- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — They tailgated all day and they waved blue towels and they bounced up and down to seemingly every possible sports pump-up song imaginable. They enjoyed the bright lights and marveled at the shiny new helmets and saw Saturday's matchup build into more than just another game on their schedule.
And though it wasn't exactly clear what Notre Dame fans could have expected when looking back at a USC squad that ran through the home team and slowed its ground game to a halt, it was certainly more than this:
A 31-17 loss to the arch-rival, its ninth defeat in the past 10 meetings. A turnover-plagued performance that brought to mind the adventures of the season's first two weeks. And, most of all, the harsh reality that the BCS-bowl dreams that began before the season are all but officially over just seven games into 2011.
"I think from a player's standpoint, maybe we didn't stay true to who we were," fifth-year safety and captain Harrison Smith said. "Maybe we did buy into the hype, and we can't do that again. We didn't play with poise and there were penalties that you just can't have if you wanna win."
The five penalties will sting but not as much as the three turnovers, particularly after consecutive games without any. An early and surprising 17-0 deficit gave the Irish no margin for error in attemping their comeback, one made easier by — who would have thunk it? — special teams.
George Atkinson's 96-yard kick return for a touchdown brought the Irish to life in the second quarter, and they managed to tack on a field goal before the break to somehow make a seven-point game out of a half that saw them outgained by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.
Tommy Rees went down with a hyperextended right knee midway through the third quarter and Dayne Crist stepped in — and this looked like redemption for the California kid against USC, first hitting Cierre Wood for 4 yards, then hitting Tyler Eifert two plays later on a crucial fourth down, the ball moving and Notre Dame closing in on the Trojans after being outplayed for a majority of the game before that point.
Three plays later, third-and-goal at the 1, Crist fumbled the snap. Eighty yards later and Jawanza Starling was in the end zone with the ball and a 14-point Trojans lead, one that looked so big yet so familiar given Crist's last third-and-goal-from-the-1 play this season, even if he wasn't to blame for the opening-drive gaffe against South Florida in Week 1.
"Losing stinks. For me, it's hard for me to put a stink-meter on losing. They all stink," coach Brian Kelly said. "You know what I'm disappointed in? This is the first time that I've leaned on my guys pretty hard in the locker room. I was not happy. Because we're better than that. We're better than that. And, to turn the ball over in the ridiculous fashion that we have, I just, just makes me crazy. In terms of, I just don't understand how something so easy can come out the way it does.
"So I told our guys, 'Listen, every time we try to take a step forward, we seem to wanna take one step back.' I'm not gonna tolerate it. It's not gonna be pretty this week in practice. If we gotta go back and tackle every day, we'll tackle every day, because they know how I feel about the way we played."
The hypothetical playoffs that Notre Dame talked about so much have come to an unceremonious end, and now comes the more challenging part, re-focusing on the next-best-thing with plenty of season remaining, five games to prove to all that this is not a lost cause after its record fell to 4-3 with a return of similar frustration.
Perhaps the normal 3:30 p.m. start next week against Navy will spark what had become a familiarity with this team in its previous four games, moving the ball efficiently while eliminating the bad mistakes.
For now, rebounding from this letdown and controlling emotions is the next step, one Notre Dame received a hard lesson in Saturday night from its rival out West.
"You're trying to get at something that I think is real, and we talked about this," Kelly said when asked if his players could have been too excited going into Saturday. "We had some guys that didn't play with poise that need to play with poise. Championship football teams play with competitive greatness, which means when the stakes are high and the stage is great, they raise their game.
"Today, in that same situation, some of our players didn't raise their level of play. That to me is poise, and we're still building that. That's a hard thing to dig at. But we're still building that."