USC leaves it late, but still beats ND

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Better get used to it, USC fans. These Trojans look like they love the drama of a last-second finish.

In past years, even on the road, the USC starters have enjoyed the fourth quarter from the sideline wrapped in the security of a big lead. Not these guys. They waited until the end to win at Ohio State. They waited for a surge that never came at Washington.

And on Saturday at Notre Dame, when the Trojans got the surge, they didn't like the way that big lead felt. So they gave it back.

With freshman Matt Barkley blooming into a star on one of college football's biggest stages, No. 6 USC scored touchdowns on each of its first three second-half possessions to pull away from No. 25 Notre Dame, 34-14.

Other teams may have rolled over. Certainly other Notre Dame teams have. Of the Trojans' seven consecutive victories over the Irish coming into Saturday, five of them came by at least 31 points. The eighth one appeared headed in that direction.

"There's no doubt the comfort level went up with everybody," middle linebacker Chris Galippo said. "Maybe guys got a little lax."

This Irish team proved what coach Charlie Weis said during the week -- the players actually believed they could beat the Trojans. Give credit to junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who drove the Irish to two fourth-quarter scores and came up 4 yards short of a game-tying third touchdown.

Give blame to the Trojans' defense, which committed one major infraction after another in the second half -- six in all -- from a celebration after a sack to pass interference to late hits. Lots of late hits.

"It felt like it was under our control," sixth-year senior corner Josh Pinkard said. "But with Jimmy back there throwing the ball, you never think it's over before it's over. We just got to finish. They came back and made plays, and we had penalties and they kept marching."

And then, with nine seconds to play, the score 34-27, and the Notre Dame fans willing their team to one more miracle in a stadium known for them, USC shut the door. Clausen threw three times into the end zone. Only on the first -- a jump ball thrown to tight end Kyle Rudolph -- did an Irish receiver even touch the ball.

The Trojans do love the tight moments. USC had celebrities on its sideline Saturday. When the game began, Spike Lee stood on one 25-yard line, wearing a USC No. 13 jersey to honor injured tailback Stafon Johnson. USC grad Will Ferrell stood near the other 25-yard line.

Elsewhere on the sideline, an 82-year-old white-headed man in an all-weather coat and a camouflage cap took it all in. Bud Grant had been a mentor to a young Pete Carroll.

"Bud Grant was here," Carroll said. "Famous coach from the Vikings. He used to say, 'All you want to do is give your team a chance to win on the last play of the game.'"

That may have been true in the NFL, when Grant took four Minnesota teams to the Super Bowl. But it's hard to get excited about a team having a chance to win on the last play when it led by 20 points earlier in the fourth quarter.

Carroll sprinted over to Grant as soon as the game ended, excited that this game brought the old saying to life. Later, he dismissed the possibility that his team relaxed.

"We were not complacent," Carroll said.

What, then? Certainly, Notre Dame is better. It may have been the Irish's eighth consecutive loss to its biggest rival, but they played the kind of game that only the most bottom of bottom-line Domers would denigrate.

"It's about finishing," Carroll said. "Goes back to finishing then."

Maybe if you're not finishing, it's because you're starting out. Of the many reasons that this loss may keep Notre Dame fans awake for the next 12 months, one of the biggest may be that USC hasn't been this vulnerable in years. Given Carroll's record, they may not be this vulnerable again.

If nothing else, Matt Barkley will never be this inexperienced and raw again. Given that he completed 19 of 29 passes for 380 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, it's hard to fathom how much the future holds.

From the moment Barkley stepped on the USC campus in January, Carroll put out the word that this was no typical freshman. Whenever "Barkley" came out of Carroll's mouth, "star" and "gifted" came along for the ride.

Carroll spoke this way last winter as Barkley learned the USC offense at Mensa speed.

He spoke this way as Barkley threw a pick in the spring game.

He spoke this way as he dumped Aaron Corp as the starter before the sophomore ever started a game.

And he spoke this way Saturday after the game.

"It took us awhile to believe what we were seeing," Carroll said. "He's everything any of the quarterbacks that have played for us have done. I'm not saying he's better than Carson [Palmer] or Matt [Leinart]. He's capable of doing anything their offense was doing when they were playing in the middle of their careers."

Palmer and Leinart won Heismans playing for Carroll. Barkley has played five games for him, and in the first four did little to suggest that he would have this kind of game at Notre Dame. He had played well but not great.

On Saturday, on the road in his program's most storied rivalry, Barkley averaged 20 yards a completion.

"I don't know," Barkley said. "This is what a quarterback's supposed to be, and that's who I am, so I don't know. It just feels natural to me."

If only his fellow USC starters can figure out how to make watching the fourth quarter from the sideline feel natural again. The Trojans' games are boring no longer.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.