By Gary Klein Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — USC had a chance to end on a high note, to salvage a disappointing season.
With the top-ranked team in the nation at the Coliseum, USC could have ruined Notre Dame’s bid for a national title and erased some of the sting from beginning the season ranked No. 1 and falling out of the polls.
Instead, USC’s final regular-season game played out like so many others.
Notre Dame’s 22-13 victory on Saturday night at the Coliseum sent the Fighting Irish to the Bowl Championship Series title game.
Meantime, the Trojans and Coach Lane Kiffin were sent off the field wondering again how a season that began with so much promise ended with so much unfulfilled.
“It’s very difficult for everyone in our locker room,” Kiffin said. “With so many things not going well this season I was hoping we could finish different.”
Instead, the Trojans lost four of their last five games. At 7-5 they are headed to a second-tier bowl game.
Irish Coach Brian Kelly and his 11-0 team are headed to South Florida in January for a chance to play for their first national championship since 1988.
It would have been a tall order for USC to beat Notre Dame, what with redshirt freshman quarterback Max Wittek making his first start in place of injured Matt Barkley.
Wittek shook off a nervous first series, passed for a touchdown and kept several drives alive with his footwork in the pocket and his arm.
But he also had two passes intercepted by a Notre Dame defense that has given up only 10 touchdowns.
“I thought he did a great job in an unbelievably difficult situation,” senior center Khaled Holmes said of Wittek, who completed 14 of 23 passes, including an 11-yard touchdown to receiver Robert Woods.
Kiffin and the Trojans had become the unlikely favored sons in the South, where Southeastern Conference coaches and fans were rooting for the Trojans to knock off a Notre Dame team that had not overwhelmed in many of its victories.
But Notre Dame ran off the field with its visiting fans chanting, “Let’s go Irish!” a fitting sendoff to a veteran team that committed no turnovers and got five field goals by kicker Kyle Brindza against the Trojans
Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson completed 15 of 26 passes for 217 yards, without an interception. He also rushed for 47 yards in nine carries.
Running back Theo Riddick rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown in 20 carries.
The Irish outgained USC, 439 yards to 281.
Notre Dame had a 16-10 lead at halftime behind Riddick’s touchdown run and three field goals by Brindza, including a career-long 52 yarder on the final play of the half.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o continued to make his case for the Heisman Trophy by intercepting Wittek’s first pass of the second half, but the Trojans caught a break when Brindza missed a 34-yard field-goal attempt.
The Trojans’ next possession ended with a sack that forced USC to punt. The one after that ended with Notre Dame stuffing the Trojans on third-and-one and forcing another punt.
This time Brindza answered with a 33-yard field goal to increase the margin to 19-10 with less than a minute left in the third quarter.
That set the stage for the fourth quarter and a chance to finish with a flourish.
Wittek drove the Trojans from their 16-yard line to the Irish four, keeping several plays alive with pocket presence and strikes to Woods. On third and goal, he hit Lee with an apparent touchdown pass, but Kiffin had sprinted down the sideline and called timeout before the play. Replays showed the pass appeared to be incomplete.
The Trojans got another shot, but Wittek’s pass to Lee in the back of the end zone went off the receiver’s hands, the Trojans settling for a Andre Heidari’s field goal to make the score 19-13 with less than 10 minutes left.
George Atkinson III’s 39-yard kickoff return gave the Irish decent field position, and Riddick took over from there, spinning out of tackles as he had done all night. The Irish drove to the Trojans’ two before Brindza kicked his fifth field goal for a 22-13 lead.
Lee then brought the Trojans to life, returning a kickoff 43 yards and then making a spectacular 48-yard catch to give the Trojans a first down at the Irish two-yard line.
But after two pass-interference penalties against Notre Dame, the Irish stuffed the Trojans on three consecutive running plays and Wittek’s pass to fullback Soma Vainuku was incomplete, ending the Trojans chances.