Given the opportunity to upset No. 1 Notre Dame in the 84th edition of the storied intersectional rivalry, USC flashed the talent and explosiveness that emboldened many preseason prognosticators to ticket the Trojans — not the Irish — for a date in January’s BCS national championship game in Miami.
Unfortunately, the Trojans were once again bedeviled by inopportune miscues en route to a 22-13 loss before a sellout crowd of 93,607 fans, many of whom were cheering on the Irish’s special season.
“It’s very difficult for everyone in our locker room with so many things not going well this season,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “I was hoping today we would finish different with the backup quarterback and be part of history, knocking [Notre Dame] out of the national championship game.”
Continuing their recent trend of slow starts, the Trojans quickly fell behind 10-0 — a week after digging themselves a 24-point hole to UCLA in the first half. After Kyle Brindza’s 27-yard field goal on the first series and a fruitless drive for USC on its first possession, Notre Dame rattled off a 12-play, 87-yard drive, which tailback Theo Riddick capped with a nine-yard touchdown scamper after the Irish converted three separate third-down opportunities. On the evening, Riddick rushed for 146 yards on 20 carries and accounted for the Irish’s only touchdown.
“They were powerful today,” sophomore linebacker Hayes Pullard said of the Notre Dame offense. “It was electrifying out there; kudos to most of their offensive linemen. They recognized our defense, and got up to the second level and were able to run up and down.”
Undeterred, redshirt freshman quarterback Max Wittek, after missing his first three passes in the previous series, roared back with five consecutive completions in a drive that culminated in an 11-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Robert Woods.
“Woody’s a great receiver, and he’s so smart,” Wittek said. “He knows defenses, so it’s easy to be on the same page with a guy like that.”
During the Senior Day festivities before the contest, senior quarterback Matt Barkley strode out of the Coliseum tunnel in street clothes, stopping to embrace Kiffin, before flashing the victory ‘V’ sign to the Coliseum faithful.
Kiffin momentarily choked up upon describing the scene in his post-game media session.
“It’s just wrong,” Kiffin said of Barkley’s injury. “That shouldn’t have happened to that kid. I just felt for him, my heart just felt for him. That kid didn’t deserve for it to end like that.”
Wittek, Barkley’s replacement, valiantly faced the steep challenge of facing the NCAA’s No. 1 scoring defense — Notre Dame only allowed 10.1 points per game entering the game — and subbing in for the legendary Barkley.
“Obviously the circumstances with Matt not being able to play in the game is what really sucks about it,” said Wittek, who finished his starting debut 14 of 23 for 186 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. “Looking at him, being with him the past five to six years at Mater Dei and then here … for him to not be able to play in this rivalry game — this last home game — was pretty sad.”
Notre Dame and USC proceeded to trade field goals in their ensuing possessions before USC possessed the ball with 1:25 remaining in the first half and trailing by three points.
Wittek squandered the opportunity to pull USC ahead, however, as he lofted a pass — intended for sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee — approximately 70 yards down field that Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell hauled in for an interception.
The Irish capitalized on the turnover in their subsequent offensive possession. After moving the ball to USC’s 35-yard line with 10 seconds remaining, quarterback Everett Golson scrambled for eight seconds before rifling a pass that fell incomplete. Unluckily for USC, time had yet to expire in the half, giving the Irish the chance to eke a 52-yard field goal over the uprights’ crossbar, which staked them to a 16-10 lead at halftime.
The second half also began inauspiciously as Heisman Trophy candidate Manti Te’o snared his seventh interception of the season on Wittek’s first pass and continued to deteriorate as USC’s offense failed to find the end zone despite numerous red zone opportunities.
“Notre Dame showed me that they have phenomenal senior leadership,” Kiffin said. “You can see those guys understand the game, very physical, very old school; they’re not very exotic, but they don’t screw up.”
Following the Irish’s fourth field goal, USC countered with a 13-play, 80-yard drive in which it appeared the Trojans scored a touchdown on a four-yard completion to Lee. Before the play, however, Kiffin called a timeout, thus negating the score. After an unsuccessful third-down attempt, USC had to settle for a 21-yard field goal.
Further fueling the frustration, USC was set up at Notre Dame’s one-yard line with four minutes remaining in the game, seeking to score a touchdown to draw the score to 22-20. After two unsuccessful quarterback sneaks and a stuffed, negative run play for senior tailback Curtis McNeal, Kiffin called for a play-action roll-out pass to redshirt freshman fullback Soma Vainuku. Vainuku bobbled the pass, as the ball squirted between his legs and hit the ground, effectively sealing the defeat.
“In the second half I thought we didn’t move the ball very well, especially in the third quarter on offense, but you gotta make the plays in those situations,” Kiffin said. “They’re the No. 1 goal line defense in the country two years in a row for a reason.”
USC must now regroup for its bowl game after losing both of its rivalry games this season and dropping four of five contests.
“I’d say we’re all disappointed,” Wittek said. “No one imagined losing five games with the talent that we have. Things didn’t exactly turn out how we wanted them to, but I couldn’t express any more pride in my team, being able to go to battle with them was definitely special.”