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Laura Myers | Tuesday, November 30, 2010

LOS ANGELES — In the moments after Tommy Rees took a knee on his own three-yard line at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Saturday night, sophomore receiver Theo Riddick dropped to his knees. Other players jumped up and down. Most just sauntered towards the tunnel, the stands or each other, partaking in amazed hugs and handshakes.

On the strength of a late touchdown drive and countless key defensive stands, Notre Dame had beaten USC for the first time in nine years.

“When we were required to play our best, we came up with a big drive and a big stop,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “And that’s really what we’ve talked about all year. We cannot win unless all three units play football.”

Senior running back Robert Hughes ended a 77-yard drive with a five-yard touchdown to complete the scoring at 20-16.

The Trojans got the ball at their own 31-yard line with 2:16 left in the game. They drove to the Irish 23-yard line before senior safety Harrison Smith intercepted a pass from quarterback Mitch Mustain at the one-yard line. Three plays later, the game was over.

“I don’t think words do it justice. Everyone’s ecstatic,” said Rees, a true freshman who started for the third time this season. “It’s great for the seniors to go out with a win over USC. Words can’t describe how everyone’s feeling right now.”

Four plays before the turnover, Trojans receiver Ronald Johnson evaded Smith and was open for a pass that could have turned into a touchdown. But in the rainy conditions, Johnson dropped the ball.

“It’s about time we caught a break,” Kelly said.

Both teams started out with strong defense, and each punted twice in the first quarter. By the end of the game, Notre Dame (7-5) had punted six times and USC had punted seven times.

USC started with a short field on each of its four scoring drives due to three Rees interceptions and a lost fumble. But the Irish defense limited the Trojans to three field goals and a single touchdown, all coming after turnovers.

“Defensively, we have the mentality, you just put the ball down and we’ll go out and play,” sophomore linebacker Manti Te’o said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re on our five-yard line or their five-yard line. We’ll go out and play.”

The touchdown, a quarterback sneak in the third quarter, was the first the Irish had surrendered in November and ended a streak of 13 straight quarters without an opponent scoring an offensive touchdown.

“Unbelievable effort,” Kelly said. “We put them in some bad situations, and they just continued to battle and they’ve done that all year. This is not a one-time occurrence. This is a defense that has played really well in the month of November.”

The Irish offense struggled early and did not achieve a first down until its third possession of the game. But in the second quarter, Rees and junior receiver Michael Floyd connected on a one-yard pass for Notre Dame’s first touchdown.

Nearly 10 minutes later, with 44 seconds left in the half, the Irish went 62 yards for another touchdown, this time a one-yard pass to senior Duval Kamara.

They did not score again until the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.

“The offense really rallied together to be able to bounce back on our last drive,” Rees said. “It showed what kind of character we have, and leadership.”

Rees finished the game 20-of-32 passing for 149 yards.

Sophomore running back Cierre Wood led with 89 rush yards on 15 carries, while Hughes had 69 yards on 11 carries.

Floyd led the team with 86 yards on 11 catches, eight of which came in his second-quarter touchdown drive. When he walked past the Irish supporters still in their seats and into the tunnel after a long celebration, he kept his arms raised above his head.

“[This win is] huge,” Kelly said. “It’s looking at the faces of so many Notre Dame fans that have been waiting for this moment. Just to see the look on their face, it’s satisfying.”