SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The game was supposed to be ordinary, it was meant to be extraordinary.
Under the lights for the first time in 21 years, Notre Dame's biggest national rival coming in town, five-star recruits filling a whole row, even talk of reaching a BCS bowl in the run up, Saturday was supposed to be different for the Irish.
It wasn't. Well, the grass was (freshly cut) but the result was the same as it had been for the past 10 years in South Bend, with USC once again leaving town with a victory, this one 31-17.
"It was right up there with Ohio State," linebacker Chris Galippo said of how he ranked the win in his career. "We talked about it all week that this was their Super Bowl."
The Trojans made their presence felt from the opening, running down after down on a 13-play, 66-yard drive before Matt Barkley found tight end Randall Telfer in the back of the end zone after a play action fake. It was the longest scoring drive on the season and quieted the capacity crowd at Notre Dame Stadium.
"To come in here, the only way to win the game was to find a way to run the ball against a very physical defense," Lane Kiffin said. "Two things really showed, I think they played really smart, starting with the quarterback all the way around."
Tailback Curtis McNeal finished with 121 yards on 24 carries while Marc Tyler, injured last week against California, had 67 yards. Barkley used play action passes effectively and tossed two touchdowns in the first half en route to a 17-0 lead before George Atkinson III returned a kick off 96 yards for a score.
"We started poorly. I told our team that, you know, was very disappointed in the way we played the first half," Brian Kelly said. "Sloppy football. Didn't tackle well. Timing was off. Just unacceptable for the amount of time we had off to play that way."
Notre Dame had won four straight coming in and had a bye week after thrashing Air Force.
"Being a Pac-12 school, our schedule gets handed to us, their's doesn't," Galippo said. "They get to choose their schedule and they chose when they wanted their bye and they wanted it right before (this game). They chose to make it a 7:30 PM game.
"Losing stinks. For me, it's hard to put a stink meter on losing," he said. "We are better than that. And to turn the ball over in the ridiculous fashion that we have, it makes me crazy. I don't understand how something so easy can come out the way it does."
Ranked 113th in the country in turnover margin, giving the ball away is the story of the Irish's season. Within seven late in the third quarter, Tommy Rees took over on his own 8-yard line marched the offense down the field nine, 10, 11 yards at a time looking for the equalizer before re-injuring his knee. Backup Dayne Crist came in and moved the Irish to the 1-yard line.
"Dayne went right in, did a nice job and moved us down there," Kelly said. "We put (Andrew) Hendrix in to run the ball a little bit down there, some zone option. And then we had the fumbled snap."
Reminiscent of what happened in Notre Dame's opener against South Florida, Crist fumbled stepping away from center and after being kicked around by a few USC defenders, was scooped up by safety Jawanza Starling for an 80-yard touchdown.
"It just felt surreal. Everything slowed down," he said. "I had to wait for the perfect bounce. Scoop and score."
Jonas Gary immediately responded with a 25-yard touchdown run to keep it a one-possession game and after USC missed a 32-yard field goal, it appeared that the Irish had some momentum. Yet again though, turnovers took them right out of the game - this time for good in the fourth after a Galippo fumble recovery and a Nickell Robey interception.
"They hyped it up," Galippo said. "It showed at the end there, when they didn't call timeouts, they just quit. That's what Notre Dame football is all about. They're not anything like USC."
Bombastic comments aside, the senior does have a point. The Trojans have have won nine of the last 10 in the series, made seven BCS bowl appearances and won two (*) national titles. The Irish? Three trips to a BCS game - all losses - and their last national title came before all but a handful of seniors were even born. In game built up to be their Super Bowl, Kelly's team fell flat on their face.
Oft-criticized and much maligned, Kiffin came out a victory much like Kelly had the year before in Los Angeles. Seeking his first signature win as head coach in cardinal and gold, the 36-year old finally found one by taking a bowl-less team and upsetting another in their bowl game.
"You get the sense that this was their Super Bowl here and (hosting) all of the official visitors and moving it to a night game," Kiffin said. "It's even more pleasing to come in here with all of that stuff going on and have our players play really well.
"I would say it's our team's biggest win since we've been here because of all of the stuff around it."
Disrespected before the game - unranked at 5-1 for the first time in USC history - the Trojans shook off the atmosphere and put together a complete game against their rival to setup a showdown with Pac-12 frontrunner Stanford.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, will try to regroup after failing to meet expectations yet another year.
"Championship football teams play with competitive grace, which means that when the stakes are high and the stage is great, they raise their game," said Kelly. ""Some of our players didn't raise their level of play. That to me is poise and we are still building that."