Mitch Mustain, the senior backup quarterback starting for injured sophomore Matt Barkley, acknowledged feeling a little frustrated walking off the rain-soaked Los Angeles Coliseum field on Saturday night.
On a third-and-seven play from his team’s own 47-yard line, Mustain heaved a pass down the sideline toward a wide open Ronald Johnson, but the ball slipped through the hands of the senior wide receiver, all but dashing the Trojans’ hopes of notching their ninth consecutive victory over their intersectional rival.
“That one probably would have changed the outcome,” Mustain said. “It was unfortunate that [Johnson] dropped it.”
If completed, Johnson likely would have scored, giving USC (7-5, 4-4) a late lead; yet the Trojans were instead outlasted 20-16 to Notre Dame (7-5) for the first time since 2001.
“He cleared the guy before I let it go,” Mustain said, referring to the dropped pass. “I knew he had a chance to beat those guys.”
Instead, the incompletion remains a microcosm of a USC offense that simply could not capitalize on a multitude of opportunities.
Facing a Notre Dame offensive attack led by 18-year-old freshman quarterback Tommy Rees, the Trojan defense forced three interceptions and a fumble, but the offense managed to produce just one touchdown in response — a one-yard quarterback sneak from Mustain on fourth down after originally fielding the ball at the two-yard line.
“If you had told me before that we would be plus four turnovers, I would have expected a different result,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “We have to score more points off turnovers.”
A running game, which was largely nonexistent for four quarters, didn’t help. Instead of scoring touchdowns, USC found itself settling for field goals with senior kicker Joe Houston converting three, ranging from 23 yards to a career high of 45.
Primarily featuring a running back tandem of redshirt junior Marc Tyler and senior C.J. Gable, the ground game amassed just 80 yards on 30 carries, an average of 2.7 yards per gain, much to the chagrin of Kiffin.
“I don’t know why the running game didn’t get going,” said the Trojans’ first-year head coach. “We weren’t able to do it.”
The loss stands in stark contrast to USC’s previous eight wins against Notre Dame — eight games in which the Trojans averaged 40 points per contest and seemingly dominated one helpless Irish team after another.
Saturday instead marked a new twist in the rivalry, with Kiffin losing his initial matchup with the Trojans’ storied archrival, which coincidently also happens to be led by a first-year head coach in Brian Kelly.
“I am very disappointed in the outcome,” Kiffin said. “It is a very special game for a lot of people and we let them down. We worked hard to get that eight-game streak.”
Despite their offensive ineptitude, the Trojans were presented with chances, opportunities late in the game that could have otherwise allowed them to walk away with a victory in hand.
Leading 16-13 with 6:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, USC failed to stop Notre Dame’s two-man rushing attack of Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes, which totaled 57 yards on the team’s game-winning seven-play, 77-yard drive, culminating in a five-yard touchdown from Hughes.
Faced with an opportunity to respond with over two minutes remaining, USC’s efforts were futile, as the dropped pass from Johnson was eventually succeeded by an errant throw from Mustain, leading to a game-ending interception.
Outside of pride, however, there isn’t much left for the unranked Trojans to play for. Ineligible and largely unqualified for a finish in the USA Today coaches poll, all that remains for the Trojans, who are also barred from playing in a bowl game, is a Dec. 4 road contest with crosstown rival UCLA.
But the players insist they don’t view their final stretch as “insignificant.”
“It’s tough. As a competitor, you want to win every game,” redshirt junior linebacker Chris Galippo said. “It is tough to fight that hard and come out on the losing end, but sometimes you learn more when you lose than when you win.”