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Football Film Room: Two Paths Split in LA

Hank Greene

Notre Dame at USC

November 27, 2010
LA Coliseum
Notre Dame: 20 | USC: 16

So far, our Football Film Room series has focused on highly-anticipated match-ups - ranked opponents, national championship, and heated rivalries for blue blood programs at the peaks of their powers.

But this is a classic game of a much different kind, one that was surprising to find tucked into an otherwise largely lackluster 2010 season. Indeed, as Notre Dame and USC got set to do battle on an uncommonly cold night in Los Angeles almost 10 years ago, it was viewed by many as two teams - both in the midst of transition - limping towards the finish line.

What we got instead was a hidden gem of a game that was intense, messy, sometimes strange, with an edge-of-your-seat finish… and a bit of a time capsule that was a joy to open up and look back on.

Let’s dig in…

Where our story begins…

It’s been 10 years since Brian Kelly’s first season in South Bend, and it’s easy to forget the state the program was in as he got set to take over. Since Lou Holtz exited in 1996, the Irish had just two 10-win seasons - one in Tyrone Willingham’s first season in 2003 and Charlie Weis’ second in 2006. 

Yet Brian Kelly’s tenure with Notre Dame began with a decidedly different feel. Weis’ final season had seen the Irish stumble to a 6-6 finish, dropping from as high as 18th in the AP rankings, to missing out on a bowl game altogether. Granted, there was plenty of talent held over - including blue-chip QB prospect Dayne Crist, future NFL standout receivers Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph along with Harrison Smith in the defensive secondary. And of course, who could forget a young Manti Te’o roaming the field at the linebacker spot.

But even with all of that talent, Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate had left an experience gap with their early departure for the pros. As a result, the Irish lost a number of close games throughout the 2010 season - including blown fourth quarter leads against Michigan, Michigan State, and Tulsa. Anyone who remembers that year will tell you they were better than their record (they would end the year ranked 21st in the S&P+ rankings), but the Irish nevertheless entered The Coliseum unranked at just 6-5, with a bowl berth potentially hanging in the balance. 

It wouldn’t be easy, though, especially considering Crist had been injured weeks before against Tulsa, leaving freshman Tommy Rees under center. And while Rees had performed fairly well in his first three games as QB1… going on the road against USC seemed like a tall order.

Their opponents, though, were somehow in an even more precarious position than the Irish. 

Lane Kiffin’s first year was coming on the heels of the NCAA’s investigation that stripped 30 scholarships from the Trojans, along with a two-year bowl ban in 2010 and 2011. As a result of the investigation, the NCAA granted USC players the opportunity to transfer and play immediately - many players, unsurprisingly, took the opportunity, and Kiffin was forced to coach his first year with just 71 scholarship players on the roster.

Making matters somewhat more complicated was Kiffin himself, who had returned to USC (where he had previously been a head coach), after just one season as the Tennessee Volunteers’ head coach - a move that, as an aside, will make his eventual return to Knoxville as the head coach at Ole Miss all the more entertaining.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for Kiffin and USC. They had Matt Barkley under center, who was regarded as one of the country’s best young QBs, and who had thrown for 2,791 yards and 24 touchdowns during the 2010 season. But Barkley had tweaked his knee the week before against Washington State, and so it was left to senior Mitch Mustain - a senior who had survived so much turbulence and sat behind the likes of Mark Sanchez, John David Booty, and now Barkley - who got the start on senior night.

How it all happened…

If you had told me through the first 28 minutes of this game that it would end up being one of the most exciting regular season games for the Irish this century, I would have laughed you out of the room. Because folks, this one looked ugly early on.

Mustain was clearly showing nerves, tossing balls way over his receivers’ heads even on the simplest routes - and was nearly picked off multiple times in the first quarter. That’s not to say Rees was much better, as after both teams traded stalled drives, Rees threw his first interception on the night to Chris Galippo - setting USC up for an easy field goal to go up 3-0.

It would be the last time either team would score until, remarkably, the Irish scored their first points at the 2:39 mark of the second quarter.

