It wasn’t a costly turnover. It wasn’t a crippling penalty. It wasn’t any of the obvious, head-scratching blunders that have often plagued USC over the course of this season and last.
Over the last two weeks, the Trojans and their coaches had done everything they could to mitigate those mistakes, talking a big game on turnovers, preaching fewer penalties. But on a chilly Saturday night in South Bend, in the 91st meeting of one of college football’s most storied rivalries, the issues that defined this game over the last decade drifted away in a whipping fall wind.
Left in its cold wake, in an uneven 30-27 defeat to No. 9 Notre Dame, was a series of subtle slip-ups, a football death by a thousand cuts, one that USC might never quite recover from this season.
Even as USC mounted a hopeful comeback in the second half, finally finding its rhythm on offense, the hole it dug early on, with a stalled offense and sloppy defense, proved too much.
No one minor issue stood on its own, no one problem proved the sole cause of this heart-wrenching road defeat. There was standout sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga missing two tackles on Notre Dame’s first scoring drive. There was Christian Rector, the senior defensive end, holding contain on the edge, but watching helplessly as Braden Lenzy sped past him on an end-around for a 51-yard touchdown.
As Notre Dame rolled over USC with its run game, piling up 308 yards and two touchdowns, those two were hardly the only ones struggling to get a stop when it was desperately needed.
“There were enough times we had the opportunity to get a stop, and we didn’t come up with it,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “We had an opportunity in the first half to finish drives and we didn’t do it.”
In the first half, before he found his stride, it was Kedon Slovis who couldn’t muster enough on offense, as he returned for his first game in a month. By halftime, as Notre Dame clogged up throwing lanes with a zone defense and took a 17-3 lead, Slovis had a meager 74 passing yards.
None of his mistakes were glaring. But as the freshman quarterback considered where it all went wrong after the game, it was the subtle issues that stood out.
“It seemed like every drive we had one,” Slovis said. “That kind of hurt us.”
But it was Slovis who nearly pulled the Trojans back into the game. Slovis came alive in the second against a Notre Dame secondary that had given up only three passing touchdowns all season.
With the third quarter winding down, he hit Amon-ra St. Brown in stride for a stellar 38-yard score. On his next drive, he marched the Trojans down the field on a nine-play, 75-yard drive and capped it with a touchdown pass to Tyler Vaughns in the corner of the end zone.
But Notre Dame refused to slow, driving 75 yards on its next possession and taking a 30-20 lead with 3:33 to play with a quarterback keeper from Ian Book, who’d otherwise struggled to find much rhythm against the Trojans’ secondary.
Still, Slovis soldiered on. He’d finish with an impressive line of 24 of 35 for 255 yards and two touchdowns. A last furious scoring drive ended with a two-yard touchdown by Markese Stepp with 1:04 left.
The ensuing onside kick was recovered by Notre Dame, but not without some controversy, as coach Brian Kelly stood on the field and should have been called for a penalty. He wasn’t, and the Irish prevailed.
For the past two weeks, USC had focused all it could on limiting mistakes. Through five games, it sat 122nd in the nation in turnover margin, while Notre Dame ranked second, with a staggering 14-turnover disparity between them. In its last five losses against Notre Dame, USC had either turned the ball over twice or committed at least 10 penalties.
On Saturday night, however, the Trojans had just two accepted penalties.
One of those, unfortunately, was a questionable, third-down, roughing-the-passer on Palaie Gaoteote IV that led to a Notre Dame field goal.
They didn’t give away a turnover. And still, the mistakes they thought they mitigated found the Trojans, anyway.
They crept up subtly in the second quarter, as Notre Dame began a drive pinned at its own three-yard-line by a punt from USC’s Ben Griffiths.
As the Irish converted a key third down, a defense that had held strong for a quarter quickly fell apart.
Two plays later, Hufanga missed a tackle, and running back Tony Jones scampered for 43 yards. Shortly after that, Notre Dame found the end zone for the first time after a 97-yard drive.
On the next drive, Lenzy sprinted past Rector, digging the hole just deep enough to keep the Trojans covered.
Still, with a Pac-12 title technically within reach, Helton found some hope in the Trojans’ furious comeback, even with the problems that sunk them again against the Fighting Irish.
“I told our team in there, if they play like they did in the second half, get ready to win the Pac-12 title, and I honestly believe that,” Helton said. “We’ve got six games to really put our best foot forward in our conference.
“We control our own destiny on the way to a Pac-12 title. It’s going to be a long ride home and a lot of heartbreak and sadness, and then we’ll come back tomorrow and get it done.”