(UHND.com) – For the Irish to go into Los Angeles and come out with their 11th victory of the season, they were going to have to play nearly perfect and take advantage of every opportunity given to them by the Trojans. The one common theme in Notre Dame’s 44-24 loss at the hands of USC, however, was missed opportunities that left a lot of points on the field.
When Notre Dame got the ball to start the game and completed a 39 yard pass on the first play of the game, things looked promising for the Irish. A few plays later the Irish faced a 4th and 9 from the USC 29 yard line. Brady Quinn scrambled around a bit to find Rhema McKnight wide open on the way to the end-zone, but floated the pass about five yards in front of McKnight and the Irish turned the ball over.
The missed opportunity was a sign of things to come for the Irish offense.
On the next Notre Dame offensive drive, the Irish faced a 3rd and five from their own 32 yard line. Quinn fired a slant to McKnight but McKnight let the ball hit off his hands and Notre Dame would have to punt instead of continuing the drive. USC would score on their next drive to make the score 14-0.
Notre Dame’s fortunes would not fare much better on their third drive. On a second and 10 from the 34, Quinn went to the end-zone again for McKnight who had two defenders around him. Still, the ball cleared the defense and hit McKnight in the hands as he fell to the ground. A difficult catch? Yes, but it was the kind of play Notre Dame needed to make in order to win. The Irish would settle for a field goal but still trailed 14-3.
After the Carl Gioia field goal, USC would march down the field and score a third touchdown in as many possessions for a 21-3 lead, but the Notre Dame offense would again move the ball on the USC defense on the ensuing drive.
Brady Quinn led a seven play, 72 yard drive but on first and goal from the seven yard line, Darius Walker would lose just his second fumble of the season with USC recovering at the seven. At this point the Irish had made three trips inside the USC 30 yard line and only had 3 points to show for it.
It appeared as though Notre Dame’s luck was about to change after the Walker fumble when Steve Quinn blocked a USC punt to set up Notre Dame with a first and goal. It took Quinn one play to find the end-zone this time with a seven strike to Marucs Freeman off a play fake to cut the USC lead to 21-10.
Following the Notre Dame touchdown, John David Booty dropped back on first down for USC and tossed an interception to Mike Richardson setting up the Irish near midfield with all the momentum in their corner.
Notre Dame gained nine yards on the first two plays and faced a 3rd and 1 from the USC 43 yard line. Charlie Weis reached into his bag of tricks and dialed up a fake sneak/option play. Weis should have kept the play his the bag as the Irish would lose three yards on the play setting up yet another fourth down. Quinn fired another slant that bounced off McKnight’s hands and again gave USC the ball back.
After getting stuffed for a loss of 8 on first down, USC tried to set up a screen, but Trevor Laws read the play and picked off Booty again. Notre Dame again got the ball in great field position, but would end up looking at another fourth down, this time the Irish were six yards from a first down at the USC 36.
The Irish went for the score instead of going for the first down when Quinn went to the end-zone after seeing Jeff Samardzija in one on one coverage. Samardzija had a step on the defender, but Quinn waited just a bit too long and the ball went out of the end-zone and the Irish walked about with no points and gave USC the ball back.
Notre Dame spent most of its time on the USC side of the 50 in the first half, but only had 10 points to show for it and against a team of USC’s quality, that simply isn’t going to get it done.
You have to tip your cap to USC after their performance. They were able to overcome a blocked punt and two interceptions all in the second quarter by allowing just seven points. If Notre Dame even scores two field goals there, the score is 21-16 at half-time with a much different feel coming into the second half.
For all the doom and gloom existing on the message boards this morning about how far away the Irish are from being competitive against top 5 teams, when you look at the game closely, the Irish had their chances and just didn’t make the plays they needed to make in order to win.
Even the play calling of Charlie Weis, which has been widely praised by Notre Dame fans, has come into question across the boards, but for all the “questionable” play calls, Weis still had has players in a number of opportunities to make plays. Unfortunately for the Irish, those plays were just not made, and as a result, the Irish came up short.
Let’s also not forget that the 20 point loss was padded with the late onside kick return by Brian Cushing. Other wise the Irish lose by 13 which while still a loss, doesn’t sting quite as much.
My point in all this is to simply point out that things might not be as bad as they seem. A lot of questions we had at the beginning of the season still exist – the kicking game is still terrible, the linebackers and kick coverage units are still liabilities, the offensive line is still a work in progress at best, and depth all around is still a concern. But, the fact remains that this team had plenty of opportunities to make this game at least competitive if not close, but just came up short.