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Week Seven: USC

Sam Gans | Tuesday, October 25, 2011

With Notre Dame’s biggest rival coming to town, the first home night game since 1990 and the debuts of brand-new gold Irish helmets and piped-in stadium music, the stage was set for one of the most anticipated games in Notre Dame Stadium in years.

But it was USC who finished with more points for the ninth time in 10 seasons, walking out of South Bend with a 31-17 victory.

The Trojans (6-1) got off to a fast start against the Irish (4-3) by forcing a Notre Dame three-and-out on the game’s first drive. USC then marched 66 yards on its opening possession, which culminated with junior quarterback Matt Barkley finding freshman tight end Randall Telfer alone in the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown pass with 6:16 remaining in the first quarter.

After another Irish three-and-out, Barkley again drove the Trojans down the field and connected with sophomore receiver Robert Woods on a 3-yard strike to push the USC margin to 14-0, leaving the once-frenzied crowd in a stunned silence.

The first 15 minutes ended at that score, with USC holding a 128-14 advantage in total yards, leaving a disappointing taste in the mouths of the Irish, who had two weeks to prepare after a bye week.

“We had time off, we had time to rest and we played sluggish,” Irish junior tight end Tyler Eifert said. “You can’t come out and play like that. It cost us in the end.”

USC appeared to be fully in control of the contest when freshman kicker Andre Heidari booted a 25-yard field goal late in the second quarter to put the Trojans up 17-0. But Irish freshman running back George Atkinson returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, bringing the stadium back to life and pulling Notre Dame within 10 points.

“Whenever a big play on special teams occurs, you hope to spark the whole team,” Atkinson said. “I think that happened coming out.”

It appeared the momentum had shifted, as the Irish defense was able to get a stop on the next drive, allowing Notre Dame to take over possession with just under two minutes remaining in the half. Sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees was able to successfully take the Irish offense to the red zone, but the drive stalled there and a 25-yard field goal from senior kicker David Ruffer sent the Irish into halftime with a seven-point deficit.

Despite scoring the final 10 points of the half, in the first 30 minutes the Irish were outgained 253-127 and nearly doubled in time of possession.

“Our guys came in and just wanted to make sure that we played really well and didn’t worry about everything else,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “It was good to see, because usually young teams don’t do well in the beginning of games in this type of environment, so it was good to see.”

The second half started out as a different story as Notre Dame forced a USC punt and proceeded to move the ball down the field, looking for the tying score, until Rees was knocked out of the game with a knee injury.

But senior and former starter Dayne Crist stepped in at the quarterback position and effectively went 4-for-5, marching Notre Dame down to the USC 1-yard line.

Then came perhaps the game’s biggest turning point.

On third-and-goal and just one yard away from tying the game, a Crist fumbled snap was batted around and then picked up by USC junior safety Jawanza Starling, who returned it 80 yards to put USC up 24-10.

“Dayne went right in,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “[He] did a nice job, moved us down there … and then we had the fumbled snap.”

For what seemingly was a back-breaking play, the Irish responded strongly. With Rees back in the game, Notre Dame quickly moved into USC territory and again came within one score as senior running back Jonas Gray ran 25 yards into the end zone with 14:07 remaining in the fourth quarter. Following a missed 32-yard field goal attempt from USC’s Heidari, Notre Dame had the ball with 80 yards to go and 9:13 on the clock to tie the game.

But on the second play of the drive, junior running back Cierre Wood dropped a pass from Rees in the backfield, which was fallen on by USC senior linebacker Chris Galippo. The ball was ruled to be a backwards lateral by the officials and was therefore a fumble, resulting in USC possession.

“We thought we were past that,” Kelly said. “That’s the toughest part is when you think you’ve moved past that kind of self-inflicted wounds, to come back and have those hit you again, it’s disappointing.”

Barkley, who finished the day 24-for-35 for 224 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions, put the icing on the cake by finding a diving Woods near the back pylon of the end zone on a 14-yard play to put the Trojans up 31-17 with 7:47 left in the game.

Notre Dame tried to mount one final rally, but USC sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey intercepted Rees with 6:43 remaining. The Irish never got the ball back.

The win was a dominating effort by the Trojans, who finished the game with a 443-267 advantage in yards and had the ball for 39:41 of the game’s 60 minutes.

USC also limited Irish senior receiver Michael Floyd to just four catches for 28 yards. But according to Kelly, that was mostly due to Irish miscues.

“We were out of sync,” Kelly said. “We had Mike two or three times and we didn’t connect with him.”

With Notre Dame’s preseason goal of playing in a BCS game likely out of reach now, Kelly is focused on making sure the Irish are ready for the next game against Navy on Saturday and not mulling over long-term possibilities.

“The fact of the matter is, they have got to play Navy and they have to get ready in a short period of time,” Kelly said. “We didn’t think in big picture terms. I’ll talk to [the media] in big picture terms. But [the team], all they know is Monday is not going to be a great place to be around me. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — that’s what they are thinking about. They are not thinking about those bigger picture items.”