Top 10 moments, No. 1: Starling's fumble return

December, 9, 2011
12/09/11
7:36
PM PT
Our series of the top 10 moments of the 2011 USC football season concludes today with No. 1. Catch up on moments Nos. 2-10 here, including more than one Robert Woods touchdown catch and an especially courageous fourth-down call from Lane Kiffin.

Here's our top moment of the year: Jawanza Starling's 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Notre Dame.

This one had everything -- big consequences in the game, a crazy scene on the football field and monster long-term implications for the 2011 season as a whole.

Notre Dame was mounting a big comeback from a 17-0 deficit and on the verge of tying the game. Dayne Crist was in at quarterback for the injured Tommy Rees and the Irish had the ball inside the USC five-yard line.

Then Crist dropped the snap from center Braxston Cave and all hell broke loose. Crist dove to try to recover it but was stifled by a combination of teammate Michael Floyd and USC corner Isiah Wiley, who both tried to grab it and knocked it back a good 10 yards.

Starling had it the whole way, video replays show. Coming up from his strong safety slot, he ran directly toward the ball as soon as it fell from Crist's hands. He continued to run as the two Trojans and two Irish fought for it around the 10, and, when it was hit further back, he was in perfect position to grab it on the run.

With Wiley and McDonald flanking him on either side, Starling picked the ball up at the 20 and ran it all the way to the endzone for six. That made it 24-10, Trojans -- a lead the Irish couldn't come back from, although it got pretty close again later on before Chris Galippo recovered a key fumble.

It's funny to watch a number of the Trojans jumping and running along with Starling on the sidelines as he got closer and closer to the end zone. All things considered, this was the play that really turned the Trojans' fortunes around this season and started them on the path to finishing fifth-ranked in the country.

As Lane Kiffin said in his passionate postgame press conference in South Bend afterward, this was when the dark clouds surrounding the program started to move away for the first time.

It didn't erase them entirely, but it clearly started the process.

That concludes our top-10 moment series. Check back next week for the beginning of our top-1o performers series.

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