Early mistakes haunt USC in loss to Notre Dame
Adam Grosbard (OC Register) — SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It was a valiant effort by a USC team that entered the fourth quarter trailing by 21 to rival Notre Dame.
A 77-yard drive capped by a Keaontay Ingram touchdown made it a two-possession game, then a Chris Steele (left) interception set up another long march down the field and a Darwin Barlow touchdown. Even after a missed extra point, the Trojans had silenced the sellout crowd clad in navy and green by cutting the deficit down to eight with 8:51 to play.
But in the end, it wasn’t enough to overcome the mistakes USC made before and after its comeback attempt.
Notre Dame went 75 yards on eight plays on the ensuing drive, aided by a pass interference by Steele and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Xavion Alford. Backup quarterback Tyler Buchner rushed for a 3-yard touchdown to give the Irish breathing room, and USC ultimately fell 31-16.
“I feel like we ran out of time,” interim head coach Donte Williams said. “We made way too many mistakes against a really good football team. … We all made mistakes, and we took turns making them.”
If there is one sequence from the game that sums up where the Trojans (3-4, 2-3 in Pac-12) are at this point in the season, it came in the final minute of the first half.
Down 14 and needing a conversion on fourth-and-2 from the Notre Dame 47 with 39 seconds left before the break, USC tried to draw the Fighting Irish offsides but had to burn their final timeout when Notre Dame didn’t jump. The Trojans called a run, and Ingram got the first down, but the clock kept ticking.
Rather than a passing play to the sideline that could put USC in field goal range and stop the clock, the Trojans had a miscommunication from the sidelines that resulted in another Ingram run.
“That’s my fault,” Slovis said. Sixteen seconds left, Slovis rushed USC up to the line of scrimmage for a passing play. Unable to find a receiver, Slovis scrambled for an unnecessary first down rather than throwing the ball away to stop the clock. The remaining two seconds were not enough time for USC to get the ball off before the half ended, without the Trojans attempting a field goal or taking a shot at the end zone.
“If we would get the first down and the clock would stop with three seconds left, we should be able to spike it,” Slovis said. “But the chains weren’t set at all either, but I guess they ran it when the ball got down. I didn’t hear a whistle or anything so that’s on me again.”
Williams ripped his headset off in frustration. Meeting Slovis on the way to the locker room, he signaled to his quarterback that he should have spiked the ball to stop the clock.
The lack of awareness on all levels was damaging for USC. But it was one of many ways the Trojans cost themselves.
The USC offensive line was completely outmatched by the Notre Dame pass rush. Slovis was constantly under pressure, beginning when he was sacked on the first snap of the game. Tackle Jonah Monheim was replaced after his man blocked a pass that was intercepted by Bo Bauer at the line of scrimmage. But he was reinserted the next drive when his replacement, Jalen McKenzie, was called for a false start, one of nine USC penalties.
And the Trojans’ red zone issues popped up again. With 8:08 left in the third quarter, USC was actually out-gaining the Irish 267-218 but trailing 17-3 after one red-zone turnover and a missed field goal by Parker Lewis. This came against a Notre Dame defense missing All-American safety Kyle Hamilton, who left in the first quarter with a leg injury.
“The frustrating thing is it’s not like we’re going out here and having 50 yards of total offense,” Slovis said. “Some mistakes here, not executing here and you end up with 17 points on a day where you feel like you should have a lot more.”
The USC defense had its moments, like holding Notre Dame (6-1) to a field goal on a drive that began at the USC 5, a stand that was possible because Slovis sprinted 80 yards to tackle Bauer and prevent a pick-six.
But the old shortcomings like missed tackles were evident from the beginning. Three of Notre Dame’s first four drives went for at least 70 yards, the lone exception being the one that started at the USC 5.
The USC mistakes were enough to lose consecutive games for the first time this season, and overshadow a career-high 171 receiving yards by Drake London and a 138-yard rushing performance by Ingram.
“If it’s just one particular player [making mistakes], all of a sudden you can sub that player out,” Williams said of the pass-blocking issues, though he could have been speaking of USC as a whole. “But when it’s just a collective of different plays, it’s hard.”