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Los Angeles, CA (Sports Network) - An interception by Harrison Smith at the goal line with 36 seconds remaining made all the difference for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish as they captured a thrilling 20-16 win over the USC Trojans in non-conference action at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Freshman quarterback Tommy Rees was able to shake off a slow start in the first half and overcame four turnovers to help push the Fighting Irish (7-5) to their first win over USC since 2001. Rees finished the night 20-of-32 for 149 yards and a couple of touchdowns in just his third career start.
The Trojans were first to get on the board when kicker Joe Houston knocked through a 45-yard field goal after one of many stalled drives by the home team.
Late in the second quarter the Fighting Irish finally got rolling, piecing together a lengthy 16-play, 79-yard drive that ate up more than eight minutes on the clock and culminated with a one-yard TD pass from Rees to Michael Floyd. The wideout finished the night with 11 catches for 86 yards.
With the first half winding down Notre Dame again gained possession of the ball and this time needed a mere 37 seconds to move 62 yards and make it into the end zone on a one-yard pass from Rees to Duval Kamara. Unfortunately, a missed PAT left the visitors with just a 13-6 edge at the break.
Houston again salvaged three points for the Trojans early in the third frame when he knocked through a 23-yard field goal, cutting the deficit to 13-6.
Mustain took it upon himself to get USC into the end zone for the first and only time when he pushed in over the goal line from a yard out to knot the score at 13-13 with 5:40 remaining in the third quarter.
A 37-yard field goal by Houston at 6:25 of the fourth put the Trojans ahead for the first time at 16-13.
Rees stepped in and engineered a 77-yard drive after that for the Fighting Irish, using Robert Hughes to carry the ball into the end zone from five yards away to regain the lead at 20-16.
USC had a chance to regain the advantage when Mustain threw to a wide open Ronald Johnson down at the 15-yard line with only 1:17 left on the clock, but for whatever reason he failed to reel it in even though he didn't have a defender within 10 yards of him and would have surely walked into the end zone.
With time ticking away Mustain tried to make a play for USC, but his receiver turned the opposite way and Smith leaped to make the interception and seal the deal in the waning moments.
USC generated a mere 261 yards as both teams fought through a cold and rainy night.
With victories in each of the last two games, Notre Dame improved to 6-5 overall and is now bowl eligible in Brian Kelly's first season as head coach. The Fighting Irish have allowed a combined total of six points the last two times out, and they crushed Army by a 27-3 final at Yankee Stadium last weekend. Of the five losses suffered by the squad this season, three have come by four or fewer points.
USC is also led by a first-year head coach, as Lane Kiffin is at the helm after previously serving as an assistant coach for the program. Kiffin's first season as the leader of the Trojans has yielded both ups and downs, and last weekend's 36-7 loss to Oregon State certainly represented a low point. The team is now 7-4 overall, including a modest 4-4 in Pac-10 action.
Notre Dame owns a 42-33-5 series advantage over USC, but the Trojans have won the last four meetings. USC would have an eight-game winning streak in the series if not for a 2005 win that had to be vacated because of NCAA violations.
The Notre Dame offense has been decimated by injuries, as quarterback Dayne Crist, tailback Armando Allen, tight end Kyle Rudolph and wideout Theo Riddick are all out of action. Tommy Rees has been forced into action under center, and the young signal caller has completed 63.1 percent of his passes for 756 yards with eight touchdowns against five interceptions. The top wideout for the Fighting Irish is Michael Floyd, who has recorded 62 catches for 830 yards and nine touchdowns. As for the backfield, Cierre Wood has emerged as a solid replacement for Allen. Notre Dame is generating 26.3 ppg and 385.7 total ypg.
Rees completed 13-of-20 passes against Army for 214 yards and one touchdown with one interception. Floyd was quiet in that contest, catching just three passes for 63 yards. As for Wood, he ran the ball 14 times for 88 yards for an offense that generated two touchdowns on the afternoon.
Notre Dame's defense has seemingly gotten better as the season has progressed, and limiting Utah and Army to three points apiece in back-to-back outings has the unit playing with a wealth of confidence right now. Opponents are posting 20.9 ppg and 361.5 total ypg against the Fighting Irish, who are solid against both the run and the pass. They have come up with 20 takeaways this season, including 13 interceptions, and have registered 26 sacks. The best player for the defense is linebacker Manti Te'o, who has posted 118 tackles, including 8.5 TFs. Harrison Smith, who is second with 81 tackles, has recorded three interceptions.
Against Army, the defense made a huge play early in the fourth quarter, as Darrin Walls intercepted a pass and raced 42 yards for a touchdown. The Irish yielded only 174 total yards in that affair, including 39 passing yards on 2- of-8 efficiency. Notre Dame intercepted two passes and permitted a mere 3.1 yards per rushing attempt to the ground-oriented Black Knights.
USC certainly has the offensive talent to challenge the Notre Dame defense, but it remains to be seen if Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley and tailback Marc Tyler can shake off ankle injuries and play on Saturday. Barkley has quietly had a tremendous season, completing 63 percent of his passes for 2,593 yards and 25 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Tyler has rushed for 820 yards and nine scores, so both would be sorely missed if unavailable. Barkley's backup is Mitch Mustain, who has attempted just 34 passes this season. Tyler's backup is much more experienced, as Allen Bradford has run for 582 yards and four scores. Robert Woods paces USC's receivers with 648 receiving yards, while Ronald Johnson is tops with eight touchdowns.
While USC is racking up 32.6 ppg and 443.5 total ypg, the team is allowing 28.5 ppg and 413.5 total ypg to opponents. The Trojans have yielded just 10 rushing scores to date, but they have been victimized for 27 passing touchdowns and 272.3 ypg through the air. Respectable totals of 25 sacks and 19 takeaways have been notched, but the overall play of the defense has clearly been disappointing. T.J. McDonald leads USC with 88 total tackles, and he has intercepted three passes. As for Jurrell Casey, he has 10 TFLs to his credit.
Against Oregon State last weekend, USC finished 4-of-16 on third-down conversion attempts and 2-of-6 on fourth down. The team held the ball for fewer than 27 minutes and finished with a modest total of 255 total yards. Barkley was intercepted once before exiting with the injury, and Mustain completed only 8-of-17 passes for 60 yards in defeat. The only touchdown scored by USC was a 13-yard scamper by C.J. Gable.
Defensively, USC yielded 330 total yards to Oregon State, a rather low total considering the Beavers' 36-point outburst. Just three touchdowns were surrendered by the defense, as OSU also scored on a long interception return. Although the Trojans did yield two passing touchdowns and failed to register an interception, they allowed just 9.1 yards per completion.