The tears flowed again today at Notre Dame. With good reason. The Irish played their best game of the season, 60 minutes of intense, emotional football. But it was not enough.

Sophomore fullback Todd Spencer produced the winning points on a 26-yard trap play with 4:52 to play and No. 5 Southern California escaped with a 14-7 victory, its fourth straight win over Notre Dame.

This was an even game for 55 minutes. Tailbacks Marcus Allen of USC and Phil Carter of Notre Dame traded third-quarter touchdowns as each pounded and got pounded all day.

"It was as good an SC-Notre Dame game as I've seen in a long time," said USC Coach John Robinson, who told his players as they worked out here Friday in a snowstorm, "This is your stadium." He seemed prophetic today.

"It was like a 2-1 baseball game with strategy and not making crucial errors all day," Robinson said.

In the crucial final minutes, the visitors made the right moves to the dismay of most of the 59,075 who filled Notre Dame Stadium with noise and tension throughout the cold, gorgeous afternoon.

It began at the start of the last quarter. The Irish had tied the game, 7-7, late in the third quarter, then got their only turnover of the day when quarterback John Mazur was late handing the ball to Allen and safety Jim Johnson jumped on the ball at the Trojan 33.

Led by Carter, who had 161 yards on 32 carries, the Irish moved from there to a third and six at the USC nine. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Carter was stopped at the seven.

On came Harry Oliver. Earlier, Oliver had missed a 20-yard field goal that would have given Notre Dame a 3-0 lead. Now, with a 24-yarder, Brian Boulac, a Notre Dame assistant coach, suggested an intentional delay-of-game penalty to give Oliver a better angle since the ball was on the right hash mark.

But Southern Cal (5-1) declined the penalty and, after waiting out the debate, Oliver tried from 24 yards. "Waiting shouldn't have affected me," Oliver said. "But the snap was high and (holder) Tim Koegel still had his hand on the ball when I kicked it. I should have hesitated. I moved too quickly."

The kick went wide and the stadium grew quiet. The Trojans, who had been told by their coach all week to "expect a war, a heavyweight match that might go 12, 13, 14 rounds," had their second wind now. Allen, who finished with 147 yards on 33 carries, began rolling.

The Trojans reached the Notre Dame 47 after the miss, stalled and punted. Punter Dave Pryor got off a high spiral that hung up long enough for John Kamana to run under it and down the ball on the two.

Not willing to gamble, the Irish went up the middle three times for three yards. Blair Kiel had to punt. He got off a good kick and returner Joey Browner made a good, over-the-shoulder catch at midfield and returned to the Irish 44.

From the 44, Allen maneuvered through tacklers for 21, but then lost three to set up a second and 13 at the 26. The Irish were keying on Allen on every play now.

Enter Spencer. He is a 5-foot-11, 200-pound sophomore from Berkeley who rushed for 3,700 yards in high school and was recruited as a tailback. He agreed to move to fullback this year to get playing time.

He had run only 15 times this season for 53 yards but today he finished with 74 yards on seven carries. Twenty-seven of those yards had come on a trap play that set up Allen's touchdown.

In the Notre Dame huddle, linebacker Bob Crable had one final warning for his teammates: "Watch the fullback on a trap."

But as the ball was snapped, Crable saw guard Roy Foster begin to pull and, thinking sweep, took a step outside. That was all USC guard Bruce Matthews needed. He got to Crable, the hole opened wide and Spencer was gone, cutting up the right sideline and into the end zone for his first college touchdown.

That made it 14-7, USC, with 4:52 left. After Joe Howard, a freshman from Carroll High School in Washington, returned the kickoff 56 yards to the USC 42, Kiel scrambled on third and six. He got to the 32, inches short of the first down. The clock was under three minutes. Notre Dame Coach Gerry Faust sent in the play, a straight dive for Carter.

"We were looking for a sneak," said linebacker August Curley. "Their tendency is to go on a real quick count without going down to the three-point stance and sneak it. When they went down, I just slow-stacked and filled the hole."

A slow stack is a linebacker's stunt when a running play is expected. Curley's move put him right in Carter's path and he stopped the little tailback for no gain.

But the Irish were not through. The defense forced a punt and they took over at their own 35 with 1:16 left. Kiel, who completed 12 of 23 passes, found Tony Hunter twice, for 17 and 19 yards. The crowd was screaming again with 27 seconds left and the ball on the USC 26.

But on second down, Kiel tried to scramble, was hit by Chip Banks and fumbled. Banks dived on the ball with 12 seconds left. Notre Dame was 2-4, its worst record since the 2-7 season of 1963.

Afterward, the Trojan seniors, 4-0 against Notre Dame, returned to the field for a final look. "Four and oh," cried Allen.

Moments before, on the other side of the field, Faust met his daughter Julie, who began weeping. Faust hugged her, then looked up to see a camera in his face. Finally Faust's frustrations showed. He started at the photographer, angrily waving him away from his family.

Faust stopped the photographer, but he could not stop the tears there, or among his crushed players. This loss was different. This one was worth crying over.