What made this game stand out is that, unlike past confrontations between the Irish and Trojans in the Pete Carroll era, USC actually delivered the first punch. Even when the Trojans blew the Irish out of the L.A. Coliseum in 2002 and 2004, Notre Dame scored first in those games. On this occasion, it was the Trojans and John David Booty who pounced first, and the Irish would never fully recover. SC's offensive braintrust, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, had what was by far their best play calling game of the season, as they exploited Notre Dame's suspect secondary over and over again. By entrusting their quarterback with playmaking responsibilities, Kiffin and Sarkisian gave Booty the chance to stamp himself as a Trojan quarterback worthy of following in Matt Leinart's and Carson Palmer's very large footsteps. The young man from Louisiana didn't disappoint, as he found Dwayne Jarrett early, often and late to punish the Irish downfield. Outside of a brief mini-meltdown in the second quarter, John David Booty played a brilliant game, affirming his place in USC history while taking his team within one win of--believe it or not--a third straight BCS title game appearance.
But while Booty was equal to the occasion, and receiver Dwayne Jarrett destroyed Notre Dame with his best sixty-minute performance as a Trojan, the turning point in this game was produced by the defense of Pete Carroll and coordinator Nick Holt.
After Booty threw two straight picks midway through the second quarter to give the Irish short fields in a 21-10 game, the Trojans--with incredible performances from a back seven that just didn't give an inch to the likes of Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight--made life difficult for Notre Dame's offense and quarterback Brady Quinn, who played well on his own but had precious little help from his skill people. With Terrell Thomas providing smothering man coverage at the corner spot, and linebacker Dallas Sartz filling the passing lanes in the middle of the field, Quinn rarely had available receivers all night long. On the few occasions when Quinn hit a home-run ball, the completion was the simple result of McKnight outjumping Thomas in traffic. USC's coverage was that superb, its instincts and reads that accurate, from the beginning of the game to its very end, when the Trojans--once more, with feeling--stopped yet another Irish drive deep in their own territory. Even when Notre Dame managed to score a touchdown, the Irish--trailing by multiple possessions every single time they scored--walked away bruised and beaten, a punishment for daring to stick the ball in the end zone. On a night when so many pass plays came very easily for USC, every chunk of real estate was very difficult to attain for the Irish, and in many ways, that one reality puts this game in its proper context. The Trojans waltzed around the Coliseum turf with their speed, while Notre Dame was hopelessly slow, stuck in molasses against the sound and fury of their markedly superior opponent.
While USC's place as a national runner-up (at minimum) is but one win away, the postseason fate of the Fighting Irish is much less obvious. While considerations of money, travel and television ratings--the true engines behind the bowl system--figure to land the Irish in a BCS bowl, some very credible football-based arguments could be made against the Irish's presence in a prestigious January football game. The best such claim is simply this: in their two money showdowns against elite opponents, the Irish have been blasted off the field by at least 20 points. With Georgia Tech losing to Georgia in a plug-ugly affair on Saturday, it's overwhelmingly clear that the Yellow Jackets don't rate as a member of the sport's very best teams. This leaves only Michigan and USC as the two titanic teams on Notre Dame's season schedule, which was loaded with service academies and mediocre Big Ten teams, plus two walking bye weeks known as Stanford and North Carolina, and a middle-of-the-road Pac-10 team, UCLA. To be fair to Notre Dame, the string of losses from competitors in past weeks--Texas, West Virginia, Cal, Arkansas--has smoothed the Irish's path. All in all, Notre Dame's fate might come down to the Rutgers-West Virginia game, due to the fact that a Rutgers win would make the Scarlet Knights a BCS lock-in, and put 11-1 Louisville as an attractive at-large candidate. At any rate, though, it's fair to put the Irish's BCS candidacy under the microscope as the magnitude of this loss sinks in.
As for USC, however, the microscope was firmly focused on Pete Carroll's boys, and they brought the hammer. One testy, tricky rivalry game is the only thing that stands between the Men of Troy and a third straight trip to the championship game of college football.