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Football Commentary: Irish fall flat in the season’s biggest game

Mike Gilloon | Tuesday, November 28, 2006

LOS ANGELES, CA – You could almost see this coming. The thousand or so Southern California faithful that lined a campus walkway to cheer the Trojans as they entered the Los Angeles Coliseum Saturday afternoon sure could. As it snaked through the crowd on its way to the stadium, Trojan fans saw a USC squad prepared for Notre Dame. The Trojans bounced around, slapped hands and smiled, obviously eager for a matchup a year in the making.

The Irish could have used some of that energy.

In its biggest game of the season – for most players, of their career – Notre Dame dropped passes, whiffed tackles and ultimately missed its opportunity to solidify the best season in over a decade in South Bend.

USC was the more-talented football team. The Trojans defense was faster than Michigan’s and Dwayne Jarrett could start for any team in the NFL right now.

But the Irish knew that going in. They knew that only a focused, fiery effort would be enough to beat the Trojans in the Coliseum for the first time since Saturday night’s color commentator roamed the Irish sidelines.

So what happened?

The Irish began the game with little of the fire, not much of the intensity and none of the clutch plays that kept Notre Dame in the contest against an even-more-talented Trojan bunch last season. And placing blame isn’t easy.

It’s ridiculous to question the players’ effort – especially the senior class, which is the biggest reason Notre Dame is competitive today.

It’s also ridiculous to blame everything on Notre Dame’s athleticism. The Irish had more than enough talent to hang with the Trojans last season. There was no reason why they couldn’t stay in the game with USC this time.

The only reasonable blame has to fall on the head coach.

Charlie Weis had all season to get Notre Dame up for this game. He had last season’s aching loss and the chance to spoil an archrival’s national title hopes as motivation. What happened?

The Irish laid an egg.

Notre Dame started the first quarter like it had never seen a football before. Sure-handed Rhema McKnight dropped it, Darius Walker fumbled it and the secondary couldn’t find it.

Despite the mistakes, a little bit of hope shone down from the LA lights in the second quarter Saturday night. Steve Quinn blocked a punt. Mike Richardson and Trevor Laws came up with big interceptions. It looked like the Notre Dame we thought we knew.

But the Notre Dame we thought we knew would have punched in 21 quick points and went into halftime with the lead. One touchdown later later, Southern California had weathered Notre Dame’s only defensive storm of the evening.

It was unexpected. This was the game the Irish had been gunning for since last October. The game Brady Quinn wanted to complete his already legendary resume. The game the whole country was waiting for.

USC coach Pete Carroll can be criticized for showing too much spirit at times. But no one can say Carroll doesn’t know how to coach in big games. The Trojans were fully prepared – mentally and physically.

Weis showed Saturday night that he hasn’t reached Carroll’s level yet. He had to find a way to get the Irish ready for their biggest game of the year. He had a whole season to build them up, to get the Irish to peak at the right time.

It took just one quarter to show that Notre Dame is much further from the top than anyone ever thought.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Mike Gilloon at mgilloon@nd.edu