SOUTH BEND, IND. — Early in the fourth quarter, it looked like another rout.
With one second left, it had the makings of another classic.
But in the end, all sixth-ranked USC's 34-27 victory over No. 25 Notre Dame did Saturday was extend the Trojans' recent dominance in college football's greatest intersectional rivalry.
When a short pass by Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen skidded through the end zone on the final play at Notre Dame Stadium, the Trojans exhaled, their eighth consecutive victory over the Fighting Irish secured.
"We're thrilled to have had the run we've had and hope to keep this thing rolling," said USC Coach Pete Carroll.
Much like four years ago, when the Trojans survived against the Irish here for an epic victory, Carroll and his players appeared emotionally drained rather than elated.
In 2005, USC came from behind to defeat the Irish on the strength of a Matt Leinart-led offense that produced a now-legendary fourth-down pass play and took advantage of a clock reset to score the game-winning touchdown on a Reggie Bush-assisted sneak.
This time, on a cold and breezy afternoon in college football's most venerable venue, it was Notre Dame that benefited from a clock reset, and USC's defense that stepped up and staged a goal-line stand.
"It felt like '05, but this time the pressure was on us," cornerback Kevin Thomas said.
Of course, the defense also was largely to blame for nearly blowing a 20-point fourth-quarter lead before securing a victory that improved the Trojans to 5-1 and kept alive their hopes for a berth in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
USC committed several personal foul penalties in the fourth quarter that helped give Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen a chance to etch his name into Irish lore.
Clausen, who starred at Westlake Village Oaks Christian High, entered the game as the national leader in passing efficiency. But USC neutralized the junior through most of the first three quarters while building a 20-7 lead on two Matt Barkley touchdown passes to Damian Williams and two field goals.
Even after Clausen connected with receiver Golden Tate for a spectacular 45-yard touchdown -- the first scoring pass surrendered by the Trojans this season -- USC answered with two touchdowns that pushed its lead to 34-14 early in the fourth quarter.
"I thought we had it," said Barkley, who passed for a career-best 380 yards.
So, apparently, did the defense.
"The comfort level went up with everybody," middle linebacker Chris Galippo said. "Maybe guys got a little lax."
Actually, they got out of control, drawing a string of 15-yard penalties that allowed Notre Dame to keep drives alive.
"We had these guys right where we wanted them and we didn't put it away because we left them in the game" with penalties, Carroll said.
Notre Dame (4-2), which had already won four close games, recognized opportunity.
"Down three scores, about everyone in the house figured it's probably time to throw in the towel," Coach Charlie Weis said. "Not this group. No way. Not happening."
Clausen took advantage, driving the Irish to a touchdown that he scored on a short run to cut the deficit to 14 points. The extra point, however, was blocked.
On USC's next series cornerback Gary Gray picked off a Barkley pass that tipped off the hands of receiver Ronald Johnson, setting up Clausen's 15-yard touchdown pass to Tate.
Suddenly, the Trojans led by only seven points. And when the Irish forced USC to punt, Clausen got the ball back with 4:18 left.
"We weren't going to quit," said Tate, who caught eight passes for 117 yards. "We were going to play until the clock said 00:00."
Clausen moved the Irish from their 22 yard-line to the Trojans 29 and then completed a fourth-and-10 pass to Robby Parris. Taylor Mays was called for a personal foul and the Irish had first and goal at the eight.
"I thought [Clausen] was going to be the next Leinart with that last fourth-quarter drive, that fourth-down play," Barkley said.
Clausen threw incomplete on first down, but defensive end Malik Jackson was called for roughing the passer, giving the Irish a first down at the four.
Clausen's pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph in the end zone was tipped into the air by cornerback T.J. Bryant, Rudolph catching it as he fell to the turf. Officials, however, ruled that Rudolph was out of bounds and replay officials concurred.
On second down, cornerback Josh Pinkard broke up a pass intended for Tate and the clock expired. USC players began celebrating, but after a replay review officials determined that one second remained, giving Clausen got one more shot.
"Like a little kid, you push the reset button on the game and start all over," Pinkard said.
Clausen said he leaned into the huddle and said, "This is what we worked for ever since last season. Let's go make this happen."
Mays thought Clausen would go to Tate on the right side, and when the All-American safety shaded that way, the Irish went to the left.
But receiver Duval Kamara slipped while running his route and Clausen's pass skipped through the end zone to end the game.
"Some of it didn't go quite the way we wanted it to," Carroll said. "When it came down to it, we found ways to make our plays."