USC’s three defensive senior captains did not have the season they expected they would have by any stretch of the imagination.
That continued until the very end on Saturday night, as safety Marvell Tell did not play against Notre Dame because of a sprained ankle sustained in the UCLA loss. He joined fellow captain Porter Gustin, who was lost for the season with a broken foot on Oct. 13 against Colorado, in walking out for the coin toss in a jersey but no pads.
The last man standing of the three, inside linebacker Cameron Smith, also missed three games this season because of a hamstring injury.
Smith was out there for his last game at the Coliseum on Saturday night, leading the Trojans in tackles during the first half with six.
The Trojans put together a tremendous defensive effort in the first 30 minutes, holding No. 3 Notre Dame to only a touchdown in taking a 10-7 lead to the half.
They were also without inside linebacker John Houston, who injured his hamstring against UCLA. Against the Bruins, senior Reuben Peters filled in for Houston, and the Trojans were gashed in the run game by UCLA running back Joshua Kelley the entire second half.
A big reason USC was able to play so well without Houston this time was the move of true freshman linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV to Houston’s weak inside linebacker spot. Gaoteote had filled in when Smith was out earlier this season and showed flashes of what made him a five-star recruit out of Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas.
In the first half Saturday, Gaoteote was all over the field, collecting four tackles including a key sack of Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book that gave the Trojans early momentum.
Filling in for Tell was little-used true freshman defensive back Chase Williams, who had two tackles in the first half.
With seven minutes left in the second quarter, Notre Dame embarked on its first scoring drive of the game.
Facing third and 10, Book started to find a rhythm with wide receiver Chris Finke on an 18-yard completion. Three plays later, on third and 11, Book had nobody open but bought time and then sprinted across the field for an 11-yard gain and another first down. On third andeight later on the drive, Book found Finke for a nine-yard completion.
Book, clearly seeing a trend, looked Finke’s way again for a 24-yard touchdown pass.
Finke had seven catches for 86 yards in the first half.
With running back Stephen Carr out for the third straight game with a high ankle sprain, the Trojans have been prepping freshman Markese Stepp for an extended role.
Because of a new NCAA rule that allows players to participate in up to four games without losing their ability to redshirt, it made sense for USC to use Stepp in this capacity.
Stepp carried five times for 23 yards Saturday, playing in his fourth game of the season.
He will use this season as a redshirt year.
Notre Dame’s success this season has, for the most part, been marked by quick starts.
Before Saturday night, the Irish had outscored their opponents 112-23 in the first 15 minutes, building a first-quarter lead in nine of 10 victories.
When they fell behind USC, 10-0, early in the second quarter, it marked their first double-digit deficit, setting the stage for their biggest comeback this fall.