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Late Errors Cost USC Against Notre Dame

Shotgun Spratling, Sara Ramsey |
November 28, 2010 | 12:16 a.m. PST

USC receiver Ronald Johnson can't catch a pass late in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame. (Shotgun Spratling)
USC receiver Ronald Johnson can't catch a pass late in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame. (Shotgun Spratling)

Two first-time head coaches, two first-time quarterbacks, one long-standing rivalry.

USC and Notre Dame’s storied battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh trophy was reborn under the lights of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Saturday night.

USC entered having won its last eight meetings with the Fighting Irish, scoring at least 34 points in each game. That was not the case Saturday. For the first time since 2001, Notre Dame walked away with the victory and the foot-long bedazzled shillelagh, winning 20-16 in cold and rainy conditions.

“I am very disappointed in the outcome,” Trojan’s head coach Lane Kiffin said. “It is a very special game for a lot of people and we let them down today.”

Behind the arm of backup quarterback Mitch Mustain, who started in place of the injured Matt Barkley, USC had an opportunity to win the game in the final two minutes.

Battling a steady downpour and the Irish defense, Mustain connected on a pair of passes to Robert Woods to get the Trojans near midfield. Two plays later, on 3rd-and-7, Mustain launched a pass to Ronald Johnson, who had beaten his man so badly the defender fell down on the play.

With no one in front of him, Johnson would have only had to walk into the end zone to give USC a late lead. But the possible game-winning pass slipped through Johnson's grip and fell to the soggy grass for an incompletion.

“It is part of the game, you drop balls. That one probably would have changed the outcome,” Mustain said. “I don’t know if there is a worse feeling than that. It was unfortunate Ronald dropped that one, but we had other chances.”

Undeterred by the drop, Mustain completed a fourth down pass to Rhett Ellison to move into Notre Dame territory and found Woods for another first down to get the ball to the Irish’s 23-yard line.

However, two plays later Mustain went to the well one too many times as he tried to force a pass to Woods into double coverage. Safety Harrison Smith closed the book on this year’s saga, intercepting the pass at the 1-yard line and allowing Notre Dame to run out the final 36 seconds.

The Fighting Irish (7-5) took the lead with 2:23 seconds remaining when Robert Hughes followed tight end Mike Ragone’s block for a five-yard touchdown run. Notre Dame ran for 147 yards on the night, led by Cierre Wood’s 89 yards on 15 carries.

True freshman quarterback Tommy Rees was intercepted three times but threw for 149 yards and a pair of one-yard touchdowns to Michael Floyd and Duval Kamara. Floyd finished the night with 11 catches and 86 yards receiving.

Notre Dame capitalized on USC’s inability to run the ball consistently. The Trojans rushed for just 84 yards on 30 attempts -- a paltry average of 2.7 yards per carry. Marc Tyler managed only 51 yards to lead the team.
“We weren’t able to do it,” Kiffin said. “That was the plan this week, to run the ball and I would have thought that with zero sacks and zero turnovers that we would be in a very different place.”

USC receiver Robert Woods returns a kick against Notre Dame. (Shotgun Spratling)
USC receiver Robert Woods returns a kick against Notre Dame. (Shotgun Spratling)
Robert Woods had 81 yards receiving and Ronald Johnson and Rhett Ellison added a combined 78 yards.

The one bright spot in the seniors' final home game was Joe Houston. The Irish entered having allowed only a single field goal in each of their past two games. Houston matched that in the first quarter putting the Trojans on the board first with a career long 45-yard field goal.

The redshirt senior was not done, kicking a 23-yarder in the third quarter to trim Notre Dame’s lead to 14-6 after the Irish scored a pair of touchdowns late in the first half. A Mustain fourth down quarterback sneak snapped Notre Dame’s 229-minute streak of not allowing a touchdown and tied the game 13-13 in the third quarter.

Houston capped off his career night with a 37-yarder with 6:25 remaining giving the Trojans a short-lived 16-13 lead.
Notre Dame now leads the 84-year series, 42-34-5.

The Trojans will close their season next week with an away game against rival UCLA.

To reach Shotgun Spratling, click here, or follow him on Twitter @BlueWorkhorse.

To reach writer Sara Ramsey, click here.

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