Wide open USC receiver Ronald Johnson can't make the catch on a pass… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
It was a touchdown. Then, it wasn't.
These are still the same old Trojans. No, they aren't.
In a rainy Saturday night mist, USC's forbidden autumn found itself on the fingertips of receiver Ronald Johnson, 15 yards from a game-winning score, nothing between him and the end zone but deep green grass and red Trojans paint.
The defender had slipped. The pass had not. Johnson swiveled to make the glorious catch and complete the glorious run and . . . he dropped it.
USC had a chance to win its ninth consecutive game against Notre Dame, and it dropped the ball. The Trojans had a chance to make fans forget about this season's irrelevance in the first of the only two games that really matter, and they let it slip away.
Perfect, huh? A cursed season stayed cursed in Notre Dame's 20-16 victory over USC at the wet and wobbling Coliseum. "It's just a shame," USC Coach Lane Kiffin said.
A crying shame, for Trojans seniors in their final home game, watching the very foreign scene of Notre Dame players dancing across the soggy turf.
A season-long shame, for Trojans fans who once again watched their team crumble under pressure.
"It's tough to fight down to the wire and lose a game," linebacker Chris Galippo said.
It's even tougher when, for seemingly the first time in a decade, your USC team is not as tough or disciplined as the Irish, with USC gaining 35 fewer yards and committing seven more penalties and failing to mount the sort of consistent attack that has worn down nearly a decade worth of Domers.
Put it another way: In a battle of first-year coaches, Brian Kelly seems to give Notre Dame a lot more hope than Kiffin gives USC.
"But sometimes you learn a lot more when you lose than when you win," Galippo said.
If that's the case, these Trojans should be awarded doctorates in Fourth Quarter Studies. As with Stanford and Washington, this was a game the Trojans won . . . then didn't.
This time, they had fought back from a 13-3 halftime deficit to take a 16-13 led with 6:25 remaining. They had survived the uncertainty of backup quarterback Mitch Mustain, the strange struggles of the running game, and the silliness of those key penalties. At that point, it seemed USC and at least some of this lost season would survive.
Then the USC defense took the field, and stop me if you've heard this before . . .
Tommy Rees, the freshman Notre Dame quarterback, hit otherworldly receiver Michael Floyd on an 11-yard pass. Then Cierre Wood rumbled for 26 yards. Then Robert Hughes rushed for 31 yards in the next three plays.
If you aren't going to stop me, I'm just going to stop myself. The Irish eventually scored on Hughes' five-yard run to take a 20-16 lead with 2:16 remaining.
"I was surprised," Kiffin said.
Say what? In a season when his father Monte's defense has been rattled from Honolulu to Corvallis, Lane was perhaps the only one surprised.
But even after that meltdown, the Trojans had a chance. Five plays after the touchdown, Mustain lofted a pass from the USC 47-yard line, the ball falling right to Johnson's hands and it was . . . yeah, it was over.
But not like you would think.
Have you ever seen thousands of soggy fans freeze? Have you ever heard a prolonged, muffled, shouting-through-water groan? That's what it looked and sounded like when Johnson dropped the ball.
"That would have changed the outcome," said Mustain. "I don't know if there's a worse feeling than that."
It was one of the finest routes run by any USC receiver against a tough Irish defense. Johnson fooled the defender into slipping, and he wound up so alone, it was if he was running in slow motion.
"I didn't think he'd get him that bad," Mustain said. "But it turned out to be for nothing."
With that drop, it was the season that seemed in slow motion. The collapses, the blowouts, the disillusionment, a 7-5 record that could have been 10-2 with more discipline and defense.
With 1:17 left, the Trojans had four more shots after that, and actually had the ball on the Notre Dame 23, but Mustain threw to the end zone corner when Robert Woods cut to the post and Notre Dame's Harrison Smith nabbed the interception to end it.
"Poor throw, ill-advised, I was hoping some flag would come," Mustain said.
It would have been a storybook ending, this quarterback making his first start in four years, replacing injured Matt Barkley, leading the Trojans to the sort of late comeback victory that has eluded the golden one.
But storybook is not happening here, not now, and who knows when USC, facing another year of probation and more learning by Kiffin, will be in a position to have it happen again?
As the game ended, the Coliseum rang with a brief chant of "We are . . . 'SC."
But like Ronald Johnson's game-winning touchdown catch, it was gone before you knew it.