or 10 guys touched the ball," Cody kept saying afterward. And as far as going fast, "I'm just happy Coach trusted me," Cody said. So is Sark.

"We remained aggressive on offense," Sark said as USC scored for only the fourth time this season on the first drive of the second half, making it 42-7 and sending the message there would be no Notre Dame comeback nor any USC backing up or off in this one.

Kessler's six TDs came on a career-high 32 of 40 passing for 372 yards with scoring passes to George Farmer (twice), Adoree Jackson (one of five freshman starters on offense and one of two on defense as a legitimate two-way starter here), Darreus Rogers, Nelson Agholor and Telfer, on the one Cody liked the best, he said, with Randall beating triple coverage, finding an open spot from the 9 and then pivoting away from the defenders.

"A perfect day," said Telfer, who appreciates that he's going out "with a win over maybe our biggest archrival . . . We've got a lot of weapons on this team."

But that's hardly new information What was new here is that USC actually used all of them. No tippy-toeing around wondering if they could do this or that and still protect Cody. So they sent Farmer, all 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds of flying football player, deep. Double Nelson or JuJu on one side and you get George going deep against one on one on the other./p>

"Obviously they're good all-around," said ND corner Cole Luke. "They're fast."

The player Kessler eclipsed for the record number of TD passes -- Matt Leinart who had five in 2004 -- was here to lead the Trojans out of the tunnel and talk about Cody later. "I was eager to see how they'd bounce back from last week," Matt said. "I thought Cody showed great composure."

Agholor helped Cody out with a dozen catches -- fourth-best all-time in a season for USC -- for 120 yards. "If we buy in 100 percent," he said, "not that we didn't last week . . . but we played to our strengths."

Last week, Williams said, USC went in to the UCLA game changing things up, as if what got them there wouldn't have been good enough. This week it was all about USC being USC and getting after it, doing what they do. Get to the quarterback. Get everybody involved. Just keep playing.

And win this one for the seniors. Which is exactly what they -- and the seniors -- did. "It wasn't about us seniors," Hayes Pullard said, "it was about all of us."

But it was about the seniors. Like Gerald Bowman, whose second interception of the season helped put a nail in Notre Dame's coffin in the second quarter.

And Andre Heidari, whose seven points-after broke Trojan Ryan Killeen's Pac-12 record for attempts and made with 181 in 187 tries.

And linebacker J.R. Tavai (for John Robert, he told us today), whose 3.5 sacks matched his seaon total in what was his best game ever. "We had a plan and executed it," he said, "get in the quarterback's face."

And maybe about Buck and Leonard and Nelson, although none of the juniors was going down that path to seniordom. "I don't want to steal any of their shine," Leonard said.

And while Buck said "It's a great feeling . . . to have one more game to play with these guys," he said that was just looking ahead to the bowl game and nothing more.

"I haven't," he said when asked if he's made up his mind to come back after 110 all-purpose yards (93 rushing, 17 receiving) making him the only player in the nation to surpass 100 in all 12 games this season.

And as good as you feel for the veterans -- and their redshirt junior buddies the way they went out -- you can't not be thinking: "What if . . . "

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at Top Stories