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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

For USC, it's a fright at the finish

The Trojans beat Notre Dame at South Bend, 34-27. After all manner of 'knucklehead plays,' perhaps 'survive' is a better word.

October 18, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE

SOUTH BEND, IND. — It was USC versus Notre Dame so you knew who was going to win, but at least it wasn't 81-0 or 45-2 or Irish fans crying their eyes out.

It was OK to watch this time.

For the first time since 2005 -- the "Bush Push" classic -- the rivalry had a pulse again, which was mostly USC's fault for thinking a 20-point lead with 13 minutes left was enough.

"We've got work to do," safety Taylor Mays said afterward.

Start with a meeting room, a chalkboard, a film projector and a title: "How to finish the job."

A 34-27 victory on a breezy, cloud-speckled Saturday requires no apology, but had USC left with an overtime loss after dominating the game, Pete Carroll may have ordered the team charter home diverted to Catalina.

But that's not the way it happened.

USC won. Survived, if you want.

Yet, it was only a nonconference game and USC always wins those. Carroll's Trojans are now a remarkable 25-0 in regular-season non-Pac-10 games since a loss at Kansas State in September of 2002.

If the Trojans had stopped Vince Young on fourth down in that national title game, USC would be 32-0 in all nonconference games -- with three national titles.

Is that any good?

Saturday's game was not 2005 -- don't even get me started. Saturday was exciting, not epic, a heart-thump ending masking 59 uneven minutes in which "knucklehead plays," as Carroll called them, nearly undid what should have been a done deal.

As in 2005, there was last-second chaos at the same end of Notre Dame Stadium where Reggie Bush pushed Matt Leinart into the end zone for the winning score.

The '05 final drive, though, was Leinart heaving that incredible fourth-down pass to Dwayne Jarrett, with Irish cornerback Ambrose Wooden in his face.

Saturday's final drive had Notre Dame marching toward the game-tying touchdown aided by two of those personal "knucklehead" fouls.

Then, after getting handed first and goal at the four, Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen failed in his moment to cement his Heisman Trophy case and put the Irish on a Bowl Championship Series bowl course.

Clausen's final two passes, the first with four seconds left, the second with one, did not come close to capping off the miracle.

Instead of legacy, Clausen walked off the field holding Notre Dame's eighth straight loss to USC.

Clausen, limping on a bad toe, led a great last-second comeback this year at Purdue, but Saturday he fell short of creating his Joe Montana "chicken soup" memory.

"It's just heartbreaking we came up short," Clausen said.

He was outplayed by Matt Barkley, USC's first-year freshman, who had a breakout game with 380 passing yards and two touchdowns.

Barkley, it should be said, was playing for the better team, flinging completions to wide-open receivers. Clausen was more of a skeet shooter against USC's superior secondary.

Barkley also threw a late interception that allowed Notre Dame to close to within a touchdown, dinging his otherwise exceptional performance.

Carroll, afterward, stopped just short of nominating Barkley for a Nobel Prize.

"He's just remarkable," Carroll said. "There's no way to describe it because there's no one else to compare it to in our history."

What exactly the Trojans are right now is unclear, but the good news for them is you can say that about a lot of teams in contention for this year's national title.

Did you catch what the top teams were doing?

Top-ranked Florida nearly pulled a repeat of last year's home loss to Mississippi, only this time against Arkansas, before prevailing by a field goal.

Texas squeaked out a three-point win over an Oklahoma team that lost quarterback Sam Bradford early after he reinjured his throwing shoulder.

No. 4 Virginia Tech lost at Georgia Tech, meaning the sixth-ranked Trojans should get another poll bump in advance of today's first release of the BCS standings.

USC's three-point loss at Washington on Sept. 19 hasn't completely gone away and will be the blame for the Trojans' not opening the BCS season at No. 1.

The big question after Notre Dame is: What happens now? There are no more nonconference schools to conquer, only the gnat-bite remaining portion of the Pacific 10 Conference schedule.

Oregon State hits town next week. Remember last year in Corvallis?

Who are these Trojans, who broke out of their offensive slump Saturday at the same time their seemingly impregnable defense had some explaining to do?

Is this a championship team or a team with issues? Is this a work in progress and only a matter of working the kinks out?

"Little things," linebacker Chris Galippo said. "Doing stuff right. We've got so close to losing games."

Example: The Trojans punched four fumbles loose from the Irish but didn't recover one. "That's just horrible on our part," Carroll said.

USC also helped Notre Dame with eight penalties for 80 yards.

The exit strategy out of South Bend seemed pretty simple.

"Play smart," said defensive end Everson Griffen, himself called for an unsportsmanlike celebration penalty. "Penalties kept them in the game."

USC scored an exciting victory against Notre Dame when it should have been a boring one.

"Stuff happened," Carroll said. " . . . Unfortunately, we made it real dramatic and fun."

--

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/DufresneLAT

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