It would have been one of the great Trojan chapters in the storied history of USC and Notre Dame.
A back-up quarterback leading a team of back-ups and walk-ons playing only for pride to a come from behind victory over the Irish, senior connecting with senior for the game-winning touchdown.
Ronald Johnson would have been immortalized in lore as the wide receiver that strolled into the end zone on a rainy Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the touchdown to extend an unprecedented winning streak.
Instead, Johnson dropped a would-be 53-yard scoring pass from Mitch Mustain, Mustain was intercepted four plays later and Notre Dame overcame four turnovers to upend USC, 20-16, before a waterlogged crowd of 85,417, most of whom had long since left before the Irish broke the eight game-losing streak in the intersectional rivalry.
Needing to drive 69 yards with 2:16 left to play, Johnson broke behind a Notre Dame defensive back but Mustain’s pass careened off his hands.
Starting out the night with one of the biggest ovations during the senior salute, a devastated Johnson was unable to speak as he left the field for the last time.
“I felt like I should have made a play,” Johnson later said, last to leave the locker room. “I let my team down. Mitch made a great pass, I should have caught it. There’s nothing I can do about it now.”
The Trojans actually converted a fourth down and seven on the next play, but the former Arkansas quarterback lofted a desperation heave toward the end zone where it was picked off by safety Harrison Smith.
Johnson’s drop was the final act in a horrendous night for the USC offense, which managed just 261 total yards and 80 on the ground.
“We have to be able to execute better on the whole,” said Mustain, who was 20 of 37 for 177 yards in his first start since he was a true freshman with the Razorbacks. “There isn’t one particular drive or one particular missed block. We have to be able to do it all better.”
As they have all season long, it was the Trojans letting the opposition hang around to steal a win at the end, a repeat of last-second losses to Washington and Stanford.
“People try to blame RoJo for his dropped ball, we should have never been in that position anyways,” corner Shareece Wright said.
Notre Dame freshman quarterback Tommy Rees, starting in place of an injured Dayne Crist for the third consecutive game, directed a 7-play, 77 yards drive in the fourth quarter, capped by a 5-yard Robert Hughes touchdown run for the win.
“On the last drive we just simplified things and let Hughes run hard,” Rees said. “Our running game just clicked.”
Cierre Wood, who rushed for 89 yards, ripped off 26 yards on a draw to get into USC territory.
“They had a good play that they executed with the sprint draw, Wright said. “It’s hard to stop and they ran that play to perfection.”
The much-maligned Trojan defense actually played its best game of the season to that point, coming up with four turnovers, three times intercepting Rees, but the offense managed just 16 points from those gifts.
Joe Houston kicked field goals of 45, 23 and 37 yards and Mustain scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak on fourth down following Nick Perry’s strip-sack of Rees.
“We turned the ball over too many times on offense, but we didn’t flinch,” first-year Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said.
Rees was 20 of 32 for 149 yards and two touchdowns.
Michael Floyd caught 11 passes for 86 yards and a score. Duval Kamara had the other Rees touchdown pass on his one-yard reception with seven seconds left in the first half.
And while the Irish celebrated – a small contingent of cheerleaders singing the school’s Victory March as they walked out of the Coliseum – the Trojans were left to regroup before next week’s finale against equally beleaguered UCLA.
Asked what teammates had told Johnson after his drop, his words could be the motto for USC as they head to the Rose Bowl, reflecting on what might have been.
“Keep my head up. They’re behind me 100 percent and keep my head up and stay focused.”
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