The Trojans rallied from an early deficit to reclaim the lead in the third quarter but ultimately fell up short to No. 14-ranked Notre Dame, 41-31, on Saturday night.
Interim head coach Clay Helton drops to 0-1 at the helm since taking over for Steve Sarkisian earlier this week.
“I told the team with every fiber of my being, every fiber, that I truly believe this is a good football team that can be great, but we have to eliminate the mistakes,” Helton said.
USC (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12), which hasn’t beaten the Fighting Irish (6-1) in South Bend since 2011, entered the fourth quarter tied with its rival at 31-31, but it gave up back-to-back 90-yard touchdown drives to the Irish on its way to being outscored 17-0 in the final quarter.
Notre Dame’s 41 points is the most scored against any USC team since 1977.
Despite racking up 590 yards of total offense, the Trojans didn’t have an answer for the Notre Dame rushing attack, which accounted for 214 of the Irish’s 476 yards of total offense.
“It is disappointing,” redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler said. “It is not like the effort was not there. It was just when it got down to the end of the game, during crucial points, we did not finish and execute.”
Senior running back C.J. Prosise carried the ball 19 times for 143 yards and two touchdowns on the night.
In the air, Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback Deshone Kizer completed 15 of 24 passes on his way to throwing for 227 yards and two touchdowns.
Junior wide receiver Will Fuller was on the other end of a 75-yard touchdown pass from Kizer on the Irish’s first play from scrimmage. Fuller caught only three passes on the night but was still able to go off for 131 yards receiving.
“C.J. and Fuller, they are tremendous football players,” Helton said. “They did a great job of winning their one-on-one matchups, especially in the deep ball.”
Fuller’s touchdown reception quickly answered USC’s seven points on its first drive of the game, which came on a three-yard rush by Kessler.
Coming off one of the worst performances of his career, Kessler thew for 365 yards and two touchdowns on 30-of-46 passing but threw two timely interceptions that hurt USC in the fourth quarter.
“Those turnovers late were crucial, especially when you play a good football team like that,” Kessler said.
After trailing 24-10 in the second quarter, the Trojans responded with two consecutive scoring drives to tie the game at 24.
Helton brought out a play from the trick book when he dialed up a reverse pass that had former quarterback and redshirt freshman wide receiver Jalen Greene throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who caught for 139 yards on six receptions.
Sophomore Adoree’ Jackson also got involved on offense when he connected with Kessler and jetted off for an 83-yard touchdown.
The Trojans had a chance to take a lead into halftime, but a 36-yard kick off the leg of redshirt junior Alex Wood hammered off of the upright.
USC carried its momentum into the second half and reclaimed a seven-point lead on a four-yard touchdown pass from Kessler to redshirt junior tight end Taylor McNamara. USC, however, would be shutout for the rest of the game.
“I felt like we had the momentum, but we couldn’t stop the inside zone,” junior linebacker Su’a Cravens said.
Penalties also continued to hurt USC, which committed 10 on the night for 105 yards.
“At the end of the day mistakes hurt us, whether it was penalties, special teams, some missed tackles and some turnovers on offense,” Helton said.
Before the game, Athletic Director Pat Haden felt light headed on the sidelines and was taken to the locker room. Haden was taken to a local hospital and checked out fine before heading back to Los Angeles on a private plane, according to a USC official.
Haden has been under an increased amount of fire since announcing the termination of former head coach Steve Sarkisian last Monday.
The Trojans return home to resume Pac-12 conference play against No. 4-ranked Utah next Saturday.