USC’s Lane Kiffin and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly are first-year head coaches at their respective schools. Neither program has been stellar, but Kelly received a boost after the Fighting Irish posted a come-from-behind, 20-16, victory last Saturday in the 82nd meeting of this intersectional rivalry at the Coliseum before 85,417 fans.
On a night that began cold and clear, but then turned rainy, the Trojans, who had beaten the Irish eight straight times, marched deep inside Notre Dame territory when senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson (40 yards and six catches) dropped a pass at the 15-yard line from fifth-year quarterback Mitch Mustain as safety Harrison Smith slipped on the soggy turf.
The potential game-winning drive began at USC’s 31 with 2:16 left, and ended when Smith picked off Mustain at Notre Dame’s one-yard line.
“We had a lot of dropped balls in the first half,’’ said Kiffin after the opening half. “We need to throw the ball down field more in the second half.”
They did, but Mustain, who started slowly, settled down and connected on 20 of 37 attempts for 177 yards with one interception.
Notre Dame scored the winning touchdown when running back Robert Hughes tacked on a five-yard run with 2:23 remaining, climaxing a 77-yard, seven-play drive.
“This was a big win against a good team,’’ Kelly said. “We ran the ball in the second half, and that was the difference.”
Hughes finished with 69 yards on 11 carries, as Notre Dame (7-5) made good use of its running game, collecting 147 yards.
Cierre Wood added 89 yards on 15 carries, and had a 26-yard gallop on the game-winning march.
USC was stuck in neutral, being held to 80 yards, as Marc Tyler had 48 yards on 17 rushes.
The Trojans (7-5) scored first when Joe Houston kicked a season-long, 45-yard field goal with 4:09 left in the first quarter that gave the Trojans a 3-0 lead.
The kick was made possible when linebacker Chris Galippo intercepted quarterback Tommy Rees.
A true freshman, Rees (20 of 32 for 149 yards with three interceptions) answered by moving Notre Dame 79 yards on 16 plays, and hitting wide receiver Michael Floyd (11 catches for 86 yards) with a one-yard pass and 2:39 left in the second quarter for a 7-3 lead.
“He wasn’t pretty, but he battled,’’ said Kelly of Rees, whose father was on former UCLA head coach Terry Donahue’s staff, and whose brother Danny is the current holder for the Bruins. “I’m looking at the last drive where we scored.”
Rees made it 13-3 when he found wide receiver Duval Kamara with a one-yard toss as seven seconds remained before the intermission.
Linebacker Devon Kennard intercepted Rees early in the third quarter as Houston nailed a 23-yard field goal that got the Trojans within 13-6.
It became 13-13 less than six minutes later when Mustain, a transfer from the University of Arkansas, added a one-yard sneak after defensive end Nick Perry forced a Rees fumble.
USC safety Marshall Jones picked off Rees, which led to Houston’s 37-yard field goal with 6:25 left in the fourth quarter, and a 16-13 lead.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.