Every other day from now until Aug. 25, we’re watching one of the games USC played last season and putting up a set of pertinent-to-this-year notes, going of course in chronological order from the Minnesota season opener to the UCLA season finale. At the end, we’ll have one last post with our overall takeaways from the re-watching. By then, it’ll be the week of this year’s opener.
We’ve already done USC’s 19-17 win over Minnesota, 23-14 win over Utah, 38-17 win over Syracuse, 44-23 loss to Arizona State, 48-41 win over Arizona and 30-9 win over Cal. Here, now, are our five notes -- four big things and a bunch of little ones -- from USC’s 31-17 win over Notre Dame on Oct. 22, 2011.
Matt Barkley, NFL quarterback
It might not look all that spectacular in the statistics file, but this was a masterful performance from one Matt Barkley.
The Trojans' signal-caller faced unusual (read: nighttime, loud music, gold helmets) conditions in South Bend and came through with arguably his best game to date. With Marqise Lee playing at less than 100 percent due to an injured shoulder, Barkley targeted Robert Woods again and again and kept finding him open -- or open enough to sneak a throw into him and gain five or six yards.
Barkley also did something he hadn't done all year: He gained legitimate yards on the ground. Four times against the Irish -- and twice on the same play call -- Barkley took off running when he found nobody open and advanced the Trojans' offense. Two of those four rushes went for first downs; the other two came on first downs and resulted in two more firsts later on.
There were certain levels of command and creativity Barkley put on display in this game we hadn't seen from him at the college level. USC's profile began to rise after this win, and so did Barkley's, as it should have.
You won't see a better-designed 15 minutes of a football game than the Trojans' first quarter here.
It was like Lane Kiffin was toying with Brian Kelly at first, establishing dominance. Of course, USC failed to keep it up for the rest of the contest, but it's a worthy highlight.
On the Trojans' first drive, nine of their 13 plays were designed runs, while two of the four pass calls resulted in runs. USC ended up throwing only two passes in driving 66 yards.
Then, on their second drive, Kiffin switched it up, calling pass plays three straight times and finishing the drive off with another pass call. Ignoring the two, short touchdown throws, 16 of USC's first 17 plays went for at least four yards.
The kickoff return and the fumble return
There were two long-distance plays that were keys in this game.
First was George Atkinson III's 96-yard kickoff return for a score that got Notre Dame back into the game late in the second half. Before it, the Irish were having little offensive success, and Atkinson's return kick-started them to only a seven-point deficit at the break.
Second was Jawanza Starling's 80-yard fumble return, also for a touchdown, late in the third quarter. The Irish were about to tie the game at 17; then backup quarterback Dayne Crist fumbled the snap from Braxston Cave and kicked the ball as he tried to recover it, putting it within reach of Starling coming around the edge. The junior safety was flanked by Isiah Wiley and T.J. McDonald as he ran it all the way back.
Both plays were really odd, in different senses. In watching the Atkinson return, it's hard to figure out what exactly USC did wrong. No Trojan made a great play, but there weren't any glaring mistakes like you usually see on scoring runbacks. The closest thing to a true whiff came from kicker Andre Heidari, who dove for Atkinson, missed and then got his ankle stepped on seconds later, which caused him to miss some action.
On Starling's return, obviously he gets some of the credit for pouncing on a loose ball and running with it, but the Trojans player most responsible for the score might be Christian Tupou, who stopped Notre Dame quarterback Andrew Hendrix short of the goal line by himself on the previous play. If Tupou didn't make the tough play, the Irish would've scored right there and the drive would've been over.
Chris Galippo and Marc Tyler
Departed senior Chris Galippo made headlines after the game when he said that Notre Dame "just quit" in the fourth quarter, when the Irish chose not to use their remaining timeouts to stop the clock.
It probably wasn't the most tactical comment for a fifth-year player, but at least he backed it up. Galippo's play in this game was by far the best he produced in the season, with his first-quarter fumble recovery playing a large role in that.
Marc Tyler also said the Irish "didn't want to play no more," and his play also backed up his comments. He carried 13 times for 67 yards in support of Curtis McNeal, despite being bothered by a dislocated shoulder suffered the previous week against Cal.
Final notes: It was largely forgotten afterward, but USC walk-on kicker Craig McMahon had to take two kickoffs while Heidari was being treated on the sideline, and he averaged 56.5 yards per boot -- not a bad number for a collegiate debut. ...Jonas Gray's 25-yard touchdown run in the fourth looked like Lamar Dawson's fault. The freshman linebacker overcommitted to the opposite side and couldn't recover in time when he realized where Gray was going. ...Barkley and Curtis McNeal did admirable jobs blocking on a crazy play that Woods had in the second half, when he turned a busted screen pass into a reverse play and a first down. ...Yes, Nickell Robey shut Michael Floyd down, but he had help from safeties most of the time the Irish looked Floyd's way. He did have the nice pick in the fourth quarter where he stepped right in front of Floyd, though.