NOTRE DAME, Ind. - While Notre Dame mourned in the north end zone, USC celebrated its 31-17 victory a hundred yards away. And when the Trojans finished their final rendition of Fight On late Saturday night, they sprinted the length of the field toward the tunnel, just as the Irish were ready to slip into their locker room.
Hold up Notre Dame, winners go first.
So the Irish (4-3) waited as the Trojans (6-1), a team billed as too young to upset Notre Dame in its first night game in 21 years, exchanged high fives and Lane Kiffin notched the biggest win of his coaching career.
"Losing stinks," said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. "For me, it's hard for me to put a stink meter on losing. They all stink."
Yet this one proved rancid as Notre Dame wasn't ready for primetime, falling behind 17-0 and later imploding with three second half turnovers, the most damning Dayne Crist's botched snap that Jawanza Starling returned 80 yards for a touchdown.
Notre Dame had been one-yard from tying the game with a minute to play in the third quarter.
Instead, it was down 24-10.
Now, the upgraded shine of Notre Dame's helmets may be the only luster left in this season. The night kickoff may be the only spotlight deserved. The recruiting pitch may trend more toward helping the Irish rebuild than reload. For Notre Dame, it all felt like a step backward so severe it might take the rest of the season to recover.
"BCS is pretty much out of the question," said Tyler Eifert. "It's just kind of about self-pride and pride in our team that we're not going to give up."
The Irish didn't Saturday night after falling behind three scores as the Trojans ran with productivity on a Notre Dame defense assumed stout enough to handle USC's makeshift line. Instead, USC rushed for a season-high 219 yards. The Trojans' opening drive, a 13-play march, featured 11 runs. It was the first time Notre Dame had allowed an opening drive touchdown all season.
Notre Dame didn't enter the game until George Atkinson III's 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown late in the second quarter. The Irish tacked on a David Ruffer field goal to pull within 17-10 at halftime.
But by then the Irish were permanently off-balance, even within striking distance. Crist's fumble - the play was supposed to be a play action pass - was crushing. It was also part of Kelly getting off schedule with his play calling.
At the end of the third quarter the Irish had run just 10 times for 12 yards. Meanwhile. Kelly's offense passed 38 times. Compare that to USC's balance at the same stage, 30 runs through three quarters versus 27 Matt Barkley passes.
"So I told our guys, listen, every time we try to take a step forward, we seem to want to take one step back," Kelly said. "I'm not going to tolerate it. It's not going to be pretty this week in practice. If we have to go back and tackle every day, we'll tackle every day, because they know how I feel about the way we played."
Rees suffered a right knee hyperextension in the third quarter that forced Crist into action, with Andrew Hendrix mixed in briefly. The fumble was Crist's final play before giving way to Rees, who went 23-of-37 for 190 yards and an interception. He connected with Michael Floyd just four times for 28 yards.
USC cornerback Nickell Robey picked off Rees when he locked onto Floyd midway through the fourth quarter. USC didn't give the ball back, running out the final 6:43.
"That's a dream in four-minute, that you end the game on offense," Kiffin said. "Lucky for us, (Kelly) didn't use his timeouts because really our kicker at halftime couldn't even move his foot."
The only defense Kelly made for his players was that the moment, which Kiffin called Notre Dame's Super Bowl before the game and after it, wasn't too much for his team. But Harrison Smith said it might have been for some of Notre Dame's younger players. Manti Te'o admitted he was too hyped going against his childhood favorite.
The junior missed multiple tackles as did the rest of the Irish linebackers, including Prince Shembo and Steve Filer on third downs against Barkley.
"I try to make big plays and sometimes it costs me, it costs my team," Te'o said. "That's something I can't afford to do. I've gotta make the sure tackle and get the guy down."
Two weeks ago Notre Dame's players balanced the big BCS picture with the small picture fundamentals. Now they're without a big picture to view with the small stuff feeling more like starting over.
"That's the toughest part is when you think you've moved past that kind of self‑inflicted wounds, to come back and have those hit you again, it's disappointing," Kelly said. "We are better than that."
Not on Saturday night.