USC 20, Notre Dame 17
October 18, 1997 – Notre Dame Stadium

by Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Why did Notre Dame lose a football game, 20-17, to USC?
Pick your poison.

Three missed field goals by Irish kicker Jim Sanson. An offense that gained 139 yards rushing in the first half and just two in the third quarter.

A bevy of crucial penalties that killed some important opportunities.

All of those factors combined to leave the Irish at 2-5 with a new definition of rock bottom. USC, 3-3, a team that came into the meeting in total disarray for the second year in a row left with a swagger for the second year in a row.

A frustrated Notre Dame Stadium crowd that loudly expressed its displeasure at the goings drew coach Bob Davie’s ire.

“We’re not going to quit,” Davie said. “As a coaching staff, we’re not going to point fingers. I know as a football team, it will be the same way. It was a strange football game.”

It wasn’t strange by accident. The troubles both teams have battled this season surfaced throughout. Occasionally shoddy defenses with lots of missed tackles, along with 229 yards worth of penalties kept the outcome in doubt.

A critical fourth-quarter interception by USC’s Mark Cusano and a 37-yard field goal by Adam Abrams with 1:05 left in the game iced the victory.

“We felt we had to play more zone (defense in the second half),” USC coach John Robinson said. “We’ve been more of a man-to-man pass defense team and they came up with some good stuff against us. We weren’t tackling early, it seemed like they were taking it to us and we were reacting.”

The Trojans’ final score was a by-product of the frustration Notre Dame has come to live with through most of this season. Second halves, especially the third quarter, have not treated the Irish well. For the sixth time in seven games, Notre Dame has failed to score in the 15 minutes after intermission. Like games against Purdue, Michigan State and Stanford, any sort of first-half momentum was killed in the third quarter.

The Irish led 17-14 at halftime. Autry Denson was effective gaining 106 yards on 20 carries, and Notre Dame’s offensive line was getting a solid push.

“If you look at the third quarter, we snapped the ball six times,” Davie said. One of those snaps, a third-down pass, went right through receiver Bobby Brown’s hands.

“We didn’t have the football much,” Davie said. “But it looked like they controlled the line of scrimmage in the second half. I don’t think (USC) did anything different. They lined up and knocked us back in the second half.”

The knock back was pretty significant. The Irish threatened to score just once in the second half. An interference penalty by Trojan cornerback Daylon McCutcheon and a personal foul flag on Cusano helped the Notre Dame offense navigate to the Trojan 16-yard line. From there, Sanson missed his third field goal of the day, this one from 33 yards.

USC tied the game on its second possession of the third quarter. The big play in the march, which started on the Trojan 19, was a 23-yard scramble by USC quarterback John Fox. On third-and-12 from the Trojan 33, Fox’s receivers were covered but he found an opening. A late-hit penalty on Irish nose guard Corey Bennett knocked Fox out of the game for a while with an ankle injury, but helped USC get in position for the tying field goal from 42 yards.

The mistake that made the biggest impact in the game belonged to Notre Dame late in the fourth quarter. On second-and-10 from the Irish 46, quarterback Ron Powlus looked for Bobby Brown in traffic. The pass was deflected and intercepted by Cusano with less than three minutes to play.

Cusano, who batted down a fourth-down Powlus pass in overtime last year, returned the ball to the Irish 29. Two running plays netted four yards, then Fox scrambled again after being flushed out of the pocket. While running, he fumbled the ball, but recovered it in full stride while gaining five yards to the Notre Dame 20. From there, Abrams hit the game-winner.

Notre Dame’s feverish chance to try to tie or win the game in the final minute consisted of a 14-yard sideline pass to Malcolm Johnson sandwiched between two short swing passes to Denson that ended the game on the Irish 42.

Both offenses were impressive in the first quarter. A 56-yard return by Allen Rossum on the opening kickoff set the tone for Denson to carry the ball five times for 40 yards and a 7-0 Irish lead. USC answered with a 77-yard march that Delon Washington climaxed with a three-yard scoring run.

Tony Driver allowed the Irish to retaliate. He scored from a yard out to finish a drive that was keyed by a 23-yard hookup between Powlus and Raki Nelson. The score was tied at 14 early in the second quarter when R. Jay Soward caught an eight-yard pass from Fox. The TD was set up by a 31-yard connection between Soward and Fox.

Two missed Sanson field goals later, the Irish made another run. An interference penalty on USC safety Rashard Cook was important in getting the ball to the Trojan 10 where Sanson connected from 27 yards 37 seconds before intermission.

Scoring Summary

USC 7 7 3 3 – 20Notre Dame 14 3 0 0 – 17

First Quarter
ND: Autry DENSON 2 run (Jim SANSON PAT), 12:42 left. Drive: 40 yards, 5 plays, 2:18 elapsed after USC kickoff. Key play: Allen Rossum 56 kickoff return. Score: Notre Dame 7, USC 0.

