The Trojans lost a nail-biter under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium 14-10 on Saturday night, as a USC team decimated by injuries at just about every offensive skill position failed to score in the second half.
The loss snapped a five-game winning streak for the Trojans in South Bend, where they hadn’t lost since 2001. USC hadn’t lost any nonconference road game since 2002, and hadn’t lost twice in a row to Notre Dame since 2000-2001.
USC had ample opportunities to overcome the deficit in the final period as the defense also held Notre Dame scoreless in the second half, but a litany of injuries, self-destructive play from the offensive line and a couple missed field goals doomed the Trojans.
“Well, we have a hurt team in there,” interim head coach Ed Orgeron said. “Unfortunately we didn’t win the game, but I really liked the way our guys played and competed to the end.”
Freshman safety Su’a Cravens gave USC the ball at the Irish 34-yard line by recovering a fumble –— Notre Dame’s only turnover of the night — with 6:27 left. A perfectly targeted 16-yard pass to freshman wideout Darreus Rogers from redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler picked up a first down at the Irish 21-yard line, and the Trojans looked primed to come away with at least a field goal.
But on a play where Kessler scrambled to inside the 5-yard line, a holding penalty on junior right guard Aundrey Walker brought the ball back to the 33-yard line.
“It wasn’t a hold,” Walker said. “But the ref called it and we gotta live with it and move on … It happened so fast, I was holding my hands up because I thought it was gonna be a touchdown. And I turned around and there was a flag on the field.”
A false start by redshirt freshman left tackle Chad Wheeler dug the Trojans into a 4th and 20 situation on Notre Dame’s 26-yard line, meaning a field goal attempt would have been 43 yards long. With time running down and junior kicker Andre Heidari already having missed two field goals from 40 and 46 yards out, the Trojans tried to go for the touchdown and the win. But Kessler was sacked to turn the ball over on downs.
“Going into the end, we just felt that we weren’t kicking field goals very well so [we thought], ‘Let’s go and win the game,’” Orgeron said.
USC had another chance to score after a defensive stop, but injuries to Rogers, junior wideout Marqise Lee, freshman tailback Justin Davis and redshirt junior tight end Randall Telfer forced the Trojans to stretch deep into their depth chart on the final drive — and the backups’ inexperience showed. Sophomore tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick and walk-on redshirt freshman wide receiver Robby Kolanz lined up for USC, and a false start by Cope-Fitzpatrick and two incompletions thrown to the third-string tight end killed the Trojans’ last-gasp attempt to score.
“Obviously the penalties hurt us tonight in crucial situations, and we didn’t punch it in in the red zone when we need to,” Orgeron said. “It seemed that every time we had a first down or something like that, we had a holding call or jumped offsides, shot ourselves in the foot, and then it was 2nd and 20.”
Overall, the Trojans’ offensive stats looked passable; Kessler completed 20 of 34 passes for 201 yards and senior running back Silas Redd rushed 19 times for 112 yards and a touchdown.
But after USC’s first drive of the game resulted in a touchdown, the Trojans never found the end zone again, and ended the game with a streak of 11 consecutive failed third-down attempts.
“We felt like we had that game won until there were four zeros on the clock, ‘til it was completely over,” redshirt junior safety Dion Bailey said. “[Notre Dame] just made a couple more plays at the end that affected the outcome.”
The Trojans had been expected to mostly split carries between the healthy quartet of backs who had registered carries against Arizona last week after redshirt sophomore Tre Madden suffered a hamstring injury. Madden wasn’t active for USC on Saturday, but Redd was slated for his first start of the season and seemed determined to assert himself as the starter.
The senior carried six times for 40 yards on USC’s opening drive and punched the ball in for a one-yard touchdown to give the Trojans a 7-0 lead.
The Irish attacked through the air on the next drive, as quarterback Tommy Rees completed six of seven attempts for 49 yards to lead Notre Dame to pay dirt. The drive concluded with a seven-yard pass to tight end Troy Niklas that tied up the game and put Rees over the 6,000 passing yard mark for his career, becoming only the fifth Notre Dame quarterback to surpass that mark. Rees finished 14 of 21 for 166 yards and two touchdowns.
Notre Dame’s offense took a huge hit — literally and figuratively — when junior linebacker Lamar Dawson burst untouched on a blitz early in the third quarter and unloaded on Rees, knocking him out of the game with a neck strain.
The Irish’s offense was noticeably more conservative from that point onward, as backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix short-armed several throws while failing to complete any of his four attempts. In fact, the Irish didn’t complete any passes in the fourth quarter, a stunning feat for a team to pull off while also claiming victory.
“I wasn’t willing to throw the football, and when we did, I didn’t like the way it looked,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “Obviously we missed [Rees] in the second half … We tried to have [Hendrix] pull [the ball] and get to the sidelines, but it was tough sledding out there.”
A 48-yard punt return from sophomore wideout Nelson Agholor, the longest by a Trojan since 2010, gave USC the ball at the Notre Dame 20-yard line with just under 10 minutes left in the second quarter. The Trojans failed to reach the end zone, but Heidari was true on his second field-goal attempt from 22 yards out to give the Trojans a 10-7 lead.
After the teams traded scoreless possessions, the Irish finally gained some traction in the run game on their last drive of the half, and it resulted in their first halftime lead in the rivalry at their home field since 2005.
Notre Dame tailback Cam McDaniel broke off a 24-yard run to the Irish 41-yard line before a blatant pass interference penalty by redshirt junior cornerback Anthony Brown moved the ball past midfield to the USC 47.
McDaniel followed with the longest rush of his career, a 36-yard scamper down to the USC 11-yard line, and receiver TJ Jones hauled in an impressive touchdown catch over sophomore cornerback Kevon Seymour to give the Irish a 14-10 lead that held until the final whistle.
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