February 24, 2024
Justin Dedich wandered alone in the aftermath, cameras capturing as Irish fans flooded the field and USC’s sixth-year senior center weaved his way between them toward the tunnel one last time. Dedich had come to Notre Dame Stadium three times now in his USC tenure, and each successive trip to South Bend had left the Trojans devastated and defeated.

This final trip had maybe been the most disappointing of them all, a 48-20 drubbing by Notre Dame that spoiled USC’s undefeated — yet undeniably flawed — 6-0 start. This time, USC had come into South Bend with the nation’s top offense at its disposal, only to squander that scoring power amid a full-on assault of the pocket, its star quarterback forced to run for his life.

When the dust settled Saturday night, Caleb Williams had been sacked six times, his most this season, and thrown three interceptions, his most since playing college football. But even those dismal numbers didn’t tell the whole story of how USC’s offense unraveled.

“We kind of just took our turns making mistakes, and that’s what it looks like,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “A couple of times in pass pro again, we got beat in one-on-one situations that we have to win and so, I mean, listen, everyone takes ownership in it. And that’s just part of it. There wasn’t one positive group offensively that was good enough tonight.”

The play of USC’s offensive front was particularly troubling given what it was up against. Notre Dame’s pass rush entered the game as one of its most glaring weaknesses. The Irish ranked 110th in sacks per game coming into Saturday, a piddling average of 1.57 sacks per game. Their six sacks against USC were more than Notre Dame’s combined total from the previous three games.

Each of those six seemed to suck the momentum straight out of USC’s offense. When the Trojans finally got rolling late in the third quarter, inching closer to making it a game, Notre Dame linebacker Marist Liufau burst past right guard Jarrett Kingston and into the backfield, reaching Williams untouched for a sack. On the very next play, left guard Emmanuel Pregnon was thrown down with ease by a Notre Dame defender, and Williams was mobbed again.

Offensive line coach Josh Henson admitted this week that USC’s front was “a work in progress.” But it was hard to see much progress Saturday amid the constant waves of Irish pressure.

The last wave came late in the fourth quarter, with only pride left for USC to save. It was fourth-and-9 with less than five minutes remaining. As soon as Williams snapped the ball, chaos broke out in the backfield. He barely had a chance to scan the field before he was wrapped up. As whistles blew, Williams halfheartedly threw the ball to the ground.

Dedich, in the center of it all, did all he could do at that point. He put his hands on his hips and headed for the sideline.

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