SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Southern California safety Jawanza Starling saw the ball rolling around, bouncing on the ground. He knew if he could control it, somehow pick it up, an open field was in front of him.
Talk about a game-changing play. Starling made the biggest one Saturday night, an 80-yard return of a fumbled snap as the Trojans started strong, then held off Notre Dame for a 31-17 victory.
“I would say it’s our team’s biggest win since we’ve been here,” second-year USC coach Lane Kiffin said of the electric atmosphere surrounding Notre Dame’s first home night game in 21 years.
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 backup quarterback Dayne Crist lost the handle.
“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.”
Matt Barkley passed for three TDs for the Trojans (6-1), who jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first half.
USC, which has now won nine of the last 10 meetings in the long rivalry, had a 443-267 advantage in total yards. Notre Dame (4-3) had three second-half turnovers, couldn’t stop the Trojans’ rushing attack and saw its four-game winning streak end.
A disappointed coach Brian Kelly promised a tough week of practice ahead.
“Losing stinks. For me, it’s hard for me to put a stink meter on losing. They all stink,” Kelly said.
“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. 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.”
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, but Notre Dame got no closer.
■ UNR 45, Fresno State 38 — At Reno, Cody Fajardo passed for 313 yards and a touchdown, and ran for 61 yards and another score as the Wolf Pack held off the Bulldogs.
Fajardo’s 23-yard touchdown run with 2:15 left in the game proved to be the winner as UNR (4-3, 2-0) claimed sole possession of first place in the Western Athletic Conference. Fajardo’s touchdown run gave UNR a 45-31 lead, but Fresno State (3-5, 2-1) responded with a 2-yard pass from Derek Carr to Rashad Evans with 1:06 to play, cutting UNR’s lead in half. On the ensuing possession, UNR ran out the clock.
The Wolf Pack, who have won 15 consecutive home games, also got 198 yards rushing and a touchdown from running back Mike Ball.
UNR scored two touchdowns on special teams. Rishard Matthews returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 UNR lead in the first quarter, and Bubba Boudreaux fell on the ball in the end zone to put the Wolf Pack up 24-23 early in the third quarter after the Bulldogs fumbled a punt return.
■ Brigham Young 56, Idaho State 3 — At Provo, Utah, Riley Nelson passed for 215 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 62 yards and another score. He completed 11 of 17 passes and led the Cougars to touchdowns on five of their first six possessions.
It was a stark contrast to the anemic offense the team exhibited early in the season in losses to Texas and Utah. BYU (6-2) extended its winning streak to five games and, for an afternoon, resembled the explosive high-scoring Cougar teams from past seasons.
Cody Hoffman caught a pair of touchdown passes and finished with five receptions for 71 yards.
BYU got it done through the air and on the ground, passing for 282 yards and running for 290 yards and four touchdowns.
Michael Alisa rushed for 66 yards on eight carries, including a 42-yard run to give the Cougars a 14-3 lead late in the first quarter. JJ Di Luigi added a 12-yard TD run, and Nelson scrambled in from 16 yards out to make it 28-3. BYU led 35-3 at halftime after Nelson drove the team 99 yards in nine plays and capped the drive with a 7-yard TD pass to Hoffman.