There they stood, seven USC Trojans within two yards of the line of scrimmage. After scoring a pair of touchdowns to garner some semblance of momentum, USC had pushed Notre Dame to its own 15-yard-line late in the third quarter. While down 35-14, a comeback wasn’t unthinkable, not with the speed boasted by the Trojan offense.
And then those seven Trojans, tasked with stopping Notre Dame running back Josh Adams on a handoff on first-and-10, not only failed to tackle Adams — they didn’t even touch him. Adams took the carry on his own 12-yard-line, three yards behind the line of scrimmage, and ran, untouched, not unlike a sprint in track and field, the remaining 88 yards into the end zone.
If there is a play that provides an accurate summation of USC’s nightmare in South Bend, a 49-14 loss, it is that. In fact, if there is a play that sums up USC’s defensive play this season, it is that.
By night’s end, the Irish had piled up 377 yards on 47 carries, good for 8 yards per carry. Five of Notre Dame’s seven touchdowns came on the ground.
“This game will be won by who’s more physical,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told reporters afterwards. “I think when you run for 370-something yards and you hold them to 70, I think we know who the more physical football team was.”
Those totals may seem an aberration. They are, in fact, somewhat normal.
While UCLA’s sieve of a rushing defense has been the butt end of the majority of Pac-12 football jokes, USC’s has quietly gone unnoticed, thanks, in large part, to an offense that generally atones for it.
Western Michigan ran for 263 in a 31-point season opener that many shrugged off as, simply, Western Michigan in a season opener. Tough to get excited for a game like that. But then Stanford’s Bryce Love needed only 17 carries to pick up 160 yards, Washington State’s feature back, Jamal Morrow, averaged 15.1 yards per carry in the Trojans’ first loss of the year, and Utah’s Zach Moss peeled off 141 on only 20 carries in what very well could have been USC’s second loss.
“It’s definitely an area that we need to get better at,” linebacker Cameron Smith told the LA Times. “And we saw it tonight [against Notre Dame].”
And the Trojans need to get better quickly. Though the remaining four games on the schedule appear soft, all against unranked teams, they present poor matchups for USC’s porous rushing defense. Arizona State may have the conference’s most underrated back in Demario Richard while also presenting the added threat of a mobile quarterback in Manny Wilkins. Then comes Arizona and quarterback Khalil Tate, who produces one spectacle of a run after the next, piling up 694 yards and 7 touchdowns on the ground in the previous three weeks alone.
“Got a sad football team in there right now,” USC coach Clay Helton said after the loss to the Irish. “We’ll live and learn from this.”
They’ll need to.
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