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Irish appear headed for Champs Sports Bowl

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Robert Hughes makes his point after scoring the winning TD in Notre Dame's victory over USC.

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LOS ANGELES -- Once safety Harrison Smith slipped, Notre Dame's last line of defense was hope and prayer as USC wide receiver Ronald Johnson waited all alone at the Irish 15-yard line for a long pass from quarterback Mitch Mustain.

That's when fate moved its huge hand and paved the way for a long-awaited victory Saturday night. Johnson somehow dropped a can of corn that should have been a touchdown, and Smith redeemed himself four plays later with an interception that clinched Notre Dame's 20-16 victory before 85,417 soggy fans at Memorial Coliseum.

''It's about time we got a break,'' Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said after the Irish ended an eight-game losing streak against USC.

''We had the luck of the Irish and God on our side on that one,'' wide receiver Michael Floyd said. ''That was good luck on our part.''

After USC's Joe Houston kicked a 37-yard field goal to give the Trojans a 16-13 lead with 6:25 to play, Notre Dame's Robert Hughes scored on a five-yard run to cap a seven-play, 77-yard drive for the winning touchdown with 2:23 left.

Hughes rushed for 69 yards on 11 carries, including 36 yards on four carries on the winning drive as Notre Dame (7-5) won its third consecutive game, setting the Irish up for a likely berth in the Champs Sports Bowl on Dec. 28 in Orlando, Fla.

''More than anything else, today we put the fight back in the Fighting Irish, and that's what we wanted to do,'' Kelly said. ''We didn't flinch, that's a part of the character of this year. We've overcome a lot of adversity. We faced it again in the fourth quarter and when we were required to play our best we came up with the big drive and the big stop.''

Notre Dame overcame four turnovers by freshman quarterback Tommy Rees that allowed USC (7-5) to turn a 13-3 halftime deficit into the 16-13 lead.

From its 23-yard line with 6:18 to play, Notre Dame leaned on its running game for the winning touchdown. Cierre Wood gained 26 yards to the USC 40.

After that, Kelly put the ball in Hughes' hands, and the senior from Hubbard did what he does best. Hughes gained 6, 12 and 13 yards on consecutive runs for a first-and-goal at the USC 9. After a four-yard pass to Floyd, Hughes took the ball at the 5 and scored up the middle to give the Irish the lead.

''Like I've been saying my whole career here, when I got the opportunity I made the most of it,'' said Hughes, a former key contributor who had rushed for 150 yards this season in a bit role. ''It felt good. A lot of the guys, they know what I'm capable of. It's all about me coming out here and doing what I know how to do.''

The excitement wasn't over. On third-and-seven from the USC 47, Mustain dropped back, Smith slipped and Johnson was wide open. Fate took over from there.

''There's really not much you can think. My heart dropped,'' Smith said. ''He made a great move and I just lost my footing. I'm glad I said my prayers.''