Football: Good grief, Charlie
Dan Murphy | Tuesday, December 2, 2008
For the second time in as many years, No. 5 Southern California hung 38 points on Notre Dame en route to a 38-3 victory in Los Angeles Saturday.
The Trojans rolled to their seventh straight victory over the Irish – the longest streak in the rivalry’s history – behind an impressive showing from senior quarterback Mark Sanchez. Sanchez finished his final home game with 267 yards passing and two touchdowns.
“Well, it’s a rivalry game and it’s always tough to lose to any rival, but losing like this is obviously tough,” Irish senior Pat Kuntz said.
On the other side of the ball, the No. 1-rated USC defense stopped the Irish in their tracks. Notre Dame was held to a field goal on its only trip into Trojan territory and did not pick up a first down until the final play of the third quarter.
The Irish defense kept things close through most of the first half, but the offense didn’t help it out. With just over nine minutes until the break, Trojans senior cornerback Cary Harris picked off a tipped Jimmy Clausen pass to give USC the ball at the 45-yard line. Clausen finished the day 11-for-22 with two interceptions.
The very next play senior Joe McKnight broke loose and juked his way through the secondary to give USC a 14-0 lead. The score was the first of the season for McKnight.
“I think that our lack of productivity on offense with USC defense led to our defense wearing down and giving up some of those big plays,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said.
All three USC running backs – C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson and McKnight – finished the day with a touchdown and combined for 175 yards on the ground.
The Trojans followed McKnight’s score with back-to-back scoring drives to close out the half.
Sanchez connected with McKnight for a 14-yard gain and then he found fullback Stanley Havili on the next play for another 39 yards.
After one unsuccessful run play, Sanchez went back to the air, hitting an open Damian Williams over the middle for the score. Williams led all receivers in the game with seven catches for 86 yards.
On the following drive, Notre Dame got backed up to its one-yard line before it was forced to punt to Johnson. Johnson made it to the end zone on the return, but the play was called back due to a block in the back.
Sanchez drove his team inside the red zone once more before settling for a field goal with under a minute to go, giving USC a 24-0 lead going into the break.
The score stayed there until midway through the third quarter when Sanchez got hot once again. This time he connected with Patrick Turner for a gain of 17, then Irish linebacker Toryan Smith got hit with a pass interference call that gave the Trojans a first down on the 11-yard line.
From there Gable took over, rushing three times before getting into the end zone for his team-leading eighth touchdown of the year.
The Irish finally cracked the scoreboard on their first drive of the fourth quarter. The Irish gave the ball to junior James Aldridge on seven of eight plays – the eighth was an incomplete pass intended for Aldridge – to move the team into field goal range. He rushed for 51 of his 64 yards on the drive before Brandon Walker came in and hit the 41-yard field goal attempt.
Aldridge could play a big role in a potential bowl game for the Irish, who may be without their two other running backs for at least the first half. Sophomore Armando Allen suffered a leg injury early in the game Saturday and did not return. Weis said after the game that he was not certain of Allen’s status.
Fellow sophomore back Robert Hughes will also miss the first half of his next game because he was ejected in the final minutes after getting in a scuffle with a Trojan defender.
“That really bothers me that a guy gets punched in the face and he gets thrown out of the game, you know, for getting punched in the face,” Weis said.
The two rivals got in several shoving matches late in the game and almost broke into a brawl during pre-game warm-ups. The two teams met as Notre Dame came out of the tunnel to stretch and needed to be separated by coaches.
“We were ready to go,” Clausen said. “From the time we left South Bend we said we weren’t going to back down.”
The Irish finished their regular season at 6-6 with losses in four of their final five games.