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Local eyes are smiling / USC gets its biggest victory over Notre Dame, 38-0, and UCLA pulls rank on California with a 30-21 upset

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The echoes silenced by his arm, the tradition trampled under his spirit, Mark Sanchez was standing exhaustedly in a deserted hallway beneath Notre Dame Stadium when his eyes widened.

Out of nowhere, here came one more rush.

It was a middle-aged man, striding out of the shadows to grab Sanchez, hug him, whisper to him.

“Mark, you were spectacular, just spectacular,” said the man. “You were a great, great quarterback.”

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The man quickly turned and disappeared, leaving Sanchez to shake his head at the last wondrous sight of a jaw-dropping day.

“Is that who I thought it was?” he said.

It was, indeed, Joe Theismann, the former great Notre Dame quarterback offering the ultimate Notre Dame compliment after a historic Notre Dame thrashing.

It was USC 38, Mark Sanchez 28, Notre Dame 0, and I’ve seen enough.

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Sanchez wears the Trojans’ hearts on his sleeve, tucks their souls under his arm, flings their hopes from his shoulder and belongs in their huddle.

The Trojans’ stormy leader should be the starting quarterback for the rest of this stormy season.

“We’ll have to see,” said Coach Pete Carroll.

See what?

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How can you bench a guy who just led USC to its biggest beating of Notre Dame in the rivalry’s 79-year history.

How can you bench a guy who, in one of the most storied arenas in sport, just completed 21 of 38 passes for four touchdowns with zero wilts under pressure?

Notre Dame is indeed awful, one of the worst teams in Division I, one of the worst in Irish history; it can’t pass or run or defend.

But their ancient, unadorned stadium can still intimidate. Their singing, jigging fans can still rattle.

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“This is still an amazing place,” said Sanchez, who responded with an amazing game.

John David Booty was ready to replace him at the first interception, but Sanchez didn’t throw any.

Booty was ready to run out after the first dumb sack, but Sanchez didn’t take any.

Booty said later that he is removing the protective glove that covers his broken finger and he will be ready to regain his starting job next weekend in Oregon, but it shouldn’t matter.

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This now feels like Sanchez’s team. This now feels like Sanchez’s season

It became that way in the second quarter, with USC leading only 7-0, and only after recovering a deep punt that hit Munir Prince in the foot.

The Trojans had the ball on their 34-yard line, first down, desperately in need if a statement-making drive, but then there was a miscommunication, a player lined up wrong.

Sanchez stepped out of the huddle and screamed to the sidelines with his arms outstretched, but there wasn’t time to fix it.

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“So I just got up to the line and shouted, ‘First down, first down!” recalled Sanchez with a grin. “Then I took off for a first down.”

He stunned Notre Dame by running wide, 11 yards, bouncing out of bounds, first down. Eight plays later, the Trojans scored, the rout was on and the metaphor was complete.

This is a guy who can find creativity in chaos, who wants the ball when everybody else wants to hide, who can find sideline markers out of lost causes.

Booty was the right quarterback for moments like the second half of last year’s Rose Bowl, when everything else was working perfectly, when he was required only to fill in the blanks.

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Mark Sanchez is the right quarterback for moments so muddied and unsettled, there is no script, so there are no blanks.

The rest of the Trojans’ season will be filled with those latter moments. As the players fight back from injury and underachievement, there will be no clear paths or pristine plans.

There will be times when a quarterback needs to throw out of a sack to keep a team in field-goal range, or throw across the field while being chased the other direction, or fire a 90-mph fastball through three guys down the middle.

Sanchez did all of those things Saturday, beating the Irish so bad that their student section embarrassed itself with a cursing chant against Carroll.

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The coach acted like he didn’t hear. Sanchez acted like he didn’t care. He remained on the field to pose for photos, shake hands, stare into that sour crowd and shake his head.

“This is something I’ll remember forever,” he said. “I’ve got this job, and I don’t want to give it up.”

Carroll, though, seemingly wants him to give it up. He appears to want to give the job back to Booty. You can hear it in his voice and feel it in his words.

For all his youthful enthusiasm, Carroll is still a hard-bitten coach who trusts only what he sees, and he’s seen a lot more of Booty.

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“We’re just lucky to have both these guys ready to go and we’ll see how far John is along the middle parts of the week,” he said.

Booty said he already has the answer.

“You usually don’t lose your job to injury,” Booty said. “And I’m ready to go.”

What do the players think? There is a sense that the young players on the team love Sanchez’s excitement, while the older players remain loyal to Booty’s consistency.

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“I’m tired of seeing guys dogging Booty,” said linebacker Thomas Williams. “We all want to win. Whoever helps us win, it shouldn’t matter.”

Maybe Booty would be the best at preventing a loss. But Sanchez will be the best at creating a win.

Irish eyes saw it. Irish egos felt it. Now it’s up to Pete Carroll to believe it.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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