As Robert Woods
caught an easy touchdown pass to put USC
ahead 14-0, the clock showed 1:01 in the first quarter and Notre Dame
trailed 14-0. The Irish and coach Brian Kelly were at a crossroads.
Would they fight back and surge to victory, proving that their 4-0 stretch after an 0-2 start was more than a mirage?
Would they rally, only to fall just short of an important victory?
Or would they fade away, squandering a bye week's worth of buzz and a prime time stage against their biggest rival?
The answer? A rally that fell far short in the end, and a new round of questions as USC prevailed 31-17.
Which team will show up next? The mistake-laden Irish of Saturday night, and weeks one and two? Or the run-stuffing, score-happy team of the winning streak?
Irish fans saw flashes of the latter, but far too much of the former against the Trojans.
Notre Dame went three-and-out on its first two series, and went the first quarter without a first down.
The Trojans moved the ball at will early. On its first drive, USC drove right down the field, benefitting from some timely scrambling from Matt Barkley
and big holes in the middle of Notre Dame's run defense. Randall Telfer
finished it with a 2-yard TD catch. ND would stop the Trojans periodically, but the previously (nearly) bulletproof interior defense looked vulnerable without injured d-line starter Ethan Johnson
It was the first night game in forever, the debut of the brighter-than-daylight gold helmets, and a more raucous setting than usual.
"You get the sense it was their Super Bowl here," USC coach Lane Kiffin said after the game, speaking about the hoopla.
III brought the moribund Irish to life with an electrifying 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, streaking down the left sideline to greet the jubilant student section.
A late field goal with time running out in the first half, and Notre Dame was suddenly within a touchdown.
But USC's defense surprisingly stifled Notre Dame's offense, particularly Michael Floyd
(four catches for 28 yards), and an avalanche of mistakes – big, big ones – doomed Notre Dame and sent USC's fans home happy.
A bungled snap on third and goal from the 1 with backup Dayne Crist
under center (because of a brief injury to the starter) led to an 80-yard fumble return touchdown by Jawanza Starling
A 25-yard touchdown run by Jonas Gray
, and Notre Dame was right back in it at 24-17 with 14-07 to go.
A missed USC field goal, and the Irish were back in business – but not for long, as a lateral swing pass to Cierre Wood
was muffed by the running back and recovered by USC. A diving touchdown catch by Woods over backup corner Lo Wood
and a Tommy Rees
interception later, and it was time to turn out the stadium lights.
Notre Dame was primed to parlay a victory over the beatable Trojans -- USC is now 6-1 but was unranked entering the contest – into dreams of bigger things down the road, but instead heads back to the drawing board.
"You can't beat a good team playing half a game" and turning the ball over when it counts, Notre Dame coach Kelly said.
Squandered opportunities. Missed connections. Big-time mistakes. Notre Dame football fans know this story all too well.
It was another head-scratcher for Notre Dame fans, as visiting USC capitalized on two huge second-half miscues in a 31-17 victory that dropped the Irish to 4-3 on the season.