It Could Have Been Worse….Couldn’t it?

By Joe Villinski

LOS ANGELES —Maybe Notre Dame’s 27-20 loss to USC Saturday night wouldn’t seem so bad ifit wasn’t the last regular season game of the year.

If a major Alliance Bowl bid wasn’t on the line.

If it wasn’t head coach Lou Holtz’s last game at Notre Dame.

If the Irish didn’t precede to fumble the game away and render the seasonnull and void.

But the loss was bad. Real bad.

The Irish were on course to end the year with a five-game winning streak, aprobable bid to the Fiesta Bowl, and a proper farewell for Holtz.But just like those fumbles, it all slipped through their hands.Holtz was asked his thoughts on what suddenly turned out to be his swansong at the Irish helm.

“It’s like life,” he said. “It’s one you’ll remember, one game you’llcarry with you for a long time.”

If that’s the case, it may explain why Holtz appeared to be in totaldespair as the USC sideline exploded in victory. The game will notovershadow his career, but as Holtz admits, it will be a stigma.

The realization that he had just seen his last Notre Dame game as headcoach appeared to be setting in at the post-game press conference.”My guts feel like someone cut out my complete insides,” Holtz said. “Inever felt this low.”

It seemed as if that was the consensus feeling.

“To have the streak broken with me being a senior is the worst possiblefeeling I could ever feel,” linebacker Bert Berry said in reference to theTrojans ending their 13-game winless string against the Irish.

Berry and the rest of the defense were put in bad situations the entiregame due to four costly fumbles. By game’s end, logging constant minuteson the field had taken it’s toll on the defense.

“Any time you have a turnover, it hurts the team,” Berry added. “There’snever a good time to have one. A lot of the time we were able to bounceback, but you can only bounce back so many times.”

Receiver Malcolm Johnson’s fumble en route to a score that would have putthe Irish ahead two touchdowns may have been the biggest miscue. Afterhauling in a 33-yard pass from quarterback Ron Powlus, Trojan linebackerSammy Friday jarred the ball loose and recovered it at the goal line.”I lost my concentration,” Johnson said.

Next up was return man Allen Rossum, already having coughed it up once,when he bobbled another punt at his own 12 in an attempt to make a faircatch. Four plays later, the Trojans closed the gap to 14-12.

“I just lost concentration once I called for the fair catch,” Rossum said.No concentration means no win.

“We should have won the game,” Rossum added. “We were an inferior teamthat made too many mistakes. I made two myself.”

The Irish could have sealed the victory had freshman Jim Sanson convertedan extra point, potentially putting the Irish ahead by two scores with 4:29left. With Powlus holding, the laces were turned out and Sanson missedwide left.

“I know I let the fifth-year seniors down,” Sanson said. “I need to grow up.”

“I got the snap, put it down, and the laces were facing sideways,” Powlussaid. “Snap was fine. I think the kicker was fine.”

Notre Dame will be less than fine now that it appears no bowl game is onthe horizon. Irish players said after the game that the loss marked theend of their season. With no expectations on the part of athleticadministration to accept a bid to a second-tier bowl, the Irish most likelywill be out of the post-season for the first time since 1986.

“It’s a sad way to go out for me and the rest of the seniors, but it’s overand the sun’s going to come up tomorrow,” Berry concluded.Of course, that sun might not be as bright.

Especially for Holtz.

“We made far too many mistakes,” Holtz said. “I don’t know why.”Now, he has plenty of time to locate the reasons.