Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fighting off the Irish: USC 34, ND 27

Charlie Weis had his team in position to knock off the rival Trojans on the final play to snap a seven-game losing streak and return the favor for the "Bush Push" game that the Trojans stole in South Bend during Weis' first season with the Fighting Irish. For USC, they found themselves in the nefarious position with their heels on their own goal line thanks to sloppy, undisciplined penalties in the forth quarter.

Irish QB Jimmy Clausen's fastball landed hopelessly away from any intended target to preserve the Trojans 34-27 win and increase the streak of dominance of Notre Dame to eight straight, but USC shouldn't have been in that situation in the first place. The result of Clausen's throw - complete or incomplete - shouldn't change the message Pete Carroll delivers to his USC squad during the next week of pracitce. Stupid penalties that allow the Irish to score 14 fourth quarter points (with a chance for a game-tying 21) is inexcusable. And yet, there really are excuses for all of them...

At first, it didn't appear to be a major problem. A sack of Jimmy Clausen midway through the third quarter and Everson Griffen flexes his muscles for all to see. Too bad he didn't see the ref behind him trying to get him to stop showing off. Flag. Unsportsmanlike conduct and a 15 yard penalty gave the Irish a fresh set of downs and some breathing room to begin a touchdown drive to bring them within a score of the Trojans, 20-14.

On Notre Dame's first drive of the fourth quarter, a Trojans late-hit after a 21-yard pass play gave the Irish the ball on the USC 32 yard line. The Irish chipped away until they finally reached pay-dirt to pull within 14 points of the Trojans, 34-20. The late hit could conceivably be questionable. It appeared the receiver was heading out of bounds but hadn't quite gotten their yet. A no-call would have also made up for a very late hit on Joe McKnight from earlier in the game that went unflagged.

Trojans' QB Matt Barkley suffered his first turnover of the game when a tipped ball was intercepted and returned to the Trojans 13 yard line giving the Irish prime field position. The Trojans and Irish had off-setting 15-yard personal fouls before Clausen found Golden Tate for the touchdown that really brought the Irish back into the ballgame, 34-27. If USC avoids getting baited into offsetting penalties and the flag is only on the Irish, they are backed up from the 15 to the 30 yard line and scoring becomes much trickier.

But the final Trojan blunder came during the final drive of the game with Notre Damn closing in on the Trojans end zone. SC was flagged for hitting a defenseless receiver to gift eight additional yards to the Irish. Frankly had the receiver Robby Parris not been injured on the play, it's doubtful the play would have been flagged. At the same time with an added value on player safety in recent years, these are the things that the refs now look for. The problem is it's never consistent even with the same crew within the same game. On this drive within the final minute, the Trojans caught there foot in a bucket.

It's easy to shrug off each of these USC penalties individually, but upon further review, the troubling big picture is that USC nearly lost to Notre Dame and Fighting Irish because of these plays. I would have thought some of the bravado might have been beating out of the Trojans after the loss in Washington, but after wins against Wazzu and Cal, the Trojans appear to have that swagger back, for better or worse.

USC intimidates many of its opponents and their coaches. At half time, Charlie Weis had to explain to the sideline reporter exactly why being down by six points was "good thing" in his mind. And that's what a lot of coaches think and feel. And that's all they need to do. Any team that can hang with USC and have a chance to beat USC in the final minute has either snuck up on them, or the Trojans have completely let their guard down. In this game, it seemed that both happened.

With a 34-14 lead in the fourth quarter, it may have seemed like time to coast, but Notre Dame chipped away to get back into the game. At the same time, USC began playing sloppy, leading to penalties.

The close call in South Bend should serve as a reminder for the Trojans not to led their guard down the remainder of the season. The schedule the rest of the way isn't brutal. USC has already passed the test of going on the road to three of the four games that looked to haunt the Trojans schedule in 2009. With wins at Ohio State, Cal and Notre Dame, USC is one win at Oregon away from seemingly overcoming some very touch match ups this season. That doesn't mean the Trojans can sleep on the rest of their opponents - including one other road game in Tempe - if they want to still be considered for the BCS Championship game, let alone winning the Pac-10.

For now, USC needs to be thankful that Touchdown Jesus didn't guide Clausen's final throw to a wide open receiver in the back of the end zone. This game began a stretch of five games in five weeks before the Trojans next bye before a date with UCLA at the Coliseum. The Trojans are one three-point loss away from an undefeated season and still controls its own destiny in the Pac-10 if USC can win at Oregon. So now Pete Carroll must get USC to do what it claims it knows how to do best: Fight On!

A few other notes on a sneaky success in South Bend:

+ Charlies Weis fell to 0-5 as head coach of Notre Dame against USC. He's 9-0 against all over Pac-10 teams.

+ Not a bad game for quarterback Matt Barkley who matched his Irish counterpart the entire game. The freshman led USC going 19-for-29 with a career-high 380 yards, two touchdowns and one tipped-ball interception. Considering the Trojans averaged 13.1 yards per pass attempt, it seems fair to say that the big-play Trojans still live on.

+ Speaking of big plays for the Trojans, Joe McKnight, wait, we're not talking about McKnight first? Then who? Who was the Trojans big-play threat this game? Really...? okay tight end Anthony McCoy had a career day with five catches for 153 yards. In a game where Ronald Johnson still wasn't back to 100%, Barkley worked to McCoy for big plays all game long, and while he didn't score on the day, McCoy helped set up four of six Trojans scoring drives. He caught balls for 35, 23, 7, 60 and 28 yards.

+ Now to Joe McKnight and the "Stable" of running backs who were without Stafon Johnson for the first time after his weightlifting accident. McKnight and Alan Bradford combined for 124 yards, and they each broke off bigs runs of at least 20 yards during the game. McKnight showed his usual flashes of speed in breaking away from defenders while still being able to run between the tackles for gritty yards when needed. Both running backs found the end zone in the game.

+ USC's defense kept the pressure on Clausen all night, sacking him five times and knocking him down plenty more. While the defense did not force a turnover, they were able to get guys in Clausen's face all game long. Strong coverage by the secondary helped with a few of those sacks and Clausen had no where to throw.

+ One play that went under the radar that I thought was some great gamesmanship on the part of the Trojans came late in the third quarter to begin the Trojans drive to put 34 points on the board. Notre Dame punted the ball away to Damiam Williams who saw the coverage team descending quickly upon him. As Irish special teamer Ben Turk closed in, Williams snuck his hand in the air for a last-second fair catch, and Turk ran into him prompting a 15-yard penalty. I couldn't believe hearing the announcers on TV just ripping Turk for a stupid penalty when it was clear it would have been near-impossible for him to avoid Williams on such short notice. A very savvy fair catch called for by the Trojans receiver, and he was rightfully smiling about it on the sideline after the play.

+ USC is now 5-0 with Matt Barkley under center with three of his five wins coming in very hostile environments. He certainly doesn't carry himself like a 19 year old.

+ Charlie Weis said he was going to throw the kitchen sink at the Trojans, and he sure tried. Weis went for it on fourth down three times, including a fake field goal to set up the first Irish points of the game. He was trying to open things up for Clausen, as the QB passed 43 times, but it seemed like the Irish didn't entirely let it all out in this game. Weis had what the Irish needed, a chance to win the game on the final play, but his team didn't get the job done.

+ And now to leave you with the words of Pete Carroll from after the game: "We hope to keep this thing going. It's a big deal to us. It's special," he said. "So we've got to hang onto it next time around when they come to our place. We have to get after it and see if we can keep the thing going. Because it's very special for the SC family to continue to be on top of this rivalry."

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