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Football: Ineffective offense dooms Irish

Jay Fitzpatrick | Tuesday, December 2, 2008

LOS ANGELES – Anyone looking for the main reason that Notre Dame fell to No. 5 USC Saturday needs to look no farther than the top of the stat sheet.

In the 38-3 loss, the Irish ran 49 offensive plays for 91 yards, good for a 1.9 yards per play average. On the other side of the ball, the Trojans had an average of 6.8 yards per play, with 449 yards gained on 66 plays.

The rest of the stat sheet looks to favor the Irish, who played a disciplined game (except for the occasional scuffle). The turnover margin was even with three apiece and USC actually had more penalties than Notre Dame did (eight flags for 80 yards against the Trojans and only two for 22 yards against the Irish).

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis credited a lot of his team’s offensive inability to the Trojan defense, which was one of the best in the country in both scoring and yards going into this game.

Weis said the Trojans backed into a cover-2 shell, something they have not done often this year.

“They’re more of a press-man, bring an extra guy down in the box,” he said. “But they felt they could stop us with their front seven and they were able to do that.”

The Trojans managed to sack Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen four times Saturday, all from the front seven and only one from a linebacker.

“They were able to get to us without having to bring any heat early in the game. Really I think that at the end of the day, the lack of productivity on offense and USC’s defense led to our defense eventually wearing down and giving up more and more big plays,” Weis said.

Clausen said the way to adjust to the cover-2 defense would be to try running the ball more and checking down to shorter options in the passing game.

Notre Dame’s offense could not do this effectively, in large part due to USC’s defense. Any running plays or short passes were quickly snuffed out by the Trojan linebacking corps, led by Bednarik finalist Ray Maualuga.

“They’re one of the top defenses in the country, if not the best defense in the country,” Clausen said.

The forced check-downs made the passing game Saturday easily the worst in Weis’ tenure with the Irish, and Clausen finished the game 11-of-22 passing with 41 yards and two interceptions.

The low yardage totals are most surprising, since the deep ball had been one of Notre Dame’s most potent offensive weapons during the first 11 games of the season. But against the Trojans, the leading Irish receiver in terms of yards was wide-out Golden Tate, who had two catches for 15 yards. In the loss to Syracuse on Nov. 22, Tate had seven catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns.

The Irish only managed one first down in the first three quarters of play: a 15-yard run by James Aldridge as the last play of the third quarter. Later on that drive Notre Dame’s offense would see Trojan territory for the first time.

Aldridge accounted for more than half of the team’s total offense against USC, with 58 yards on 12 carries. Most of those yards came on Notre Dame’s field goal drive spanning the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth quarter.

The Irish did hang with the Trojans through the first quarter, and were losing only 7-0 despite giving up five times as much total offense to USC (118 yards to 21 through the first 15 minutes). Weis attributed this early score to his defense’s passion and emotion going into the game.

“In this game, I think that our defense let us hang around there for a while because their defense was working us pretty good right until the end of the third quarter,” he said.

But early in the second quarter, after the defense had just forced a Trojan three-and-out, Clausen threw a pass intended for tight end Kyle Rudolph into heavy coverage. Maualuga tipped the pass, which linebacker Kaluka Maiava grabbed for the pick, Clausen’s second.

That play ended up as a turning point for the game, since Joe McKnight followed it immediately with a 55-yard touchdown run to double the USC lead.