The setup: Senior backup quarterback Mitch Mustain made his long-awaited first start in a Trojan uniform after sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley went down with a high-ankle sprain in last week’s loss to Oregon State. Mustain led the Trojans against a struggling Notre Dame team in a game with little hype and fanfare — for the first time since 2001, both teams came into the game unranked.
The story: It was a fairy-tale ending for Mustain. The Trojans had the game-winning touchdown in the final minute in their grasp.
Then everything slipped away.
In a emotional twist usually found only in movies, the Trojans went from utter jubilation to shock and disappointment as the usually sure-handed senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson dropped a 53-yard touchdown that would’ve put USC up 23-20 with just 1:17 remaining in USC’s last game in the Coliseum this year.
“I was shocked,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said about the dropped pass. “It’s something that we’ve worked on with that coverage. It’s just a shame.”
However, the blame can’t be put solely on Johnson. USC still had multiple chances after that drop with a 14-yard completion to redshirt junior tight end Rhett Ellison on fourth-and-seven and a 16-yard completion to freshman wide receiver Robert Woods on the next play. However, Mustain would throw an interception to end the drive.
USC receivers were dropping passes all night long, which didn’t make life any easier for the first-time Trojan starter.
Senior tight end Jordan Cameron attributed the multitude of drops to a lack of focus.
“It was concentration,” Cameron said. “You got to make plays and be focused. I think a lot of guys took their eyes off the ball, focusing on the yards after the catch but you need to focus when it comes to you. You feel terrible when you drop the ball. It happens to the best of us, you gotta have a short memory.”
Defense rules: In a dramatic turn from where this team began at the start of the season, the Trojan defense was the unit keeping the team in the game with four takeaways that led to all of USC’s points.
On top of only allowing 15 first downs, the second fewest the USC defense has allowed this year, the defense picked off Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees three times and advanced a fumble to the Fighting Irish’s two-yard line that led to the only touchdown from the Trojans.
“It was a surprising game from the aspect that prior to the last play of the game we were plus-four in turnover margin,” Kiffin said. “You think that you’d win that game but obviously we got to make more points off the turnovers.”
However, two-minute defense was the one thing that reminded everyone this was still the same unit as the one that took the field against Washington and Stanford earlier this year. All three of Notre Dame’s touchdowns came with less than 2:39 left in each half.
“I’m not sure [why we can’t stop teams in the two-minute drill],” sophomore linebacker Devon Kennard said. “[Saturday] was a little different in that they were getting big runs on us but usually it’s big passes. We got to play more consistent in the second and fourth quarters.”
Injured Trojans: While Mustain made his first start of his Trojan career, Barkley suited up and participated in the captains’ coin toss at the start of the game but wore a baseball cap on the sidelines during the entire contest. He said he knew sometime before the game that he wouldn’t be able to play but said that it was tough watching. He’s anxious to get back on the field next week.
“I’m going to play this week. There’s no doubt about that,” Barkley said. “Whatever needs to happen, I’m going to make it happen.”
Barkley’s injury occurred last week, but another important Trojan was injured on Saturday. Sophomore safety T.J. McDonald, who leads the team in tackles, left the game after making a tackle on the first play of the second series of the game. McDonald separated his shoulder and did not return.
“I came and it was a big hit on the sidelines,” McDonald said. “I got up and it didn’t feel right. I knew something was wrong.”
Walk-on sophomore Tony Burnett took McDonald’s place and recorded 10 tackles, second-highest on the team.
“He did a great job coming in for me,” McDonald said. “I was helping him on the sidelines and to be put in my position in a rivalry game, that’s a big job and for him to come in and do that, that’s great.”
The Trojans are now very thin in a secondary that was already extremely young and inexperienced with its starters at the beginning of the year, as sophomore safety Jawanza Starling, redshirt freshman cornerback Torin Harris and junior cornerback T.J. Bryant are not playing because of injuries.
Senior Day blues: For Mustain, Johnson and a few other key Trojans on the field, this was the last game they played in the Coliseum. To go out in a loss to Notre Dame with the game decided in the final minute wasn’t the way many of these seniors expected to go out.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” senior linebacker Malcolm Smith said. “As disappointing as it gets.”