In the most important game of the season and, for that matter, one of the most significant in any season, USC made just enough errors to help Notre Dame retain its No. 1 college football ranking.
Clearly, though, Notre Dame was the better team Saturday at the Coliseum, winning, 27-10, before a crowd of 93,829.
The Irish beat the Trojans on big plays, a 65-yard touchdown run by quarterback Tony Rice in the first quarter and a 64-yard interception returned for a touchdown by cornerback Stan Smagala in the second quarter.
USC, which had played virtually error-free during the season, committed four turnovers, two leading to Notre Dame touchdowns.
The turnovers occurred in the first half when the Irish took a 20-7 lead. The Trojans closed to 20-10 in the third quarter on Quin Rodriguez's 26-yard field goal, but it wasn't enough.
Notre Dame put USC away in the fourth quarter on a 70-yard scoring drive--its only lengthy advance in the game--with tailback Mark Green scoring from the 1-yard line.
So Notre Dame (11-0) is headed for a Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl game with West Virginia (11-0). Second-ranked USC will play Michigan Jan. 2 in the Rose Bowl game.
It was the first time in a series that began in 1926 that USC and Notre Dame were both undefeated and untied coming into the game.
USC Coach Larry Smith called it a classic matchup, but it wasn't a classic performance by the Trojans.
"Whenever you play a big game like this, you can't make a lot of big mistakes, and that's what we did," Smith said. "Notre Dame has a fine team and they played an excellent game--and that's why they won.
"We didn't do anything to help ourselves win the game. Part of that is that they force you to do those things (errors)."
USC came into the game with a turnover margin of plus 17, third best in the country. It had lost only 5 fumbles (only 1 by a tailback) in 10 previous games.
However, USC tailback Aaron Emanuel lost a fumble in the first quarter that enabled Notre Dame to score from the USC 19-yard line.
Then, in the second quarter, USC tailback Ricky Ervins fumbled to the Irish at their 19-yard line, squandering a scoring opportunity.
Peete threw two interceptions in the first half, the second of which was returned for a touchdown.
With 52 seconds to play in the second quarter, Peete threw a pass intended for John Jackson. But the flanker slipped on the play, and Smagala stepped in front of the wide receiver for the interception.
Smagala ran down the sideline for the touchdown with tackle Derrell Marshall and tailback Scott Lockwood vainly trying to catch him.
"John fell down on his cut," Peete said. "But I'm not going to blame him. It was my interception. You just can't afford to make mistakes against the No. 1 team."
On the return, Peete was blocked so hard by Notre Dame defensive end Frank Stams that he had the wind knocked out of him.
But that wasn't the worst of it. When USC regained the ball with a few seconds left in the half, Stams sacked Peete, forcing the quarterback to leave the game.
"Rodney wasn't in very good physical shape at the end of the first half," Smith said. "He was hit on the left shoulder and there was some question whether or not he could play again. The same for (split end) Erik Affholter, who had a hip pointer."
Peete played in the second half, but he left the Coliseum with his left arm in a sling. He suffered what is believed to be a mild sprain. X-rays will be taken Monday to determine the extent of the injury.
It has been a rocky 2 weeks for Peete. He had the measles the week before the UCLA game, but played and led his team to a Rose Bowl-bid clinching 31-22 victory.
Then, early this week, he suffered from laryngitis and couldn't call signals in a few practice sessions. Now, the shoulder injury.
Notre Dame had its problems before the game, but not from injuries. Tailback Tony Brooks and flanker Ricky Watters, the team's leading rusher and receiver, were suspended for being repeatedly late to team functions.
They were on a Saturday morning flight to South Bend, Ind., and, despite their skills, weren't particularly missed.
Rice is known as a quarterback with limited passing skills. He completed only 5 of 9 for 91 yards, one a bomb for 55 yards from his own end zone.
However, he's an accomplished athlete who is more of a threat as a runner. It was evident in the first quarter when he ran 65 yards for a touchdown on an option.
USC free safety Mark Carrier was committed to the pitch man in the option, Green, and couldn't cover both players. So, Rice cut up the field with only strong safety Tracy Butts vainly trying to tackle him at the USC 20-yard line.
"We were in a Sooner defense," said USC defensive tackle Tim Ryan, referring to the defense the Trojans used to stop Oklahoma this season. "I think one of our outside linebackers got chopped and it was a great play by Rice."
It was a strange game in that USC had 356 total net yards to Notre Dame's 253. Moreover, after Notre Dame scored for a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, it was virtually shut down offensively.
When the Trojans closed to 20-10 late in the third quarter, they had outgained the Irish, 254 yards to 7, through almost two quarters. Also, USC had 19 first downs to Notre Dame's 4 after three quarters and finished with a 21-8 advantage for the game. Yet the Trojans scored their only touchdown on a 66-yard drive in the second quarter with Lockwood taking a pitch to go in from the 1-yard line.
If there was a turning point, it occurred on a USC drive in the third quarter that resulted in only a field goal. The Trojans worked their way to the Irish 4-yard line.
They were still on the 4 after two dives into the line by Emanuel. Marshall was then cited for a false start on third down, a 5-yard penalty, and Peete's pass to tight end Scott Galbraith was overthrown.
USC then had to settle for Rodriguez's field goal.
With a quarter left to play, it seemed that the Trojans had enough time to catch the Irish.
But it wasn't to be as Notre Dame drove 70 yards to the clinching touchdown by Green. Rice completed a 23-yard screen pass to fullback Anthony Johnson on third and 6 from the USC 36-yard line to sustain the advance.
The Trojans couldn't get a first down in their next two possessions. They managed to reach the Irish 10-yard line in the waning minutes but still couldn't score.
The Trojans had previously averaged 34.6 points a game, but they were frustrated by Notre Dame and by their own miscues.
Peete--who was subjected to extensive blitzing, more than the Irish had done all season--completed 23 of 44 passes for 225 yards. However, he had 2 interceptions, and he was sacked 3 times.
"We just didn't protect Rodney very well," Smith said, "and we didn't handle the blitz. We've handled it all year, but today it was like we we were playing in a fog."
It's possible that, in the losing cause, Peete lost his chance to win the Heisman Trophy in his last regular-season game as a senior.
"I don't vote, so I don't know what people will say about the Heisman," Peete said.
USC blew an opportunity to score early in the first quarter on third and 3 at the Notre Dame 33-yard line. The Trojans had been moving on the ground, but Peete then overthrew wide receiver Gary Wellman, and Chris Sperle punted on fourth down. . . . USC tailback Aaron Emanuel gained 95 yards in 18 carries, although USC wound up with only 131 net yards rushing to Notre Dame's 162. . . . USC Coach Larry Smith had a 10-0 record in 2 seasons at the Coliseum before Saturday's loss. . . . The Irish had only 1 turnover in the game, a fumble by quarterback Tony Rice. . . . USC's 5-game home average attendance of 76,063 set a school and Pacific 10 record. . . . With his 5 receptions for 62 yards, USC split end Erik Affholter set school records for a season (63 catches) and a career (118).