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November 30, 2008

Defense dominates Irish in home finale

Prior to the start of Saturday's game between USC and Notre Dame, the two teams gathered near the west end zone of the Coliseum. Both teams were bouncing as adrenaline pumped through their veins.

It started with words, then shoving. Then, police officers and coaches fought to separate the teams.

It was as close as the two teams would be all day.

"It just added fuel to our fire," Kyle Moore said. "We like when teams show a little animosity toward us."

USC's defense again flexed its muscle for 60 minutes, and the USC offense made some big plays, as the Trojans easily dispatched Notre Dame 38-3.

"When we're playing our football, no one can touch us," senior defensive tackle Fili Moala said. "It was easy. We just had to take care of our assignments. We were all doing our parts and doing everything the coaches asked us to.

"After that happened, the game just started to unfold. It was over."

The Trojan defense made Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen's return to Southern California forgettable, sacking the sophomore four times and picking off two passes.

Clausen finished 11-of-22 for just 41 yards - less than 2.0 yards per attempt.

"We got to him enough as a defense," Moore said. "He throws the ball, and they're not scared to throw the ball. We were working on all of that. All we had to do was put a little pressure on him."

Clausen said the pressure, coming mostly from the Trojan defensive line, gave him trouble.

"I was frustrated a little bit. They were getting pressure by rushing just four, and it disrupted everything else," he said. "It's tough, but that's what football is.

"They are one of the top defenses in the country, if not the best. They have one of the fastest pass rushes we've faced."

USC's defensive wrath wasn't limited to Clausen, though.

In the first half, USC held the Fighting Irish to just nine total yards of offense on 20 plays.

"Nobody's ever played as good for us as these guys are playing," USC head coach Pete Carroll said. "You can't score on them."

Notre Dame didn't pick up a single first down until the final play of the third quarter and didn't get on the board until a nine-play, 51-yard drive that culminated with a field goal early in the fourth quarter.

But by then, the USC offense had done more than enough to distance itself.

First, the Trojans ran a 12-play, 79-yard drive that ate over seven minutes of clock, ending with a two-yard touchdown run from Stafon Johnson.

Then in the second quarter, Joe McKnight broke loose on a 55-yard touchdown run - his first rushing TD of the year and his first score since USC's season opener.

"I think that was my favorite moment of the night, Joe running like that," Carroll said. "He made it last as long as he could by moving over here and cutting over there. We loved to see that."

Mark Sanchez would find Damian Williams wide open in the middle of the field for a 12-yard touchdown, and David Buehler would add a 35-yard field goal - all before the first half had ended.

Sanchez finished the game with 267 yards passing on 22-of-31 attempts.

In the third quarter, C.J. Gable found the end zone with a one-yard run to put the Trojans up 31 - all before the Notre Dame offense even crossed midfield.

Sanchez threw his second touchdown pass of the game in the fourth quarter, finding senior Patrick Turner on a 17-yard strike over the middle of the field.

"There was nothing but love tonight," Turner said. "You know I wanted to get into the end zone tonight. Luckily, it happened. I couldn't have asked for more."

The pregame scuffle, however, did resurface later in the fourth quarter. USC and Notre Dame players butted heads multiple times, with Malik Jackson and Notre Dame's Robert Hughes both being ejected.

Carroll said the on-field incidents and the pregame confrontation weren't typical of his team.

The initial incident, he said, could've been avoided.

"It was most unfortunate that it happened. It's never happened since we've been here. The control of having the teams come out (of the tunnel) was not well done," Carroll said. "There's very little room to pass when we're jumping up and down, having fun. Their team should've been held from passing. I'm not blaming anybody. It just shouldn't have happened.

"They couldn't help but interchange. If you were close to it, you could tell our guys for the most part were just having fun with it. They weren't fighting. They were just jawing and getting all jacked up."

Multiple players close to the situation said punches were thrown.

While neither team left the pregame fight as the winner, there wasn't much question about which team controlled the game on the field.

"We jumped out early. Offensively, I don't think they thought they were really going anywhere," Brian Cushing said. "I think they knew that, and we just got rolling.

"It's the Coliseum, and we're pretty good here."

Notre Dame gained just 91 yards of total offense in the loss.

With the win and Oregon State's loss to Oregon, the Trojans clinch at least a share of the Pac-10 title. If USC beats UCLA in a week, the Trojans would win the conference outright and are assured of at least playing in the Rose Bowl against Penn State.

"Everything's about winning the Pac-10 and winning the Rose Bowl," Rey Maualuga said. "To me, I'm glad and happy that we get to play in another Rose Bowl - not to change anything up.

"I played there as a freshman, as a sophomore and as a junior. It's my senior year now, and it's not boring. It's home for us."


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