In between, Rees and Mustain both couldn’t get anything going - missing receivers, failing to get any traction, and between each of the two offenses there were only five first downs (only one of which belonged to Notre Dame), until the Irish started their first scoring drive with 10:41 left to play in the first half. For those keeping track at home, yes, that drive ended up taking over eight minutes of clock - with 16 plays needed to get the Irish 79 yards - including what would end up being Rees’ longest pass of the game at 22 yards to Tyler Eifert. They would cap it with a one-yard pass to Michael Floyd in the endzone, and suddenly the Irish were up 7-3.

Then things really started getting wacky.

It all started out well for the Trojans - as Robert Wood took the kickoff 38 yards all the way to midfield, followed quickly by a first down that suddenly put USC in Notre Dame territory.

But on a 4th and 3, just out of field goal range, Mustain couldn’t complete a pass to Ronald Johnson, and the ball was handed back to the Irish.

Still, with just :44 left, on a night when they couldn’t get anything going offensively, surely Notre Dame would just take a knee and head back into the locker room, right?

Wrong.

Cierre Wood exploded for a 28 yard run on the first play, putting the Irish into USC territory - and the Irish used their last timeout of the half. Then, Rees hit Floyd for an almost 20 yard gain to bring Notre Dame all the way to the USC 15… and when Rees found Duval Kamara in the endzone just a few plays later (coincidentally, on another one yard touchdown pass), suddenly it looked as though Notre Dame would be able to waltz out of Los Angeles with a victory - especially given how USC’s offense had been playing.

But a missed extra point from David Ruffer would serve as a foreboding omen… because this thing was just getting started.

Out of the half, Rees lost his end-of-half momentum with a quick interception on just the third play of the drive, which USC turned into three points… narrowing the lead to just a touchdown. Just a few plays later, Rees fumbled deep in Notre Dame territory and USC turned that into their first touchdown of the night to even the score. 

And just like that, we had a brand new ballgame.

Things only got worse for Notre Dame, as Rees threw his third interception of the contest which - if you sense the pattern, USC turned into points on a 37-yard field goal. And as quickly as they built it, the Notre Dame lead had been flipped, as they now found themselves down 16-13… and it appeared as though it might be another in a long line of blown 4th quarters for the Irish.

But then something absolutely wild happened exactly when it needed to: Notre Dame remembered they could run the football.

On their final offensive drive of the ballgame, Rees would throw just twice, letting RBs Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes take them the rest of the way en route to a seven play, 77 yard touchdown drive that would put the Irish back on top, 20 - 16.

And yet while it appeared that with just two minute left, a USC offense that struggled all game long would have trouble getting the ball back the other way… just as it was for the Irish at the end of the first half, things started to click for the Trojans.

Mustain, who went into the locker room having completed around just half of his throws for 76 yards, suddenly started connecting. He found Robert Woods twice in a row, hit Rhett Ellison to get into Notre Dame territory… but as rain poured down in the Coliseum, the weather and the pressure seemed to be getting to the Trojans. 

Make no mistake, Mustain certainly wasn’t great in this game - but he was epically undercut by the performance of his wide receivers, who had more dropped balls than I could count in this rewatch. And on this fourth quarter drive, none was more crucial than Robert Johnson’s, as Johnson found himself all alone in the open field after Harrison Smith fell in the wet grass - but just couldn’t come up with the easy grab. If he makes that catch, it’s USC’s game, and this rewatch takes on a whole new narrative.

But he didn’t, and it wasn’t, and as the final seconds ticked down, irony hit the Trojans like a ton of bricks - as it was Mustain who committed the crucial interception into the waiting arms of, you guessed, Harrison Smith.

20-16 Irish. Ballgame.

Instant reaction to the rewatch

Remember Notre Dame’s defense?

Sure, Mitch Mustain wasn’t exactly Joe Montana - but for all the struggles that Notre Dame had in the 2010 season, the defense was absolutely the bedrock for their success. 

Every score the Trojans got in this game was off a turnover, while the lone touchdown allowed was the first trip to the endzone this defense had allowed in 38 possessions. Goodness gracious.

Say what you will for this 8-5 team, but this defense absolutely laid the groundwork for the 2012 unit that would lead the Irish to a national championship berth.

OH YEAH! Ed Orgeron was coaching for USC!

Hey speaking of national championships…

Pretty amazing that in a game that touted two “high profile” new coaches in Lane Kiffin and Brian Kelly, Ed Orgeron was an assistant on the USC bench. He was, however, reportedly the highest-paid assistant coach in the Pac-12 - so he was doing just fine for himself.

