The ugly defined the entire second half. There was no scoring, lots of penalties and more players on the turf with game-stopping injuries than there were first downs.
The only second-half battle the Trojans ended up winning, on this chilly night in the usual jam-packed Notre Dame Stadium, was the battle of first downs. USC had four, Notre Dame three.
Yes, it was that ugly.
When T.J. Jones outwrestled a USC defender for the ball in the end zone with 1 minute 29 seconds left in the first half, the tight 14-10 score that his touchdown made, and 457 yards of offense (248 for the Irish, 209 for the Trojans), seemed to indicate promise of more to come.
The only drama was provided by the closeness of the score. Just maybe, USC could steal one here.
And once Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees went down hard with 9 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter, never to return, the only real offense left on the field belonged to the Trojans.
But every time they created an opportunity for themselves, they killed the chance with a penalty. USC's offensive line was involved in more holding than teenagers at a prom dance.
Take the fourth quarter. As Henny Youngman would say, please.
•USC starts a drive on Notre Dame's 47 with 12:25 to play. It immediately gets messed up when Max Tuerk is called for holding.
•USC starts a drive on the Notre Dame 34 with 6:27 to play. Tuerk is called for holding, but USC manages a first down. USC gets all the way to the 23, but Aundrey Walker is called for holding. Then on the same drive, on fourth and 15, Chad Wheeler is called for a false start.
•USC starts its last-ditch, desperation drive at its own 25 with 1:35. After two completions to Nelson Agholor take the ball to Notre Dame's 36, Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is called for a false start.
Opportunity kept knocking and USC kept failing to answer the door.
The game effectively ended with Agholor on the ground — medical personnel from each team could have fairly put in for overtime after this one — after taking a helmet in the ribs from Irish defensive back KeiVarae Russell and dropping the ball. That was the last gasp and Agholor's night of six catches for 89 yards was wasted.
From the time Rees left with his sprained neck, Notre Dame managed two more first downs in the game. Coach Brian Kelly's strategy, with backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix showing minimal ability to move the Irish, seemed to be to hold on for dear life.
They did so, successfully, beating USC in this rivalry game for the third time in four years, then talking afterward as if it had been some sort of artistic display.
The winner is probably entitled to that.
"It was an exciting game," Kelly said.
Maybe if you won it. Not if you just watched it.
Still, college football protocol allows winning-coach hyperbole.
"We battled," he said. "This is a team of believers. It was a great win and will go down well with our guys."
Ed Orgeron, coaching his second game of USC's self-defined second (eight-game) season, continued his message campaign of pride and emotion.
"There's a hurt team in there," he said. "But I'm proud of them. They gave it everything they had. There's a work ethic in that room, a bonding, that is special. I really like the way our guys played tonight."
With games ahead against Utah, Stanford and UCLA, he would have liked it better with a W after it. But Orgeron is sticking with the pat-on-the-back approach.
Both teams entered with 4-2 records, an unusual matchup of unranked teams in this fabled rivalry. This result will send USC spiraling into the ranks of the afterthoughts for the rest of this season, building toward that UCLA rivalry game as a chance to salvage something.
Notre Dame, nationally ranked for awhile until losses to Michigan and Oklahoma knocked it off the top 25 list, now has a chance to reenter. Left on its schedule are games with Navy, Pittsburgh and Brigham Young, before a finale Nov. 30 at Stanford that could be key to Bowl Championship Series aspirations.
USC hasn't gone back to the drawing board. It has been there all season, and the departure of Lane Kiffin wasn't expected to, and seemingly won't, trigger that magical turnaround so many Trojans fans want.
"This is a special group of men," Orgeron said.
Which is nice and commendable — even understandable in the face of the limitations that NCAA sanctions put on them — if that ends up being this group's legacy. But it's not exactly what USC fans crave.
They are looking for a special group of winners.