No. 11 USC entered South Bend, Ind., with a chance to take down a rival and earn a validating road win that would go a long way toward a College Football Playoff bid.
Instead, the Trojans head back to Los Angeles wondering what went wrong in what was a blowout loss to No. 13 Notre Dame on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
USC began with a mistake on the first play, and things just got worse from there. Notre Dame took a 28-0 lead into halftime and maintained it in the second half, scoring an additional 21 points to send USC home a loser in a way that will sting for a full calendar year.
Here’s what we learned from USC’s 49-14 loss to Notre Dame:
Mistakes finally burn Trojans
It was a glaring problem ( and a pregame key to the game) that USC managed to overcome every week against lesser opponents, but against Notre Dame, it was the Trojans’ downfall. Sam Darnold’s fumble on USC’s first snap gave the Irish early momentum, a Darnold interception gave them the ball back later in the half, and a punt muffed by Jack Jones set the Irish up deep in Trojans territory. Each time, Notre Dame capitalized on USC’s mistakes, scoring touchdowns with each possession gained via turnover. That right there is winning football, which Notre Dame rode and which USC hadn’t displayed for most of the season. Against the Irish, it finally came back to bite the Trojans.
Injuries, poor play plague defense
Offensive sloppiness aside, the Trojans’ defense didn’t do much to help their cause, either. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush and running back Josh Adams combined to rush for 297 yards and 5 touchdowns on 33 carries, and Wimbush completed 9 of 19 passes for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns. Notre Dame respected USC’s unit so little by the later parts of the game, they ran a flea flicker when leading by 28 points. Injuries have obviously crushed this team defensively — Porter Gustin and Josh Fatu, to name a couple — and it only got worse when Iman Marshall left with a knee injury in the first quarter and didn’t return. Notre Dame immediately went after his replacement, Isaiah Langley, completing a touchdown pass over him in the first quarter.
Saturday night was another rough one for Darnold, who hasn’t put together a complete game since perhaps USC’s win over Stanford, which seems like ages ago. The quarterback’s fumble definitely didn’t help the Trojans at the start of the game, and his interception — a risky pass between two defenders along the boundary — stopped any offensive momentum in its tracks. Darnold’s numbers — 20-of-28 passing, 229 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception — looked way better than his actual performance, but it’s tough to have a great game when you find yourself quickly down multiple scores. Then again, had Darnold not turned the ball over, he might not have been down by 14 points in the first quarter. It brings to mind the question: Is this really his last season in college? We’ll have to wait to see that question answered, but he definitely doesn’t look like the sweetheart passer of the offseason news cycle.
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