Notre Dame’s locker room erupted with screams and stomps, shaking the thin wall that separated it from USC’s press conference, where head coach Clay Helton reflected on a losing season.
“USC is about championships. It deserves championships,” Helton said over the echo of the celebration. “We did not do that. It’s just fact of the matter [that] this year, we did not get the job done.”
With a losing record in sight and Helton’s job on the table, USC allowed 24 unanswered points to No. 3 Notre Dame in a 24-17 defeat at the Coliseum on Saturday in front of a crowd of 59,821, the smallest attendance for the rivalry game in 58 years.
This season marks USC’s first season under .500 since 2000. The Trojans won’t play in a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
“I think we’re all frustrated,” Helton said. “5-7 is not what USC is about. Winning close ball games is what we are. It’ll be my task moving forward to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The Trojans were once again plagued by penalties, finishing with eight for 71 yards. One penalty set USC back to second and long, halting its momentum enough to end the possession. Too many came at critical moments in the red zone.
“It’s just discipline,” freshman quarterback JT Daniels said. “Some of it’s technique, some of it’s just bad decisions. The team has to work on it consistently to get good at it. It’s something that really good players should be able to do.”
The first half saw a cohesive USC team that had a fighting chance against undefeated Notre Dame, but the second half featured the USC that has shown up all season, allowing leads to slip right through its fingers.
“They made less mistakes than we did,” senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware said. “They capitalized on the mistakes we made, and we didn’t capitalize on the mistakes they made. They played a more discipline game.”
After USC led 10-0, Notre Dame found its first score off of 24-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Finke to cut USC’s lead to 3 before the half.
In the third quarter, USC’s defense had its first breakdown when running back Dexter Williams broke free for a 52-yard touchdown to bring the score to 14-10 and give Notre Dame the lead.
A 46-yard field goal brought the Irish ahead by a full touchdown in the only scoring play of the third quarter. Notre Dame continued finding holes in USC’s defense when running back Tony Jones hit the end zone for a 51-yard rush.
It was a far cry from the Trojans’ first half performance.
USC’s opening drive featured a steady passing offense that only had its sights set on quick, short passes – quite opposite from Daniels’ inconsistent downfield throws all season. It featured seven passing plays and a 14-yard rush from redshirt sophomore Vavae Malepeai for the touchdown. Freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown’s 23-yard reception collected the most yardage on one play — slow and steady seemed to be USC’s mantra.
“It was efficient and playing to my strengths in terms of quick, active passes, spreading the defense out,” Daniels said. “We played really well to Notre Dame’s scheme.”
Daniels finished with a 72.5 completion percentage on 51 attempts and no interceptions.
On the following drive, the Trojan defense stopped Notre Dame in its tracks at the 47-yard line. The Irish wouldn’t step foot in the red zone until the end of the second quarter.
St. Brown and junior wide receiver Michael Pittman finished the first half with 147 combined receiving yards on 12 receptions, but USC fumbled the ball in Irish territory three times, stunting the offensive momentum.
“We shot ourselves in the foot a couple times with the fumbles,” redshirt senior center Toa Lobendahn said. “The game is a game of runs, and we didn’t capitalize when we needed to.”
Momentum-changers for USC came and went without any enthusiasm in the second half.
Midway through the fourth quarter, with USC trailing by a touchdown, walk-on safety Jordan McMilan intercepted quarterback Ian Book in the end zone. But Daniels was sacked twice, forcing a three-and-out drive.
“We can feel good about moving the ball, but at the end of the day it’s about scoring points,” Helton said. “And we didn’t score enough tonight.”
Before the game, a plane flew through campus with a message to Athletic Director Lynn Swann that read “Fire Clay Helton” on its banner. Some fans have called for his release since the midway point of the season, but Helton repeatedly responded to rumors with the same answer.
“I’m fully confident in the support that I have from Mr. Swann and the administration,” Helton said.
His players have had to tune out the noise and stay confident in their leadership throughout a disappointing season.
“It’s ’SC,” Ware said. “We can do a lot better. We’ve done a lot better. Every team has those lows. This year was our low. Next year [USC will] be on top. Believe me.”