The first players trickled out of USC's locker room and into the bowels of Notre Dame Stadium late Saturday evening. They grabbed chicken sandwiches in white paper bags. Workers were buzzing nearby, hauling equipment down a tunnel and heaving duffel bags toward the exit, when someone dropped a heavy pallette.
It thundered — whap — and echoed off the concrete hallway. The players in line for food all ducked in unison, as if they were shellshocked.
Notre Dame had just annihilated USC, 49-14, in front of 77,622 at Notre Dame Stadium, and the players in the postgame procession did not even look despondent or angry. That had worn off several Notre Dame touchdowns ago. They look stunned. The game was supposed to be an elimination game, the loser left with nothing but the faintest traces of their playoff hopes. It turned into humiliation.
By the end, linebacker Cameron Smith said, "We were fighting for our dignity."
Coach Clay Helton held his postgame news conference in a small room directly off the stadium concourse. A short moment before he began, jubilant fans shouting "Let's go Irish!" screamed right outside the door.
He stepped from the locker room into the news conference and said, "We've got a sad football team in there right now."
No. 13 Notre Dame (6-1), pulverized No. 11 USC (6-2) for 377 rushing yards and punished the Trojans on each offensive mistake, of which there were many. The defense withered under Notre Dame's bruising attack. The offense again failed to showed much improvement, a trend that began after Week 2. Its special teams contributed another big mistake and, eight games into the season, have yet to provide a single big play.
Quarterback Brandon Wimbush ran wild for 106 yards rushing. He scored on two rushes when he was hardly touched at all. USC almost never took him down with the first defender. For variety, he threw for Notre Dame's first two scores, and finished with 120 yards passing.
Running back Josh Adams steamrolled USC. He ran 19 times and averaged 10.1 yards per attempt. He scored on a three-yard punch-in, a 14-yard rumble and and an 84-yard jailbreak run. He finished with 191 yards.
It was USC's worst loss since playing Alabama in the 2016 season opener. USC's 51-0 loss to Notre Dame in 1966 was the Trojans' only defeat in this rivalry that was more lopsided.
At no point did USC compete with Notre Dame. At no point did it threaten to even make it an entertaining contest. A half had elapsed, and Notre Dame had scored 28 points, before USC scored a point.
USC actually stopped Notre Dame on its first possession. Things fell apart on USC's very first offensive snap — as in, on the snap itself. Center Nico Falah zipped the ball to the right ear hole of Sam Darnold's helmet. Darnold batted it up like a volleyball set, juggled, corraled it then lost it again in a pileup. One play. One mistake. One turnover. Notre Dame scored three plays later.
In the first half alone, USC flubbed the opening snap, Darnold hurled a pass than was intercepted, Jack Jones fumbled a punt inside USC's own 10-yard line, USC failed on a third-and-one near the end zone and then missed a field goal. Notre Dame scored touchdowns on each of the three turnovers.
Turnovers have haunted USC all season. It has yet to play a game clean of any this season. Entering the game, only three teams in the nation had committed more giveaways.
"We're seeing now we can't overcome 'em," offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. "These teams are better and better, it's going to continue to get better and better down the road. We've just got to not hurt ourselves."
If USC's offense beat itself, USC's defense was just straight beat. Wimbush picked on the secondary early, but Notre Dame did its work on the ground. The Fighting Irish offensive line manhandled USC's front seven with 377 yards rushing.
"I really don't know how to put it on anything else but the fact that they were just better than us tonight," Smith said.
Notre Dame outgained USC 497 to 336 and did not commit a turnover.
"I think we're gonna get back and look at the tape, and it's gonna be all the way around," Helton said. He said he told the team in the locker room, "It's gonna pretty much be all of us when we look at it. And the kids understand that. They appreciate the truth."
The physical dominance extended to both sides of the ball. USC ran the ball 31 times for just 76 yards. Ronald Jones II led the team with 32 yards in 12 rushes. Deontay Burnett was the lone bright spot, with eight catches for 113 yards and a score.
USC remains in control in the conference race, but its playoff hopes are all but gone. A heckler joyfully, and loudly, reminded Darnold of this fact when ran off into the tunnel after it was over.
Darnold completed 20 of 28 passes for 229 yards and two scores, but he was sacked four times. He threw a pass into double coverage that was intercepted. And he finished with two turnovers.
When he emerged from the locker room, he gripped his sandwich, went through a television interview and said solemnly to reporters that the team had experienced adversity, and "we're just gonna look at it straight in the face."
Staffers were still running about to pack the buses. Darnold thanked the media contingent and walked silently outside and into the night.