When USC heads to South Bend for their annual rivalry game against Notre Dame, they’ll bring a team that’s battered by injuries, coached by a staff likely to be looking for jobs in 90 days, and fanbase that nearly abandoned the program under Lane Kiffin. But in many ways, they’re the Irish’s biggest nightmare.
Gone is the impending gloom that’s hung over Kiffin for much of the last year. After NCAA sanctions crippled the Trojans depth and the pressure that came with a preseason No. 1 ranking eventually swallowed up the young head coach, athletic director Pat Haden fired Kiffin after five games this season, walking away from the embattled head coach that had lost just about every Trojan fan not living under the same roof when he dropped seven of his last eleven games. Among the losses that cost Kiffin his job were two of three to Notre Dame, something that certainly didn’t go unnoticed by Trojan fans that had seen dominant success against the Irish lately.
This season’s battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh will feature a coach that’s been a part of that success against Notre Dame. Only interim head coach Ed Orgeron‘s success came as the raspy voiced creole responsible for Pete Carroll’s star-studded defensive line, an assistant coach that won eight straight against the Irish. It was a rivalry that Carroll and Orgeron relished, the importance of the game taught to them early in their tenures in Los Angeles by another one-time snarling Trojan, former assistant Marv Goux.
“When we first got her, Marv Goux sat down with me and coach Carroll about the importance of this game to the university, to the fans, some of the traditions,” Orgereon said. “We still carry on those traditions.”
One tradition Brian Kelly would certainly like to end is the Trojans’ dominance in Notre Dame Stadium. It’s been over 10 years and five head coaches since Bob Davie defeated Pete Carroll in 2001. Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister talked about some of the heartache the Irish have had when playing their West Coast rivals, especially in these past few years where a victory could have changed the team’s trajectory.
This weekend, when the Irish host USC at night, Notre Dame has another trend it would like to end. The Trojans have defeated the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium five straight times, including the 31-17 loss in 2011.
The last time the Irish defeated USC at home was in Pete Carroll’s first year as head coach of the Trojans in 2001 when the Irish – who would finish 5-6 in Davie’s last season as head coach – claimed a 27-16 victory.
In the 2011 loss to the Trojans, the Irish laid an egg with a lot at stake. It was the first night game in Notre Dame Stadium since the 1990 season-opener against Michigan. The Irish broke out new gold helmets, and the atmosphere was embellished with piped in music to make Notre Dame Stadium a more intimidating place.
But in front of more than a dozen official visitors in the biggest recruiting weekend of the season, the Irish fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter and 17-0 in the second quarter. Just when it appeared they would tie the game late in the third quarter, Jawanza Starling returned a Dayne Crist fumble 80 yards for a score and the losing streak in Notre Dame Stadium against the Trojans increased to five.
(Prister went on to recount the pummeling that Carroll inflicted on Ty Willingham as well, but his point was already well made.)
This weekend, the Irish have the deck stacked in recruiting as well, with several West Coast prospects and a handful of national targets taking their official look at Notre Dame. And while the game might not rate as important with USC transitioning coaches and both teams already saddled with two losses, you can argue that this game is the most important of the season, considering how well set up the Irish are for a late-season run.
This is not Pete Carroll’s Trojan team. But it’s not Lane Kiffin’s anymore, either. And that means a football team that’s still got many concerns but is also one of the more talented that the Irish will face this season. CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman talked about the reinvigorated attitude that the Trojans played with last weekend. Expect the same in South Bend.
So while the game might not have the national intrigue that some have had in the past, there’s certainly no shortage of subplots this Saturday night.