Eventually, of course, Orgeron had a cup of coffee as the interim head coach at USC after Kiffin was fired in 2013, but was passed over for the full-time job in favor of Steve Sarkisian. Hindsight is 20/20, but it seems like that might have been a miss by USC.

How much flack does Kelly get if he loses this game?

It’s easy to forget now, but at the time, USC was going for its ninth straight win over the Irish dating back to the 2002 season. Brian Kelly was a first year coach with a backup quarterback, on the road against a well-respected coach - so it’s not as if losing this game would have been a fireable offense.

But in the moments after, it’s hard not to get caught up in the what if’s of this game - and particularly, how Notre Dame fans would have reacted to a fourth blown late game lead to one of Notre Dame’s biggest rivals. And forgetting the fans for a moment - without this win, what happens to the Miami bowl win, another victory over a rival that helped get momentum going for the program? Do they even make a bowl game at all? Does a 6-6 2010 team really turn into the 12-1 team in 2012?

I’m just saying the stakes were high! 

What’s stood the test of time

Notre Dame’s wide receiver size is off the charts

There’s always been something about receivers with size thriving the Brian Kelly system, and this game really highlighted that in a major way. 

Rees completed passes to Duval Kamara (6’4” 225lbs), Tyler Eifert (6’6” 251 lbs), and Michael Floyd, who at 6’3” 227lbs caught 11 passes and basically made the USC defense look like the JV squad. 

This would become a fixture of the Kelly offense, as guys like Equanimous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, and Chase Claypool would all perfect the “physical number one option” in the years to come. In fact, almost every leading receiver for the Irish would be listed at 6’0” or taller. There’s your fun fact!

The sliding doors moment of Kiffin and Kelly switching places

All right yes I know this is a patently ridiculous thought exercise but stay with me on this: what if Kiffin had gotten the Notre Dame job and Kelly had gone to USC?

There are a myriad of reasons why this never would have happened, of course: Kiffin had those strong ties to USC, and that’s even without factoring in the Kiffin-from-Tennessee story would have been tough to swallow in South Bend - but what if, right?

What does Matt Barkley look like in a Brian Kelly system? Does Lane Kiffin unlock Dayne Crist and keep him in South Bend? Does he bring Ed Orgeron, and goodness gracious what does Orgeron do with that Notre Dame defense?

It’s telling, of course, that we’re coming up on Kelly’s 10th year, while Kiffin had stints as a coordinator for Alabama and as the head coach Florida Atlantic (where he was shockingly successful, I might add). He’s now being given a second-chance at a program rebuild in Oxford with Ole Miss - but I don’t know how many people would have picked Kelly to have had the more successful tenure with their programs when these two took the jobs in 2010.

Brad Nessler calling games

Nothing more to say on this: Brad Nessler calling football games just made me miss football. If they really are making more NCAA football video games, then the top of my wishlist is to bring him back as the voice of the in-game commentary.

Why this game?

If the Georgia game from 2017 was about two programs setting off on similar paths, then this game was two roads diverged… and that makes this match-up fascinating.

At the time, both programs’ fan bases were full of hope that happy days were coming again soon - one would get it, the other is still figuring out where their path is going.

Say what you will for the Kelly tenure (and much has been said), but in his decade-long reign Kelly is 92-37 with a 5-4 record in bowl games, and plenty of high-profile postseason runs. USC, on the other hand, has been up and down - first under Sarkisian (where there were mostly downs), then under now-head coach Clay Helton, with highlights that include an 11-3 campaign in 2017 that ended in a Cotton Bowl loss… and lowlights that have been basically everything since then.

And as for this rivalry itself, Notre Dame went from losing eight-straight games to having gone 7-3 since this night in Los Angeles. Any way you slice it, this feels like a definitive “before and after” program moment for the Irish.


Have your own thoughts on this game? Is there another Notre Dame game you'd love me to rewatch? Send them my way at hank@rentlikeachampion.com! 

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About Author

Hank Greene
Hank Greene

Hank Greene is the Content Strategist for Rent Like A Champion, where he writes about travel, college football, and RLAC's offerings across the country. He believes every college football stadium should sell footlong hot dogs, and that every tailgate should include pulled pork sandwiches.

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