A season, and a team, sabotaged

In the end, it was more than mistakes, penalties and lack of execution that doomed USC in a 41-31 loss at Notre Dame.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Thanks Sark. Thanks Pat.

Sure, that sounds harsh directed at one man spending Saturday night in rehab and another on a private plane heading back to Southern California after feeling lightheaded before the game on the sidelines before being checked out at a hospital here and, we're told, given a clean bill of health.

And yet, those two men who are being paid $6 million between them from USC totally let another group of Trojan football players down. And they've allowed a USC football program, one of the handful of historically proud and dynamic college football programs of all time, to resemble a clown college more than anything this past week.

A week in which they should have been completely able to focus on this football game and the trip to South Bend and a hostile crowd of 80,795 and the big-time playmakers the Irish put on the field in a game they also had to have to keep their hopes alive for a spot in the college football playoffs.

Notre Dame had the far better shot. No one in charge here sabotaged the Irish on the way to their 41-31 win over the Trojans. For those keeping score at home, it's the second time the USC has fallen to a team it really had to beat by that score after Stanford earlier). For those also keeping count, USC racked up 590 yards of offense, 114 yards more than Notre Dame managed and still lost by double digits.

"We don't make excuses," Clay Helton said after his first loss and second game as USC's interim coach. "Our job is to come up with answers."

But that would require a time machine and USC doesn't have one of those. Sunday with Sark, much like the Salute To Troy, happened. So did his selection to coach USC nearly two years ago.

And the people paying for it were these USC players, now 3-3 (1-2 in the Pac-12), who had to go out of here Saturday talking of how they could still make a run for it in the Pac-12 South. How under Ed Orgeron two years ago, they lost a tough game at Notre Dame and then made a great closing run for six straight Pac-12 wins.

"I've been here five years," senior captain Antwaun Woods said. "I'm kind of used to adversity. But we're a team. We don't blame anyone."

But we can. This team that went through all those roster-limited years with the NCAA's unfair sanctions, did not need the unforced errors this week brought.

"At this point in our careers," Su'a Cravens said, "we don't let ourselves think about anything else but the next game." And this week, that game was Notre Dame. "It's every USC player's dream to win at Notre Dame and silence that crowd . . . "

But that will never happen for Su'a. "I guess there was chaos on our campus this week . . . but chaos has happened a couple of times in our careers."

And it's still happening. That's the crime here for these young men. It's still happening.

"I don't think anyone in college football wants to lose their coaches," Su'a said, using the correct plural for what's happened to him. "We love Coach Helton the way we loved Coach O," Su'a said.

But just because it happened before doesn't make this any easier. "Two years ago that was a completely different team," Su'a said. And those players also got shortchanged in their USC careers for coaching and administrative bungling.

Sure, this game came down to, as Helton said, "mistakes, penalties, lack of execution and those two turnovers at the end." But as proud of his team as Helton had to be for the 21-point run in the second and third quarters after falling behind 24-10 to take the lead, he knew they could have been the team he thinks they are.

"I'm proud of you," he told them in the locker room. And despite the mistakes and the inability of USC's front line defense to stand in there against Notre Dame's inside run that time and again got the Irish out of trouble deep in their own territory, "we came back," Helton said.

Not far enough, as it turned out. "That game could have been a disaster game," Cody Kessler said after throwing for 365 yards and two touchdowns on 30-of-46 passing but with two crucial interceptions in the fourth quarter. "But we kept fighting all the way to the end.

"The best part for me, with all the distractions this week, the guys came out and played despite all the adversity," Cody said. "There was so much going on, so much outside noise. The effort was there even if the execution wasn't. These guys are so proud to be Trojans."

And now what? "Same thing we always do -- "Fight On," Adoree' Jackson said. "We competed . . . we came back . . . As Coach told us, we're 'one family, one heartbeat' " echoing the Coach O line.

And sure, the Pac-12 officials nailing USC for 10 penalties and 105 yards in the first three quarters (none on either team the final quarter) to just four for 40 on Notre Dame, didn't help, with the help of USC's typical carelessness.

And sure, as Helton said, This could still be "an excellent football team," and could get a streak going when unbeaten Utah comes into town.

And if they do, it will be all on them and Clay Helton for making it happen.

"He's going to be a great head coach for somebody next year," Su'a said of Helton, "if not at USC."

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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