Loss to Notre Dame difficult for USC to swallow

Max Wittek, Trojans put up tough fight, but No. 1 Notre Dame makes game-deciding goal-line stand.

LOS ANGELES — The sound of Notre Dame's sweet celebration was unmistakable.
It was so loud, and so happy, it broke through the wall separating the Fighting Irish's locker room from USC coach Lane Kiffin's postgame media session. Every time he tried to speak, the yells and chants grew louder.
Like his players, Kiffin was full of regret. But it wasn't just the 22-13 defeat to the Irish that left him empty. It was also that Notre Dame secured its spot in the BCS title game on USC's turf, in front of more than 93,000 fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum and a national TV audience.
It could have been Kiffin's team in delirious celebration, but it wasn't. And that left the Trojans beyond disappointed.
"It's very difficult for everyone in our locker room with so many things not going well this season," Kiffin said. "I was hoping today we could finish different with a backup quarterback and be part of history, knocking them off and knocking them out of the national championship game and finishing on a strong note for the seniors we have."
None of that came true. The Trojans lost five games, including four of their last five, after being voted a preseason No. 1 by the Associated Press. They'll go to a bowl game, possibly either the Holiday or Sun, but it will feel anticlimactic after they failed so badly to meet expectations.
Max Wittek, the redshirt freshman understudy to injured Matt Barkley, played capably, but he was faced with an unenviable job — rallying his team against a Notre Dame defense that had given up just eight touchdowns all season.
Wittek completed 14 of 23 passes for 186 yards but also threw two interceptions, one of which the Irish converted into a field goal in the second quarter. As it turned out, field goals were the game's chief currency: Notre Dame's Kyle Brindza made five of six, including one from 52 yards; USC's Andre Heidari had two.
"Outside of those few mistakes, I felt like I played well in my first game against such a great defense that makes a lot of plays across the field," Wittek said. "I thought I played well."
Where the Trojans failed was their inability to score a touchdown in the final quarter after advancing inside the Notre Dame 5-yard line twice. Their only reward: one field goal.
The first time, they had a first-and-goal at the four, but two rushing attempts by Silas Redd yielded nothing and a pass attempt from Wittek to Marqise Lee in the back of the end zone was too high. Heidari's 21-yard field goal left USC within six points at 19-13.
The second time, down 22-13 with 5:58 remaining, they had a first down at the Irish four after a 53-yard pass play from Wittek to Lee. Two pass interference calls on Notre Dame put the ball inside the one, but Wittek couldn't punch in a couple of keepers, and Curtis McNeal was also stopped. Finally, on fourth down, Wittek's pass to fullback Soma Vainuku in the flat was short and low.
Kiffin could have kicked another field goal and tried an onside kick, but he was down to one timeout and opted to challenge Notre Dame's stout defensive line.
"It's so hard to score touchdowns versus them, and the ball's on the two-inch yard line," he said. "You'd think you could score a touchdown there. If the ball's on the five, you kick the field goal on fourth down and go try to get the onside (kick). But you'd like to think that with that many snaps you can score a touchdown."
Not so easy. The Trojans' only touchdown came on the first play of the second quarter and ended a six-play, 75-yard drive. But it was also aided by two Irish penalties totaling 27 yards. Wittek's 11-yard throw to Robert Woods cut Notre Dame's lead to 10-7, but it was the only time they reached the end zone.
"They were electrifying and took care of business out there," USC linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "They played all four quarters."
Barkley watched all of them from the sideline, his right arm in a sling as a result of a strained right shoulder he sustained against UCLA. He didn't want to talk after the game, but it was no doubt an emotional night for him — his last opportunity to play at home in front of family and friends, and it was washed away.
On the final home game, seniors are introduced to the home crowd and are met on the field by their parents and family members. Barkley was the last one to emerge from the Coliseum tunnel, where he was met by Kiffin near the end zone. The two hugged.
Asked about their exchange, Kiffin paused, apparently still choked up for the senior quarterback who was robbed of his final home game.
"It's just wrong," he finally said. "It should not have happened to that kid.
"He kind of lost it earlier in the day. I can take it. This is my job. But he didn't deserve this. I just felt for him. My heart felt for him."

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