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Status Woe for Trojans

College football: Same old problems crop up in 38-21 loss to Notre Dame, what could be Hackett's last game.


It was a slow, steady death.

Five yards here, seven yards there.

Starting with a few minutes left in the third quarter, Notre Dame held only a seven-point lead but saw no reason to panic. The Irish proceeded to run the ball 24 consecutive times.

Twenty-four times for two touchdowns and a field goal.

That simply, No. 11 Notre Dame trampled USC on the way to a 38-21 victory at the Coliseum on Saturday before 81,342.

That convincingly, the Irish put an end to Coach Paul Hackett's third season and most likely his career at USC. Hackett is now expected to be fired, even if Athletic Director Mike Garrett remained noncommittal after the game.

"I've got to deliberate and make a decision," Garrett said as he left the locker room.

In a postgame news conference, Hackett talked like a man who wanted to stick around, making numerous references to next season, to solving the problems that bedeviled his team.

A little later, asked if he deserved to come back, he bristled for a moment.

"Are you out of your mind?" he asked. "Of course I do."

But that question has hung in the air for weeks as USC stumbled toward a 5-7 record, finishing in a tie for last place in the Pacific 10 Conference, the first time that has happened to the Trojans.

The rumors quieted momentarily after a stirring victory over UCLA, but even that triumph has not outweighed a season of costly turnovers and shoddy special teams, questionable play calling and game management.

Saturday brought more of the same, Notre Dame (9-2) scoring its first touchdown in a manner that has become painfully familiar to USC.

Irish flanker David Givens partially blocked a punt, the ball traveling only 14 yards to the USC 40-yard line. Working with a short field, Notre Dame passed once, then ran on seven consecutive plays, tailback Terrance Howard plunging into the end zone from one yard out.

"It's tough when the defense comes out with our backs to the end zone," linebacker Zeke Moreno said. "We just keep beating ourselves."

On those occasions when the Trojans have overcome their mistakes, they have done so with timely offense. They gave another glimpse of that in the first quarter.

Deep in Notre Dame territory, quarterback Carson Palmer threw 12 yards to tight end Antoine Harris, then startled the Irish by gaining eight yards on a quarterback draw--not exactly a staple of the Trojan playbook.

Palmer finished off the drive with a three-yard naked bootleg that again left the defense flat-footed.

This was the offensive innovation, the spark, that Garrett spoke of when he hired Hackett three years ago.

But, with the score tied, 7-7, it was also as close as USC would come to winning this game.

Another blocked punt turned into another short touchdown drive for Notre Dame. Palmer threw an interception and, several plays later, the score was 21-7.

At that point, the Irish were in control and it seemed the only way they could lose was by beating themselves. They gave it a try.

This was, after all, a critical game for a team that needed one more victory to grab a $13.5-million spot in the Bowl Championship Series. Maybe the thought of all those dollars got to the Irish because midway through the second quarter, in position to put USC even deeper in the hole, they came unglued.

First, the defense was called for holding on third down and Coach Bob Davie stormed up and down the sideline shouting at officials. Given new life with a first down, Palmer threw 59 yards to Kareem Kelly for a touchdown that made the score 21-14.

Then, with Notre Dame driving, the offense was called for pass interference. Again, Davie waved his arms and screamed. His team promptly committed three false starts, sliding back to midfield and squandering a scoring opportunity.

USC went into halftime losing by only a touchdown, feeling there was still a chance.

But the Irish regrouped and USC could not answer, not with Palmer in the midst of another up-and-down day.

The sophomore completed 17 of 35 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns. He connected on a handful of passes under pressure. He also fumbled while being sacked and threw two interceptions, tying a school record for 18 in a season.

"This wasn't the way I wanted to go out," he said. "They capitalized off all my turnovers."

Just as important, the Trojans could not muster a running game. Tailback Sultan McCullough, who had put together a string of 100-yard games, was held to 14 yards in only 10 carries.

"They had a great defensive line, and we couldn't get any push," he said. "Every time I got the ball, it was like they were in the backfield."

So, with the Trojans managing only one more touchdown early in the fourth quarter, on a fourth-down pass to Harris that brought USC within 28-21, the stage was set for a crushing series of possessions as Notre Dame literally ran away with the game.

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