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Starling return sparks USC in 31-17 win over ND

Southern California flanker Marqise Lee attempts to make a catch in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011. Southern California flanker Marqise Lee attempts to make a catch in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
By Rick Gano
AP Sports Writer / October 23, 2011

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SOUTH BEND, Ind.—USC safety Jawanza Starling saw the ball rolling around and bouncing on the ground and 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 and 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 because of all the stuff around it," 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 on the snap.

"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 with it. Scoop and score, everything we do in practice and I took it the house."

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.

After USC's Andre Heidari missed a 32-yard field goal with 9:13 to go, the Trojans' Chris Galippo came up with the second of three second-half turnovers by the Irish. He recovered what was ruled a fumbled lateral when Rees threw a pass behind the line to Cierre Wood, who didn't catch the ball. The play was upheld by video replay, giving the Trojans a first down at the 18 with 8:46 to go.

Marc Tyler was open in the end zone but his foot hit the sideline as he caught a pass from Barkley. But two plays later, Barkley made a great pump fake and hit Robert Woods with a 14-yard TD pass for a 31-17 lead. That play was also upheld by video replay.

"They can try to do whatever they want to him. It's just crazy. He still had 12 catches for over 100 yards and they were crowding him it seemed almost every play when he was singled out over there," Barkley said of Woods. "I think those play actions helped get him open."

Any hope of an Irish comeback evaporated when Rees was intercepted by Nickell Robey on the next series.

Barkley completed 24 of 35 passes for 224 yards and Curtis McNeal finished as the Trojans' leading rusher with 118 yards on 24 carries. USC had 219 yards total rushing on 44 carries. Woods, meanwhile, made 12 catches for 119 yards and two TDs.

USC's defense held Notre Dame star Michael Floyd to just four catches for 28 yards and limited the Irish to 41 yards rushing on 14 carries.

USC dominated most of the first half with its offense behind the running of Tyler and the passing of Barkley and built the 17-0 lead late in the second quarter.

But Irish freshman George Atkinson III broke loose for a 96-yard TD kickoff return and got both his team and the crowd back in the game with just over three minutes remaining in the half. It was his second kickoff return for a score this season.

Then, after the Irish defense forced USC's first punt of the game, Rees completed 6 of 9 passes and took the Irish on a late drive that reached USC 7. It stalled and David Ruffer's 25-yard field goal got Notre Dame within 17-10 at the half.

Tyler, who hurt his shoulder last week against Cal, looked fine on the Trojans' opening drive. Kiffin said Tyler had trouble with a sore knee later in the game when McNeal saw most of the action.

Tyler carried six times for 38 yards on the first drive as USC went right at the Irish defense with its inside running game. The 13-play, 66-yard drive -- 60 of it on the ground -- was capped by Barkley's 2-yard TD toss to a wide open Randall Telfer.

Barkley took the Trojans right down the field again on their second possession, connecting to Marqise Lee for 18 and Woods for 19 in a 62-yard drive. Woods caught a 3-yard TD pass on the sixth play of the march, making it 14-0 with a minute left in the opening quarter. USC had a 128-14 total offense advantage in the first quarter.

Heidari kicked a 25-yard field goal to make it 17-0 with 3:34 left in the half.