4th and goal, down 22-13 with 3:19 to go, the USC Trojans sat on the edge of a long shot, the chance to cut the #1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish lead to two points. A victory over the number one team in the nation, forcing them to change their travel plans from Miami to back home to South Bend, would erase at least some of the disappointment of the 2012 season. The campaign that once aimed for a trip to Miami, for a shot at a national championship, now relied on a miraculous win over a team that so far achieved the once held expectations of USC. Everything had to fall into place and work out perfectly.
Fortunately, the Trojan defense kept them in the game for much of the contest by forcing Notre Dame into kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. USC’s defense weathered the timely Theo Riddick’s 146 yards on the ground, consistently making plays when the Irish needed him, especially on 3rd downs. They managed to hold enough in the red zone to stay within 6 at 16-10 coming out at halftime with the ball.
Considering the situation, Max Wittek played pretty steady ball, making an effort to keep Robert Woods relevant tossing him a TD, as well as 92 yards on 7 grabs. Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd helped keep the Notre Dame defense from throwing the kitchen sink at Wittek by gaining 115 yards between them. Even his first INT on one of a few absolute bombs to Marqise Lee as the 1st half came to a close didn’t hurt their cause.
Wittek’s second interception on the first possession of the 2nd half did hurt the potential momentum even a field goal could have created for the Trojans. Heisman candidate Manti T’eo sitting in coverage on Marqise Lee’s route came as no surprise. A mistake by the redshirt freshman of locking in on Lee, the other Heisman hopeful, was understandable. The play calling at this point was perfect for a new QB, quick passes and few reads. However, this play action pass seemed unnecessary, especially since the Trojans established a running game in the 1st half and were only down by one score.
The defense, the potential Achilles’ heal in USC’s upset bid, held the Irish to two field goals, finding ways to keep Notre Dame from converting on third down, a key from the Lane Kiffin halftime interview. They made the necessary adjustments and gave the offense a chance.
After a scoreless 3rd quarter, Wittek started to find Woods and Lee. Redd broke free for a couple of runs and the Trojans found themselves on the Notre Dame 4 against one of the stingiest red zone defenses. Notre Dame held and forced a FG. The Irish usually stop teams from scoring, and the lead now stood at 6 again.
Again, Theo Riddick softened the USC defense and, combined with Golson and Cierre Wood runs, Notre Dame countered with a field goal. A 9-point lead, not insurmountable, made things difficult again. USC would need a big play.
Marqise Lee provided a timely run back of 48 yards, and then a 53-yard catch on a wheel route giving the Trojans another shot at the red zone, from the 2-yard line, with 5:58 to go. A false start, two consecutive pass interference calls on the Irish, a stuffed run, and a QB sneak later, the Trojans faced a 4th and goal, down 22-13 with 3:19 to go in their season.
This moment seemed tailor made for Matt Barkley, the crowning achievement on his Heisman resume, the chance to play in Miami for a national championship. Alas, Barkley watched anxiously from the sideline as one redshirt freshman threw to another.
Max Wittek used play action to loosen up the Irish rush and targeted Soma Vianuku, his fullback, out of the backfield. The pass came out quick and headed downwards towards the ground. Vainuku dove, twisted, and valiantly tried to catch the slightly off-target pass. The ball bounced off of the ground and the only victory left was the formation Notre Dame used to run out the clock.