It all seemed so simple - Notre Dame beats Southern California, as the Irish always do, setting up a grand finale for coach Lou Holtz in the Fiesta Bowl or Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Somebody forgot to tell the Trojans, who were on their own mission.
USC recovered four Notre Dame fumbles and took advantage of a missed conversion to extend the Irish to overtime Saturday night. Then, Brad Otton threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Rodney Sermons to give the Trojans a 27-20 victory.
“My guts feel like someone cut out my complete insides,” said a somber Holtz, who announced Nov. 19 he was resigning after the season. “I’ve never felt this low.”
The win snapped a 13-game USC winless streak against Notre Dame, and it may have saved coach John Robinson’s job.
It also may have ended Holtz’s career one game and one month before everyone connected with the Irish had hoped.
“We wanted to send coach Holtz out right, but we didn’t,” Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus said.
Because they didn’t, there might be no bowl game for the 18th-ranked Irish (8-3). The loss almost surely eliminates them from the bowl alliance, and the only lower-tier bowl berths available are in the Copper or Independence. Notre Dame might not settle for either of them.
If Notre Dame’s season is over, Holtz finishes his Irish coaching career with a 100-30-2 record and a 9-1-1 mark against the Trojans.
“That’s probably as tough a loss as I’ve ever had,” Holtz said. “I congratulate Southern Cal, they played hard and they played well. We just made far too many mistakes to win.”
Notre Dame’s final big mistake was a missed conversion by freshman Jim Sanson with 3:52 remaining in the fourth quarter, after Autry Denson’s 9-yard touchdown run had put the Irish on top 20-12.
Had Sanson converted, Notre Dame would have led by nine points, forcing USC to score twice to win.
The Trojans tied the game 20-all on a 15-yard run by Delon Washington and Washington’s 2-point conversion run with 1:50 left.
USC (6-6) had lost four of its previous five games, thus putting Robinson’s job in jeopardy 11 months after the Trojans beat Northwestern in the Rose Bowl to cap a 9-2-1 season.
By winning, the Trojans avoided just their third losing season in 35 years.
When Powlus’ fourth-down pass in overtime was deflected at the line of scrimmage and fell incomplete, the Coliseum crowd of 90,296 went wild.
“It’s one of the great moments of my life,” Robinson said. “Much has been made about me this week, but this is beyond me.
“Tonight was a great night for us.”
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