Brian Kelly reversed the tone of the “greatest intersectional rivalry” in college football. Of course, the Irish head coach had help leading Notre Dame to a 6-3 record against USC in his tenure, a stretch that began on the heels of an eight-game losing streak in the rivalry.
Tommy Rees and Robert Hughes ended that streak in Kelly’s first season.
Louis Nix made a statement on the goal line in a game that cemented a title chance in 2012.
A year later, Tommy Rees and Cam McDaniel got the first home victory in the series since 2001.
C.J. Prosise led a needed victory in 2015, just as Josh Adams did in 2017, the running backs keeping faint championship hopes alive.
Chris Finke tapped his toes in the front corner of the end zone just before last season’s finale got away from the Irish.
6-3 may not scream dominance, but given the directions of the two programs when Kelly took over and where they stand now, everything about Saturday’s matchup has flipped from where it was a decade ago.
Then, the Trojans had just seen the end of the Pete Carroll Era. With NCAA sanctions greeting Lane Kiffin, such heights were not expected, but some semblance of consistency was. Notre Dame had not seen any version of consistency in 13 years. Carroll had rattled off eight straight wins against Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis.
There was a clear big brother in the series, and it was not the team that led it by 12 games, 38 wins to 26. (Now 46-37-5.)
When Kelly joked at the top of his Thursday radio show that no one expected him to make it through 10 games against USC, this was what he was referring to. The Irish had not competed with the Trojans in nearly a decade, and there was faint reason to think that would change. If it didn’t, no coach’s tenure could be considered successful.
Remembering that, and knowing only one Notre Dame coach has ever been fired before finishing his fifth season (Willingham), a bookmaker would have set that over/under at 5.5. Either Kelly would win enough, including against USC, to get past that first five-year contract or he very much would not.
Kelly went 3-2, with the Rees-led victory in 2010 creating a tone of strong Novembers that lasted into his fourth season. The 2012 victory completed an undefeated season, as did last year’s. These seasons were marked by the wins over USC as much as anything else, because that is what the series has represented in its 91 years, interrupted only by three years of World War II (1943-45). As far as Kelly is concerned, this is the measuring stick.
“I believe this is the rivalry game,” he said. “There are other teams we have great respect for, whether it’s Navy or Stanford and certainly Michigan, but I believe that this is that game.”
There has been a flip side to Kelly’s success. The Trojans no longer know that treasured consistency. Kelly has coached against four different USC coaches. Only Steve Sarkisian has a winning record against Notre Dame, winning as the interim coach in 2014 before being fired ahead of the 2015 contest. Clay Helton stepped in as the newest interim coach, losing the temporary tag following the 2015 season.
Many expected him to be fired before getting to South Bend this weekend. Odds remain high such will occur this offseason, setting up Kelly for a fifth counterpart at the end of next fall. Another Irish win this weekend would only amplify that noise — after all, it was against Notre Dame last season that Trojans boosters flew a banner around the Los Angeles Coliseum asking then-USC athletic director Lynn Swann to “Please Fire Clay Helton.”
Perhaps the over/under should have been on how many different Trojans coaches Kelly would face.