SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame looked more rusty than rested, especially in the first half, against USC.
Sloppy play and poor tackling put the Irish in a quick 17-0 hole. And then when they picked up their play in the second half and had a chance to tie the game, that same, old devastating problem surfaced again — turnovers.
A disappointed coach Brian Kelly promised a tough week of practice ahead, after a 31-17 loss following a bye week.
"Losing stinks. For me, it's hard for me to put a stink meter on losing. They all stink," Kelly said after the Irish dropped to 4-3 and their goal of a BSC bowl bid evaporated.
Not even the electric crowd for the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium since 1990 could boost the Irish.
"This is the first time that I've leaned on my guys pretty hard in the locker room. I was not happy. Because we are better than that," Kelly said.
"We are better than that. And, to turn the ball over in the ridiculous fashion that we have. ... just makes me crazy. I just don't understand how something so easy can come out the way it does," Kelly added.
"I told our guys, listen, every time we try to take a step forward, we seem to want to take one step back. I'm not going to tolerate it. It's not going to be pretty this week in practice."
Jawanza Starling returned a fumbled snap by backup quarterback Dayne Crist 80 yards for a third-quarter TD, just as the Irish were a yard from tying the game. It was one of three Notre Dame turnovers in the second half.
The Irish turned the ball over five times each in their other losses, heartbreakers against South Florida and Michigan.
"There's no excuse," said tight end Tyler Eifert, who led the Irish with seven catches. "We had time off, we had time to rest and we played sluggish. You can't come out in the first half and play like that. We didn't play well, It cost us in the end."
With the Trojans nursing a 17-10 lead, Notre Dame had the ball at the USC 1 and was on the verge of tying the game when Crist lost the handle on the snap.
"I was just like 'I got to get it. I had to get it,'" Starling said.
"I didn't dribble it. I just had to wait for the perfect bounce because I didn't want to try and go for it too soon and miss it. So I was just taking my time with it. Scoop and score, everything we do in practice and I took it the house."
USC, which has now won nine of the last 10 meetings in the long rivalry, had a 443-267 advantage in total yards and outplayed Notre Dame for long stretches of the game.
"I would say it's our team's biggest win since we've been here because of all the stuff around it," second-year USC coach Lane Kiffin said.
When starter Tommy Rees hurt his knee after being hit and had to come out momentarily, Crist replaced him.
Crist, who lost the starter's job after the first half of the season opener, completed 4 of 5 passes to help the Irish reach the 1. But when he couldn't control the snap, the ball got loose and Starling picked it up and ran in for the long TD. Instead of a potentially tied game, USC went up 24-10 late in the third.
"He was going to fake it to the back and throw a pop back to the tight end," Kelly said of the play he called before Crist fumbled.
"That was a big momentum swing," Starling said. "They were driving the ball and we come out and get a play like that on defense, it just turns the whole tone of the game."
Rees returned to the game on the next series and immediately led the Irish to a score, that coming on Jonas Gray's 25-yard TD run, cutting the lead to a touchdown early in the fourth.
After USC's Andre Heidari missed a 32-yard field goal with 9:13 to go, the Trojans' Chris Galippo came up with the second of three second-half turnovers by the Irish. He recovered what was ruled a fumbled lateral when Rees threw a pass behind the line to Cierre Wood, who didn't catch the ball. The play was upheld by video replay, giving the Trojans a first down at the 18 with 8:46 to go.
Marc Tyler was open in the end zone but his foot hit the sideline as he caught a pass from Matt Barkley. But two plays later, Barkley made a great pump fake and hit Robert Woods with a 14-yard TD pass for a 31-17 lead. That play was also upheld by video replay.
Any hope of an Irish comeback evaporated when Rees was intercepted by Nickell Robey on the next series.
Barkley completed 24 of 35 passes for 224 yards with three TDs and Curtis McNeal finished as the Trojans' leading rusher with 118 yards on 24 carries. USC had 219 yards total rushing on 44 carries. Woods, meanwhile, made 12 catches for 119 yards and two TDs.
USC's defense held Notre Dame star Michael Floyd to just four catches for 28 yards and limited the Irish to 41 yards rushing on 14 carries.
One first-half bright spot for the Irish was freshman George Atkinson III's 96-yard kickoff return for a TD in the second quarter that brought the Irish back. It was his second KO return for a score this season.