Notre Dame running back Robert Hughes has a clear path to the end zone for… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
It had all the makings of a storybook finish.
USC trailed late in the fourth quarter Saturday night against Notre Dame, needing a touchdown to win at the Coliseum.
Quarterback Mitch Mustain, a patient fifth-year senior making his first start for the Trojans, converted a fourth-down pass as his team drove toward a come-from-behind victory.
But Mustain's final attempt was intercepted at the goal line, giving Notre Dame a 20-16 win that ended the Trojans' near-decade of domination in the intersectional series.
The loss was USC's first in the last nine games against the Fighting Irish and dropped the Trojans to 7-5.
A few weeks ago, USC was considering the possibility of a 10-win season.
Now after losses to Oregon State and the Irish, Coach Lane Kiffin will try to salvage his first season with a victory next week over UCLA.
"That was a tough locker room," Kiffin said on his way out of the stadium. "We had a chance to send off the seniors having never lost to Notre Dame.
"We have another game, so we just have to go back to work."
On a chilly night that began under clear skies and finished in the rain, the Trojans could not finish off a Notre Dame team that improved to 7-5 with its third consecutive victory and its first win at the Coliseum since 2000.
"When required, we came up with a big drive and a big stop in the fourth quarter," Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said. "We brought the fight back in the Fighting Irish."
USC got a productive night from its defense, linebackers Chris Galippo and Devon Kennard and safety Marshall Jones intercepting passes that led to Joe Houston field goals and defensive end Nick Perry forcing a fumble that led to a touchdown.
But that was also the problem: too many field goals and not enough touchdowns.
"We've had too many times in the fourth quarter of games where we've gone down and kicked field goals or missed field goals instead of scoring touchdowns and putting people away," Kiffin said.
The Trojans overcame a 13-3 halftime deficit to take a 16-13 lead with 6:25 remaining, but they could not hold off an Irish offense led by freshman quarterback Tommy Rees.
And they could not overcome a key drop by senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson.
Trailing 20-16 with less than 90 seconds to play, Mustain lofted a long third-down pass to Johnson, who was wide open when safety Harrison Smith slipped on the wet turf. Johnson, however, could not hold on to the ball at the Irish 15, missing a certain touchdown.
"I should have made the play. I let my team down," said Johnson, who had six catches for 40 yards. "Mitch made a great pass."
Said Mustain: "It probably would have changed the outcome, but that doesn't really matter. We came back and still had another shot."
Mustain, starting in place of injured Matt Barkley, came back with a fourth-and-seven pass to tight end Rhett Ellison and then completed another to receiver Robert Woods, giving the Trojans a first down at the Irish 23.
Two plays later, Mustain looked for Woods, who broke toward the post in the end zone. Mustain's pass went toward the right corner and Smith intercepted to clinch the victory.
"It was a bad throw," Mustain said. "It was ill-advised."
Mustain completed 20 of 37 passes for 177 yards, but USC's offense struggled throughout the game, converting only four of 17 third downs. The Trojans rushed for only 80 yards and were outgained by the Irish, 296-261.
USC moved ahead when Jones intercepted a Rees pass with 10:20 left to set up Houston's third goal for a 16-13 lead.
But it was short-lived.
Notre Dame drove 77 yards in seven plays behind running backs Cierre Wood, who broke off a 26-yard gain, and Robert Hughes, who carried four times and scored on a five-yard run with 2:23 left.
That set the stage for USC's final drive, which stalled on Johnson's drop and ended with Smith's interception.