SOUTH BEND, Ind. – USC safety Jawanza Starling saw the ball rolling around and bouncing on the ground and knew if he could control it, somehow pick it up, an open field was in front of him.
Talk about a game-changing play. Starling made the biggest one Saturday night, an 80-yard return of a fumbled snap as the Trojans started strongly and held off Notre Dame for a 31-17 victory.
“I would say it’s our team’s biggest win since we’ve been here because of all the stuff around it,” second-year USC coach Lane Kiffin said of the electric atmosphere surrounding Notre Dame’s first home night game in 21 years.
With the Trojans nursing a 17-10 lead, Notre Dame had the ball at the USC 1 and was on the verge of tying the game when backup quarterback Dayne Crist lost the handle on the snap.
“I was just like, ‘I got to get it. I had to get it,’ ” Starling said.
“I didn’t dribble it. I just had to wait for the perfect bounce, because I didn’t want to try and go for it too soon and miss it. So I was just taking my time with it. Scoop and score, everything we do in practice and I took it the house.”
Matt Barkley passed for three TDs for the Trojans (6-1), who jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first half.
USC, which has won nine of the last 10 meetings in the long rivalry, had a 443-267 advantage in total yards. Notre Dame (4-3) had three second-half turnovers, couldn’t stop the Trojans’ rushing attack and saw its four-game winning streak end.
A disappointed coach Brian Kelly promised a tough week of practice ahead.
“Losing stinks. For me, it’s hard for me to put a stink meter on losing. They all stink,” Kelly said.
“This is the first time that I’ve leaned on my guys pretty hard in the locker room. I was not happy. Because we are better than that. We are better than that. And, to turn the ball over in the ridiculous fashion that we have … just makes me crazy. I just don’t understand how something so easy can come out the way it does.
“I told our guys, listen, every time we try to take a step forward, we seem to want to take one step back. I’m not going to tolerate it. It’s not going to be pretty this week in practice.”
When starter Tommy Rees hurt his knee after being hit and had to come out momentarily, Crist replaced him.
Crist, who lost the starter’s job after the first half of the season opener, completed 4 of 5 passes to help the Irish reach the 1. But when he couldn’t control the snap, the ball got loose and Starling picked it up and ran in for the long TD. Instead of a potentially tied game, USC went up 24-10 late in the third.
“He was going to fake it to the back and throw a pop back to the tight end,” Kelly said of the play he called before Crist fumbled.
“That was a big momentum swing,” Starling said. “They were driving the ball and we come out and get a play like that on defense, it just turns the whole tone of the game.”
Rees returned to the game on the next series and immediately led the Irish to a score, that coming on Jonas Gray’s 25-yard TD run, cutting the lead to a touchdown early in the fourth.
Barkley made the advantage 31-17 with a 14-yard TD pass to Robert Woods with 7:47 left.