SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It looked so easy, so effortless. USC swept 70 yards to a touchdown in six plays on its first possession against Notre Dame.
But the drive, as slick as it was, wasn't indicative of things to come.
The Fighting Irish shook down the thunder with a pounding ground game and easily beat the Trojans, 26-15, Saturday before a capacity crowd of 59,075 and a national television audience. "I told our team that we had to make things happen right off the bat," Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz said. "That shows you how much I know."
The Irish (5-1) dominated the Trojans on a cold, gloomy day at Notre Dame Stadium and they did it the old fashioned way--smashing for big chunks of yardage through the middle of USC's bent and broken defense.
Notre Dame rolled up 351 yards on the ground--204 by halftime--while not threatening USC with its passing game.
The score was not indicative of the one-sided nature of the game. Notre Dame was clearly in control after spotting USC a 7-0 lead.
The Trojans (4-3) didn't score again until the final 50 seconds.
"Notre Dame deserved to win; they beat us with the basics," USC Coach Larry Smith said. "They ran the ball down our throats. Our defense played badly and our offense didn't help us at all."
This was Smith's first venture into South Bend as USC coach. Now he knows how his predecessor, Ted Tollner, must have felt, along with other Trojan coaches over the years. USC has been outscored, 90-24, in its last three visits to the citadel of college football.
The Trojans came into the game fearful of Tim Brown, Notre Dame's talented, all-purpose flanker. Their fears were well founded, even though Brown's statistics were modest for him.
He had only 109 all-purpose yards compared to 252 against USC in a 38-37 Irish victory last year at the Coliseum.
But Brown's mere presence alters game plans for opposing coaches. Smith instructed his punter, Chris Sperle, to sacrifice some yardage with hang time in an effort to keep Brown from touching the ball.
Brown has three touchdowns this season on punt returns, and his 56-yard runback set up Notre Dame's winning field goal against USC last year.
He was forced to fair-catch punts Saturday and had only one kickoff return, for 22 yards. However, he scored Notre Dame's second touchdown on a five-yard run out of the wishbone, had another score nullified due to a penalty, blocked ferociously and commanded the attention of USC every time he was on the field.
USC was so mindful of Brown that Sperle averaged only 27.6 yards on 5 punts.
When a reporter pointed out that USC lost considerable punting yardage trying to keep the ball away from Brown, Smith became irritated.
"We don't have a kicker who can get it out 40 to 45 yards," he said. "I'm not going to kick line drives and have him run it back on us. I'll give him the 10 yards. I'm not a dummy."
In the final analysis, though, it was Notre Dame's relentless ground game that buried USC.
Holtz turned loose several backs on the Trojans, namely tailback Mark Green from Riverside Poly High School, Ricky Watters, Braxston Banks and even quarterback Tony Rice.
Green accounted for 73 yards, Watters had 64, Banks got 59 and Rice wound up with 56--of which 26 came on an option keeper for a touchdown that fooled the USC defense in the second quarter.
Rice, a sophomore, making only his second start for the Irish, was forced out of the game early in the fourth quarter. He suffered a mild concussion and had 14 stitches taken in his chin, the result of a hit after releasing a pass.
A freshman, Kent Graham, filled in for him and protected Notre Dame's lead.
Some of Rice's passes were so off target that it seemed he didn't have an intended receiver. He completed only 3 of 7 passes for 47 yards while throwing an interception, but he handled the option running attack flawlessly.
The Irish led at halftime, 20-7, then expanded their lead to 26-7 in the third quarter while frustrating the Trojans.
"They just basically knocked us off the ball," said Tim Ryan, USC's sophomore defensive tackle. "They'd just run the dive play off the option for seven to eight yards at a crack. They also made yardage on the dive by cutting back to the weak side. It concerns me when we lose. I know we have the players."
Notre Dame's option, mainly dive plays in the middle, was reminiscent of Washington State's offense in routing USC, 34-14, last year in Pullman, Wash.
Although the Irish were in control, the Trojans self-destructed on offense with errors, namely:
--Tight end Paul Green dropped a pass on the Notre Dame 45-yard line in the first quarter with USC still ahead, 7-0.
--John Jackson, usually a sure-handed receiver, couldn't hold onto quarterback Rodney Peete's pass at the Irish 22-yard line in the second quarter with the Trojans trailing, 10-7.
--After Notre Dame fumbled to USC at the outset of the second half, Peete's pass from the Irish 27-yard line was intercepted by linebacker Ned Bolcar.