USC: Delon WASHINGTON 3 run (Adam ABRAMS PAT), 6:30 left. Drive: 77 yards, 14 plays, 6:12 elapsed after Notre Dame kickoff. Key play: John Fox to Antoine Harris for 22 on 3rd and 17 from the ND 44. Score: Notre Dame 7, USC 7.

ND: Tony DRIVER 1 run (SANSON PAT), 1:29 left. Drive: 82 yards, 12 plays, 5:01 elapsed after USC kickoff. Key play: Ron Powlus to Malcolm Johnson for 14 on 3rd and 8 from the ND 20. Score: Notre Dame 14, USC 7.

Second Quarter
USC: R. Jay SOWARD 8 pass from FOX (ABRAMS PAT), 12:11 left. Drive: 71 yards, 9 plays, 4:18 elapsed after Notre Dame kickoff. Key play: Fox to Soward for 31 on 2nd and 6 from the ND 40. Score: Notre Dame 14, USC 14.

ND: SANSON 27 FG, 0:37 left. Drive: 54 yards, 9 plays, 3:06 elapsed after USC punt. Key play: Powlus to M. Johnson for 13 on 3rd and 5 from the ND 41. Score: Notre Dame 17, USC 14.

Third Quarter
USC: ABRAMS 42 FG, 5:06 left. Drive: 56 yards, 12 plays, 5:48 elapsed after Notre Dame punt. Key play: Fox 23 run on 3rd and 12 from the USC 33. Score: Notre Dame 17, USC 17.

Fourth Quarter
USC: ABRAMS 37 FG, 1:05 left. Drive: 9 yards, 4 plays, 1:29 elapsed after USC interception. Key play: Mark Cusano 27 interception return to the ND 29. Score: USC 20, Notre Dame 17.

Attendance – 80,225 (sellout)


USC NDFirst Downs 14 24Rushing 8 10Passing 5 8Penalty 1 6Rushing Attempts 40 45Yards Rushing 187 190Yards Lost Rushing 8 24Net Yards Rushing 179 166Net Yards Passing 136 149Passes Attempted 24 28Passes Completed 13 17Had Intercepted 0 1Total Offensive Plays 64 73Total Net Yards 315 315Average Gain Per Play 4.9 4.3Fumbles: Number-Lost 1-0 0-0Penalties: Number-Yards 15-156 7-75Number of Punts-Yards 6-260 2-120Average Per Punt 43.3 60.0Punt Returns: Number-Yards 2-13 3-17Kickoff Returns: Number-Yards 2-21 5-135Interceptions: Number-Yards 1-27 0-0Fumble Returns: Number-Yards 0-0 0-0Third Down Conversions 8-16 5-14Fourth Down Conversions 0-0 1-1Possession Time 28:28 31:32Sacks by: Number-Yards 2-16 1-4


RUSHING ATT GAIN LOST NET TD LGMalaefou MacKenzie 20 73 4 69 0 10Delon Washington 12 34 0 34 1 7John Fox 4 32 4 28 0 23Rodney Sermons 2 25 0 25 0 18R. Jay Soward 1 17 0 17 0 17Mike Van Raaphorst 1 6 0 6 0 6

PASSING ATT COMP INT YDS TD LGJohn Fox 21 11 0 115 1 31Mike Van Raaphorst 3 2 0 21 0 12

RECEIVING RECPT YARDS TD LGAntoine Harris 4 52 0 22R. Jay Soward 3 46 1 31Malaefou MacKenzie 3 16 0 12Delon Washington 1 12 0 12Ted Iacenda 1 5 0 5Billy Miller 1 5 0 5

PUNTING NUM YARDS AVG LGJim Wren 6 260 43.3 50

RETURNS PR KO INTSR. Jay Soward – 1-14 -Malaefou MacKenzie – 1-7 -Mark Cusano – – 1-27Chad Morton 2-13 – –

Notre DameRUSHING ATT GAIN LOST NET TD LGAutry Denson 30 140 7 133 1 14Ken Barry 4 26 0 26 0 8Clement Stokes 4 18 0 18 0 8Jamie Spencer 2 4 0 4 0 2Jarious Jackson 1 1 0 1 0 1Tony Driver 1 1 0 1 1 1Joey Getherall 1 0 1 -1 0 -1Ron Powlus 2 0 16 -16 0 0

PASSING ATT COMP INT YDS TD LGRon Powlus 28 17 1 149 0 23

RECEIVING RECPT YARDS TD LGAutry Denson 6 3 0 6Malcolm Johnson 4 54 0 14Raki Nelson 3 45 0 23Ken Barry 2 35 0 23Bobby Brown 1 9 0 9Clement Stokes 1 3 0 3

PUNTING NUM YARDS AVG LGHunter Smith 2 120 60.0 61

RETURNS PR KO INTSAutry Denson 1-0 – -Tony Driver – 2-37 -Allen Rossum 2-17 3-98 –