Three Minutes: Act I
If it's too painful to relive, feel free to skip this post. We understand. Trust me, making this was maddening agony. -Ed.
Play One1st and 10, ball on Notre Dame 13, 5:04 Remaining
The first round of the chess match. Pete Carroll comes out with what appears to be a very conservative defense, with a Dime Package (6 DB's, 1 LB, 4 DL) and three DB's playing so deep that they aren't even visible on the TV screen. However, Pete has a trick up his sleeve. During the snap count, the cornerbacks pinch almost to the line of scrimmage, showing blitz. When the ball is snapped, both corners blitz off the edge, but the two middle DT's fake their blocks and drop back into coverage. It's a Zone CB blitz, but with the two tackles dropping back as "robbers" to try to take advantage of a hastily thrown pass over the middle.
This is a pretty gutsy call by Carroll, as it leaves the defense pretty vulnerable to a variety of different plays. The three deep men are so far back that they really can't have any impact on the intermediate passing game, and you can see that on the left side, there is one cornerback covering two receivers. With the CB on the right side blitzing, that entire half of the field belongs to the safety who is about ten yards downfield. Any number of quick pass routes are good for ten yards against this defense, but with the three deep safeties, there's little risk anyone will break free much further than that.
It looks like Carroll was anticipating a deep pass on first down, which isn't a terribly bad guess considering Weis' playcalling. If Weis was trying to stretch the field and take a risk on first down, the corner blitz would be very effective in forcing Quinn to get rid of the ball quickly, hopefully somewhere a robber could make a play on it.
Instead, Weis calls a quick slant play, feasting on the weakness in the defense. Walker goes in motion out to the right, and as the playclock winds down, the two cornerbacks creep up to the line, giving away their blitz. Quinn takes a second to assess this and checks over to his left, where Samardzija and Stovall are matched up against one corner. After a three step drop, Quinn fires one to Samardzija (the slot receiver) in stride, before the slow-moving robbers can move into position. Catching the ball in the large hole in the defense, Shark slices upfield for 18 yards before the entire SC defense converges on him.
Play Two1st and 10, ball on Notre Dame 31, 4:45 Remaining
Personnel changes on both sides here. Weis pulls a tight end out in favor of a third wide receiver, and Carroll responds by lining up in a nickel coverage (since I can't make out numbers on the film, it's difficult to tell exactly what personnel is out there, but I'm assuming there were five DB's out there). Carroll decides to change the gameplan and calls for a monster blitz, sending the entire front six in after Quinn. The big pressure leaves everyone else in man-to-man coverage, with the strong side safety on the tight end and the free safety in a Cover 1.
The play actually works for USC -- a miscue in blocking up front leaves Center John Sullivan blocking air while Darius Walker is stuck having to fend off two linebackers with full heads of steam. Fasano cuts his route and runs across the vacated center of the field, but Quinn is forced to run to his left to avoid the pressure from the blitz, and being right-handed would have had to flip the ball over his head to get it to his wide-open tight end.
With Quinn being chased down by the USC front, it looks like he has to chuck the ball into the stands to evade the sack. But right when Quinn hits the sideline, Cornerback Ryan Ting makes a critical mistake and, for one second, becomes a spectator. Ting freezes and stares into the backfield to see what happens and loses track of Jeff Samardzija, who spins and takes a few quick strides downfield. As Brady gets demolished, he flips the ball over the head of Ting and into the arms of Samardzija, who scoots downfield for a big gain.
While the play was disrupted by the blitz, Quinn and Samardzija both thought quickly and improvised to turn it into a huge gain.
Play Three1st and 10, ball on Notre Dame 45, 4:39 Remaining
Carroll stays in the nickel but goes into a more vanilla scheme, only rushing the front four. Again, the offense is set to attack the middle of the field, with the outside receiver running a deep route to stretch the right side. Quinn yells to get Samardzija's attention and flips him onto the right side of the field.
It looks like the linebackers are guarding the center of the field to prevent another quick slant. However, they both take one stride to the right side of the field at the snap, probably reacting to Darius Walker coming out of the backfield. That one misstep is all Maurice Stovall needs, and he darts into the vacated space on a slant and catches a perfect Quinn pass in stride. He sprints into the heart of the zone for another big gain.
Play Four1st and 10, ball on USC 40, 4:11 Remaining
If I'm not mistaken, Pete Carroll really pulled something out of his sleeve here, rolling out a bizarre defensive formation which appears to be a 3-3-5 stack, much like the unusual formation that BYU employs. After being abused in the center of the field the last three plays, USC moves nine defenders to the middle of the field, trying to do whatever it takes to force Notre Dame to change their playcalling.
In spite of this crazy alignment, Weis sticks with the slant, in fact sending all five eligible receivers to the center of the field, attacking the linebackers. With five bodies swarming to the center of the field and three defenders covering across the area, Quinn has time to stand and find the best spot to deliver his pass. Seeing Fasano cutting in front of the middle linebacker, Quinn delivers a bullet to his tight end, who takes a shot but hangs on for six yards.
And just like that, the Irish have driven 53 yards. Defensively, Carroll threw everything he had at Notre Dame, using three different formations and a completely different rush package each down, plus a mix of zone and man coverage. It didn't matter, though, because Weis countered every single new defense with quick-hitting passes that found open space.