LOS ANGELES (AP) — Robert Hughes scored on a 5-yard run with 2:23 to play, and Notre Dame rallied to snap an eight-game losing streak in college football’s best intersectional rivalry with a 20-16 victory over Southern California on Saturday night.
Freshman quarterback Tommy Rees overcame four turnovers to lead bowl-bound Notre Dame’s decisive 77-yard go-ahead drive in the final minutes of its first win over USC since 2001.
The Irish weren’t safe on a cold, rainy night at the Coliseum — even after USC’s Ronald Johnson dropped a long pass from Mitch Mustain at the Notre Dame 15 with 1:17 to play and no defender within 10 yards of him.
Mustain, making his first USC start in place of injured Matt Barkley, shook off the drop to move the Trojans to the Notre Dame 23, but safety Harrison Smith intercepted a poor throw at the goal line with 36 seconds left.
Rees passed for 149 yards in his third career start, making huge mistakes but also throwing touchdown passes to Michael Floyd and Duval Kamara. Floyd had 11 catches for 86 yards on his 21st birthday for the Irish (7-5), who won three straight to close coach Brian Kelly’s first regular season.
"We just played tough football," Kelly said. "Then when we needed a drive, our guys responded."
The Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando is expected to be the Irish’s postseason destination, but the Las Vegas Bowl also showed up to scout Notre Dame.
USC’s struggling offense scored all of its points off Rees’ turnovers. Joe Houston kicked his third field goal for USC with 6:25 to play after another short drive set up by Rees’ third interception, but the Notre Dame finally kicked into gear on a 77-yard drive.
Tailbacks Cierre Wood and Hughes made big runs before Hughes scored on a charge straight up the middle.
Johnson will remember his drop on Senior Night for the rest of his life. The normally sure-handed senior held his hands to his helmet in disbelief after bobbling away a sure TD pass in the final minutes of his final home game.
Mustain passed for 177 yards while Barkley watched with a high ankle sprain for the Trojans (7-5), who have lost two straight heading into next week’s season finale at UCLA. USC’s streaks of 19 straight nonconference victories and 15 straight at home also ended in the 82nd edition of a rivalry dating to 1926.
Neither team was ranked heading into the game for just the ninth time, but Kelly became the first Notre Dame coach to beat USC in his first try since Lou Holtz in 1986 — not a bad finish to a tumultuous regular season touched by tragedy with the death of a student videographer last month.
Notre Dame took a 13-3 lead into halftime with two late touchdown passes by Rees, but USC hung in with big plays from its defense. Mustain’s tying 1-yard TD sneak in the third quarter was preceded by Rees’ fumble forced by USC’s Nick Perry, who returned it to the Notre Dame 2.
Notre Dame’s defense finally gave up a touchdown after 13 straight quarters without allowing one, its longest such stretch since 1980.
Marshall Jones then picked off Rees’ throw at the Notre Dame 38, and Houston made a 37-yard field goal to put the Trojans ahead.
Mustain was once among the nation’s top high school quarterbacks, but he hadn’t started a game since his freshman season as Arkansas in 2006, when he went 8-0 for the Razorbacks. After transferring in the wake of coaching turmoil, he spent the last three seasons backing up Mark Sanchez and Barkley, who sprained his ankle in last week’s loss at Oregon State.
Before the game, USC coach Lane Kiffin stood at the mouth of the Coliseum tunnel and hugged each senior as he ran onto the field for the final time.
After USC lost safety T.J. McDonald early to a shoulder injury early on, Rees finally got the Irish rolling midway through the second quarter on a 16-play, 79-yard drive capped by Floyd’s 1-yard TD catch 2:39 before halftime.
Notre Dame moved quickly after getting the ball back, with Rees hitting Kamara on the goal line with 7 seconds left — although David Ruffer’s extra point attempt clanged off the upright.