On the sideline it was a Who's Who of Trojan Football history. Anthony Munoz and Pat Howell shared a warm embrace, Ronnie Lott was one of the many former players who brought his son to share in the day, Anthony Davis basked in the cheers from the adoring crowd and Delon Washington celebrated the ten year anniversary of his efforts to end the Notre Dame win streak in 1996. On the other side, Joe Montana and Tim Brown hoped for the best while Charlie Weis came out for warm-ups in sweat pants and a sweatshirt, surely he will change into something more appropriate before the game starts, right?
As has become a tradition in recent years, the former players (along with hundreds of other fans) formed a tunnel for the current Senior players to run through on their final day at the Coliseum. Ryan Kalil received the loudest ovation, Kyle Williams hugged his wife, daughter and his father before getting ready to take the field. When the captains came out, a moment all Trojan fans had anticipated since Desmond Reed came back this year, we saw Desmond as one of the designated game captains but he did not take part in the coin toss or any special glares at Weis. Desmond would save his talking for later.
The game got started and the Irish promptly hit a big pass play but, as is typical with Pete Carroll and his defense, things got much stiffer once Notre Dame got down inside the Trojan 30. When faced with a fourth down situation, Weis elected to go for it rather than try a long field goal and the Irish could not convert. Was it greedy to go for it in that situation? Maybe. It sure is nice to get the opening score on the board in a game like this. Perhaps Charlie knew it was going to take more than field goals to win this game. If that's the case, he was right.
C.J. Gable got the carry on the first play for USC by going for 21 yards with a nice stiff arm on his part. It's hard to argue with the job C.J. has done in recent weeks, truly impressive for a true freshman to step up in these tough games. Booty completions to Patrick Turner and Fred Davis helped get the ball inside the ten and John David then fired a strike to Dwayne Jarrett and the Trojans were on the board first, 7-0.
The Irish went three and out and were forced to punt to Reed. For the first time all year, appropriately enough, Desmond found some open room and he made a dash down the USC sidelines. He ran and he ran until finally he got tripped up after 43 yards and you could not have imagined a louder roar from the crowd. For all the Trojan fans who had watched Desmond struggle to get anything going this year, knowing that he hadn't fully recovered from his injury suffered last year at Notre Dame, that moment could not have been any sweeter. One can only imagine how it felt for Desmond.
On the first play from scrimmage, the Trojans took a shot downfield with Booty hitting Steve Smith who landed just short of the goal line. I loved the play call on that one. The Trojans had all the momentum from the Reed punt return and you go for the throat right away. Two plays later Booty hit Jarrett for the 2nd time on the night and it was 14-0 in favor of the Trojans after less than ten minutes into the game. Television viewers across the country, including Michigan fans who were praying for an Irish win, had to be thinking "Uh oh, the Trojans are back".
To their credit, the Irish did dink and dunk their way down the field on the next possession, a 14 play drive that once again stalled before the end zone and Notre Dame was forced to settle for a field goal to make it 14-3. Terrell Thomas had a beautiful pass break-up in the end zone on a pass intended for Rhema McKnight, it was interesting to see Thomas on McKnight as many observers had figured Terrell would shadow Jeff Samardzija in the game but the decision was made to put Terrell on the more athletic McKnight and it paid off.
After Vincent Joseph returned a kickoff 27 yards, the Trojans were right back in business. A Booty pass to Jarrett got the ball inside the red zone and then Gable got a couple carries, including a well-designed pitch-out, before Booty ran it in for a short touchdown to make it 21-3 in favor of the Trojans.
On their next drive the Irish had their biggest play of the night and it came on a busted play when Brady Quinn was able to scramble for 60 yards to put the ball inside the Trojan 20. A couple plays later, however, Keith Rivers forced a Darius Walker fumble which was recovered by Fili Moala and the scoring threat was averted. It was good to see Fili get the recovery after the way he has stepped up his play this season.
Unfortunately, the Trojans were unable to do anything with the ball that deep in their end and Greg Woidneck came on to punt from his end zone. The punt was blocked and recovered by Notre Dame at the Trojan seven yard line. A quick touchdown pass from Quinn on the first play made it 21-10 and a brief moment of doubt crept in, would Notre Dame be able to make this a game? It didn't help those thoughts when Booty threw interceptions on back to back possessions to end the first half. Even though the Irish weren't able to capitalize, USC went into the locker room at half with a 21-10 lead, it was enough to make you wonder what was going to happen in the second half.
