The USC Trojans had their chances but once again it was a series of key mistakes at critical times that kept them from a victory as they fell to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish by a score of 27-16 in front of 80,795 in South Bend, Indiana. The Trojans started the game well as they jumped out to an early lead with a first half performance that was marred only by a questionable blunder in the punting game but that key play gave Notre Dame a lift and the Irish outscored USC 24-3 from that point on for the win.
The Notre Dame vs USC game is annually one that comes down to a few plays with victory determined by who executes best on those plays but on Saturday we saw the game swing on two strategy decisions from the Trojan coaching staff:
1) The failed run by MacGillivray. The play called for MacGillivray to roll right and kick on the run but with the option to run for the first down if wide open. This play is worked on in practice and is great to use if a team is getting unusually good pressure on the punter but there was no reason to call for it in this situation because everything was working and we had all the momentum at that point in the game. MacGillivray certainly screwed up the execution of the play but he should never have been put in that situation to begin with..
2) The decision to kick a FG on 4th and 1 from the one. It was a gut check moment at a key point in the rivalry Marv Goux called "Big Man on Big Man football" and the USC Trojans chose to kick. A touchdown in that situation gives the offense a much needed confidence boost but even if the play failed the defense wouldv'e come on the field with their ears pinned back and fired up. Instead the wrong message was sent and it's no coincidence that the Irish outscored the Trojans 17-0 from that point on to take control. In fact, the Irish capitalized on both momentum swings to score touchdowns on their way to stealing a game that easily could have belonged to the Trojans
Notes from the Sidelines
Chad Pierson made his return from back surgery and didn't waste any time as he scored on his 2nd play with 54 yard pass from Carson Palmer, who made an athletic play just to get the pass off although Pierson showed his rust by tiring on his long run to the end zone…..The Irish took advantage of Trojan defensive reserves on three key plays. Aaron Graham got taken out with a chop block on an option play that Holiday ran in for a touchdown, Kevin Arbet replaced Kris Richard and quickly got beat for a deep pass down to the one while DeShaun Hill allowed a 17 yard deep post to be caught right in front of him on a key 3rd and 15 situation…..The Irish went bump and run against Kareem Kelly for much of the day which should have been the perfect opportunity for him to use his speed, gain separation and make plays. Keary Colbert has played well lately and made the type of plays in this game that could earn him the status as the go to receiver…..USC held ND on a 4th down run and the Trojan defense is now 8 for 8 on 4th down stops this season….Mike Pollard played one of his best games of the year and forced a key fumble early which led to the Colbert touchdown…..It was nice to see Sandy Fletcher catch a pass but why are we throwing so much to him late in the game?
Key to Game: Quick Defense
This game featured the quick but undersized Trojan defense going against the big but immobile offensivive line which is so important to the Irish option attack. Pete Carroll gambled that his unit had the speed to penetrate against the line and disrupt the option before it did too much damage while also realizing that those same quick players needed to create turnovers to have a chance to win. Carroll told his defense that he needed three turnovers and they went out and accomplished that job in fine fashion with timely stops that put their team in a position to win the game but once again this season we saw that effort come up short because of shortcomings on the offensive side of the ball. It is easy to look at the 3-3 record and say this is a mediocre Notre Dame football team but the presence of Carlyle Holiday has changed the dynamics of their team in recent weeks and offers them a powerful running option at QB. The Trojan defense rose to the challenge with inspired play, led by the dline, and the only real success by the Irish offense through 3 quarters of the game came immediately following strategy mistakes by the Trojans. The defense led the team through an emotional period at the end of the 3rd quarter and beginning of the 4th when both teams fought hard to gain the critical edge necessary to win the game. Matt Grootegoed put his helmet on the ball and forced a fumble inside the five and Lonnie Ford combined with Shaun Cody to make big plays as well. Unfortunately those plays were surrounded by an interception by Carson and a fumble to close the game. The quick defense did enough to win but on this day it wasn't enough.
Loving the Line
The play of the Trojan defensive line against the Irish had to make Marv Goux proud. Lonnie Ford was the leader with an effort that included two sacks and a huge TFL on a reverse late in the game but true freshman Shaun Cody also came up big as he added two sacks and six tackles. They got solid penetration against the option by using their speed advantage against the big Irish OL. If any unit of the team has the opportunity for an excuse lately it is the dline with all the freshmen they are playing but instead they have performed very well.
The Trojans gave up five sacks on the day but many of those were coverage sacks as the offensive line gave decent protection but the receivers couldn't get open.
Notre Dame averaged 30 yards per kickoff return through the 3rd quarter until Pola ordered Newbury to kick a squib kick.
It was a tale of two halves, in the 1st half the Trojans had nine 1st downs without any turnovers but in the 2nd half they had three giveaways to go along with three 1st downs. In the first half the Trojans jumped out to a lead and dominated the game with a ball control offense led by the pounding Sunny Byrd but in the 2nd half the Irish were able to put a stop to the Trojan ground game while not enough big plays were made in the passing game to save the win. Early in the game the USC offense was moving the ball well and showed no signs of missing injured tailback Sultan McCullough. Not only was Byrd staying square and hitting the right holes but Carson Palmer was also taking advantage of the situation by utilizing Byrd, Charlie Landrigan and Chad Pierson as pass catchers on his 1st five completions of the day. Notre Dame had come out and went against all recent history by calling pass plays on the opening drive and they had some success with a new QB in running the option but Shaun Cody made a key sack and Frank Strong knocked down a pass at the line to force a FG. Carson made two excellent plays to give us a lead as he did a great job of escaping the rush and dropping a ball to Pierson for a long TD and he later was alert enough to get a quick snap and throw to Colbert for a relatively easy score. David Davis missed the extra point but other than that everything was going right for the Trojans until for some reason Mike MacGillivray was given the option to run on a rollout punt play and he made the absolute wrong decision. With the importance of momentum in the college game the impact of this play cannot be underestimated. USC is a team that has had trouble this season gaining offensive momentum but at this point in the game we had it and the results were showing on the scoreboard. USC was able to limp into halftime without any further damage but when we came out for the 2nd half the running game which had worked so well all but disappeared and took any sense of offensive rythym with it. Byrd ran for 48 yards in the 1st half, only 14 in the 2nd and even when we did have the chance to get a touchdown and regain control of the game the decision was made to kick a field goal. The remainder of the game saw the Trojans dropping too many passes while the Irish ran the ball for 74 yards in the 4th quarter in a familiar display of ball control offense to seal the victory.
WeAreSC DinnerJoin us the week of the UCLA game at the Blue Moon Saloon in Redondo Beach for our monthly WeAreSC dinner featuring speakers on the state of Trojan football and USC recruiting. Special guest speaker this month is former Trojan OL Mike Lamb. For information, please call 310/543-5557