Saturday’s USC vs. Notre Dame score was closer than expected, even if the Trojans’ performance wasn’t. They lost to the Irish 30-27.
It was always bound to be a tough outing for USC vs. Notre Dame as they took on a Top 10 team in South Bend.
The Trojans kept it close, pushing the Irish to the edge, but they couldn’t ultimately finish off the upset bid, falling 30-27.
The lowdown: USC opened the game with energy. Though the offense’s first two drives came to nothing, the Trojans moved the ball well before punting with a chance to change field position.
A breakthrough came as the run game got going and USC moved into range for Chase McGrath to kick a 40-yard field goal for the 3-0 lead.
The defense, meanwhile, made Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book uncomfortable on his opening attempts, blanking the Irish through one quarter.
It was not meant to last.
The second quarter saw USC’s offense unable to sustain a drive, special teams unable to successfully flip the field because of poor punt coverage, and the defense incapable of completing a tackle. As a result, Book found tight end Cole Kmet for a 10-yard touchdown early in the period, then wide receiver Braden Lenzy hit the outside on a reverse and blew past USC’s defenders for a 51-yard score.
The first half ended with a John Houston sack holding the Irish to a 45-yard field goal, securing a 17-3 lead going into the break.
The two teams traded field goals to start the second half before USC made it interesting when Kedon Slovis used a playaction fake to soften up the defense on a 38-yard touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown.
A questionable roughing the passer call on the ensuing Notre Dame possession extended a drive and resulted in an Irish field goal to push their advantage to 10 points.
However, the Trojan offense responded with their best drive of the evening, including a 25-yard Markese Stepp run, a toe-tap Tyler Vaughns catch on the sideline and finished by an endzone fade touchdown to Vaughns from five yards out to make it 23-20.
Notre Dame responded with a 14-play, nearly seven-minute drive capped by an eight-yard Book scramble for a touchdown to restore their 10-point advantage.
With time winding down, Slovis led his own scoring drive to give his team a chance. Stepp powered in a two-yard touchdown with the help of left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker.
It all came down to an onside kick with the Trojans trailing 30-27 with just over a minute to play. Notre Dame recovered and took knees to run down the clock, not without some controversy as Irish head coach Brian Kelly was on the field during the kick.
The takeaway: The Trojans are who we thought they were.
All at once, USC played hard, never quit and challenged a ranked team on the road.
At the same time, the Trojans were sloppy in their tackling, vulnerable to a running quarterback, impotent on offense at times and ultimately gave too little, too late.
In a vacuum, a three-point loss on the road as a 10-point underdog is nothing to scoff at. It might even be a performance to take pride in.
But USC isn’t playing in a vacuum. They are playing with the memory of similar performances which ultimately proved to be not enough. When you’ve fallen to 3-3 on the season, moral victories no longer exist. There are only wins and losses. This was the latter.
It was also a missed opportunity. The Trojans proved they could go toe-to-toe with Notre Dame, but they’ll have nothing to show for it.
All they can hope to do is use the same fight and talent to battle for the Pac-12 South.
Player of the game: Markese Stepp, who led USC with 82 yards on 10 carries, including an impressive two-yard touchdown. His powerful rushing style made him USC’s most consistent offensive weapon.
Next on tap: USC will be back at the Coliseum for Homecoming against Arizona next Saturday with the Pac-12 South truly in the balance.