The Trojans got the ball to start the third quarter and began to march on a drive. A few runs by Gable, some throws to Fred Davis and Chris McFoy, and then Dwayne Jarrett decided it was time to add another play to the highlight reel. On a first down, with the ball at the Notre Dame 25, Booty threw a pass toward the right sideline that seemed to be out of reach for Jarrett until Dwayne simply extended his long arm and somehow brought the ball in before going out of bounds. We've seen some spectacular one-handed catches over the years, grabs by Mike Williams and Dominique Byrd come to mind, and this one by Jarrett belongs up there with any of them. Chauncey Washington ran it in for a short touchdown a few plays later and USC once again had a comfortable lead at 28-10.
A Sedrick Ellis sack on third down forced the Irish to quickly punt but the Trojans couldn't do anything with it either and punted the ball right back. Quinn hit a long pass to McKnight to get the ball inside the USC 20 and then a few plays later on a 4th down he hit McKnight for a touchdown and all of a sudden it was 28-17.
This was a critical point in the game. The Irish had yet to be a serious threat to gain control of the game but if the Trojans were to stumble at this point it would leave the door wide open for another crazy finish in this rivalry. Thankfully, that didn't happen. Instead, John David Booty calmly marched his team on a 13 play, 64 yard drive that took more than five minutes off the clock before we had to settle for a Mario Danelo field goal and a 31-17 lead. Even though the drive didn't reach the end zone, it made enough of a statement to answer the Irish touchdown with a score of our own.
With victory in sight, the Trojan defense really began to do some hitting. This was one of the most physical games of the year, if not the most physical, and the defense was certainly up to the task. Oscar Lua made a pair of stops on the next Irish drive and then Dallas Sartz had a sack on third down to force a punt.
OK, it was time to put this thing away right now. A first down run for 14 yards by Gable put the ball at the Irish 43 and Booty then dropped back before firing a strike to Jarrett on a slant, Dwayne bounced off a tackle attempt before racing into the end zone for his third touchdown of the night. Danelo missed the extra point, a truly rare occurrence, but that didn't stop the celebration that had engulfed the Coliseum. With the score 37-17, and with less than nine minutes to play, the majority of Trojan fans felt this victory was now in hand.
There was also an electricity about the performance we had seen from Jarrett. After an up and down season that saw him play incredibly well at times, and then struggle at times in part due to injuries, Dwayne chose this biggest of all college football stages to remind everybody of just how good he can be. For those Irish fans who last saw him on 4th and nine a year ago, they must be ready to put Jarrett on a level right below AD as the Notre Dame Killers.
The next Notre Dame drive got helped at the start by a personal foul call against Keith Rivers that certainly seemed suspect and after going 78 yards in 14 plays they finally found Samardzija in the end zone for a late touchdown to make it 37-24. After that, one of my favorite plays of the game occurred. Rather than realize he was beat, Weis tried to onside kick and Brian Cushing simply picked up the ball and raced 42 yards for a touchdown of his own to bring the score to 44-24. For Cushing, who had been heavily recruited by Notre Dame out of high school, it had to be a gratifying moment. Trojan coach Pete Carroll gushed after the game about the "Bulldog from Bergen" when he talked about the play by Cushing. The play was also special because it reminded Charlie Weis of who was in charge of the game, don't try any tricks thinking you will get back into the game because we won't let it happen.
When the final gun sounded a few minutes later there were plenty of smiles to go around on the Trojan sideline and it was time to enjoy a fifth straight defeat of the Irish, only the second time in USC history that has happened. Before too long, however, the focus will shift to UCLA as the Trojans prepare to end the regular season with a victory that most assume will land them in the BCS national championship game in Arizona. There had been a lot of talk last week about how Michigan might be deserving of a spot in that game but most people who watched the Trojans take care of the Irish on Saturday are now focused on the kind of game that will be waiting if the match-up ends up being USC vs Ohio State. We will be glad to join in that discussion next week, after the UCLA game. For now, however, we will sit back and enjoy the thought of Charlie Weis flying back home to South Bend last night with a genuine concern about what he is going to do with the Trojans. He thought this was his chance, 18 Notre Dame seniors feeling the pain of a tough loss last year and a four year starter at quarterback who was ready to enact revenge. And then they got beat, they got beat in a solid fashion. Where do you go from there if you are Weis? I guess he can ask other coaches like Jeff Tedford, Karl Dorrell and Mike Bellotti. While they are all trying to figure it out, we will be over here enjoying every minute of it. It's a good day to be a Trojan.