A week away was supposed to do USC good. Here was a chance to reset, to put their best foot forward and the past six weeks behind them. Maybe a week-long look in the mirror could jostle loose some new sense of hope heading into the season’s second half.
But as quarterback Kedon Slovis stared up at the clock in confusion, watching the last seconds of the first half tick inexcusably away while he and USC’s offense stood helpless near the red zone, unable to will it to stop, it was clear the week away had only served to numb the pain of what was soon to come.
What followed on a brisk night at Notre Dame was a performance both painfully familiar and equally bewildering for USC, a 31-16 loss at the hands of a bitter rival that would go down as its fourth double-digit defeat over seven games this season. As USC fell below .500 for the first time since its 2018 season, its many issues proved too profound to figure out over the course of a single off week.
If Saturday was any indication, it could be a while before USC (3-4) is able to do the Freudian-level digging necessary to understand what’s gone awry. Again, there were ill-fated penalties and poor time management. Again, there were issues up front on offense and issues at all levels on defense. Again, drives stalled in the red zone.
“Way too many mistakes in all facets,” interim coach Donte Williams said. “We all made mistakes, and we took turns making them. That’s where you get in the fourth quarter, and we’re out of time.”
With all the self-inflicted wounds, USC still somehow had a pulse in that final quarter, as cornerback Chris Steele leaped into the air to reel in a jump-ball interception. A few plays later, wideout Drake London had a jump ball of his own, pulling down a 46-yard pass. A touchdown from Darwin Barlow cut the lead to a touchdown, only for kicker Parker Lewis to miss the extra point, leaving the Irish lead at eight.
But it was too little, too late for the Trojans, whose penchant for needless mistakes would come back to bite them again with back-to-back crushing penalties on a deciding Notre Dame drive.
“They’re tough to swallow,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said of those final, back-breaking mistakes.
Another phenomenal performance from wideout Drake London, who had 15 catches for 171 yards, went by the wayside. Even a breakthrough game from Keaontay Ingram, who had 131 yards and a touchdown, could only go so far.
The Irish had their own issues heading into the bye. They’d played a trio of quarterbacks with mixed results from each. A rushing attack that rolled to the playoff a year ago was a shell of its former self in the season’s first six weeks. And their offensive line, onto a fourth starting left tackle, was very much a work in progress — to put it kindly.
But there’s been no catalyst this season quite like USC, which helped jump-start the seasons of two Pac-12 foes in its two most recent losses. Now it was a bitter rival rolling over its dubious defense, starting with a pair of methodical 70-yard drives to open the game.
Just as USC seemed to find some momentum of its own, the pocket collapsed again and Slovis was swallowed up as he threw. The ball popped up into the air and was intercepted by Irish linebacker Bo Bauer, who nearly returned it for a score, if not for the hard-charging Slovis, who ran nearly the length of the field to chase him down.
USC would spend the rest of the game chasing Notre Dame to no avail, shooting itself in the foot every time it drew closer.
With 39 seconds left in the first half, USC made its most egregious mistake. It called its final timeout on fourth and two. A first-down run from Ingram kept the clock moving, only for the Trojans to run it again. Later, Williams would say he hoped USC would spike it. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said he had no idea what caused the miscommunication.
So as time ticked perilously away, Slovis abandoned the pocket and ran for a first down, instead of throwing it away to stop the clock. He tried to gather the offense to spike it, but time ran out.
“That’s a situation where we needed points,” Harrell said. “That hurts.”
For USC, it was a telling sequence. But in a season filled with similar mistakes, it’s a pain it should be used to by now.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.