Sun Oct 23 09:43am EDT
USC 31, Notre Dame 17.
After two games, Notre Dame's 2011 season had already come to an inner, existential struggle between two competing teams. Team A was averaging more than 500 yards per game and had outgained its first two opponents by more than 300 total yards. Team B was 0-2 with five turnovers in each loss, six of them inside the opponents' 10-yard line. Unless they ripped off ten consecutive wins to finish the regular season, neither team was going to a BCS bowl game.
Which, frankly, was beginning to seem like a very real possibility as the next month broke definitely in favor of "Team A." The Irish thumped Michigan State, slipped past Pitt, blew out Purdue and hung more points on Air Force than any Notre Dame team has scored on anyone in 15 years. They were installed as 8½-point favorites over USC, at home, the first time they'd been favored to beat the Trojans in a decade. Coach Brian Kelly went out of his way to mark USC — as opposed to, say, Michigan State, Purdue or anyone else who targets the Irish — as "our rival." And with said rival on hand Saturday night, his team proceeded to lay a fat, nationally televised egg.
And a very familiar one, at that. After being driven into a 17-0 hole in a lopsided first half, "Team B" emerged from the locker room like the hideous Mr. Hyde emerging from the house of Dr. Jekyll. On their first possession of the half, the Irish strung together a 20-play, 72-yard drive that drained more than six minutes from the clock… only to end with a fumble returned 80 yards for a touchdown by USC's Jawanza Starling, a direct callback to the 96-yard fumble return by South Florida in the season opener. After reviving hopes again with a quick touchdown in response to open the fourth quarter, Notre Dame's final two possessions ended in a second fumble and an interception, respectively, that set up a short field for USC's final touchdown and a clock-killing drive consisting entirely of runs by a 180-pound tailback to end the game.
The Irish held the ball for all of one minute, 22 seconds in the fourth quarter, and a little over 20 minutes for the game, en route to season lows in total yards and yards per play. USC players mocked them as quitters. Kelly himself channeled his inner Weis and called out players after the game who "didn't raise their level of play" to the occasion. They still wake up today in the same place that they were on Sept. 11: At the bottom of the national rankings in turnover margin, smarting in the wake of a loss to an annual rival and soberly deferring BCS expectations for yet another year. The only difference today is that they can't claim they should have won, if not for those fluky turnovers.
For that, USC deserves credit for turning in its most complete game under Lane Kiffin. The Trojans jumped on Notre Dame early, didn't turn the ball over, took advantage of the turnovers they got and discovered a consistent running game for the first time this year, just in time to send the Irish off to dreamland in the fourth quarter. If not for a 10-point swing in Notre Dame's favor on special teams — seven via a first-half kickoff return by ND's George Atkinson, three on a missed USC field goal early in the fourth — it would have been a straight-up blowout. For a probation-addled team that's gotten used to squeaking by the likes of Utah and Arizona, it was a statement, and next week's visit from undefeated Stanford suddenly looks a lot more interesting.
Given the opportunity to make its own statement, Notre Dame reconciled the competing versions of its season in favor of the grim reality of the first two games. At some point, flukes cease to be flukes and become who you are. With another month to go before their next nationally relevant game — also against Stanford — the Irish have officially crossed that line.