The last time USC faced Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., — Oct. 17, 2009 — it narrowly edged the Fighting Irish 34-27, marking its eighth straight victory over its longtime intersectional rival.
Fast-forward two years later, and only three starters from that team remain in junior quarterback Matt Barkley, senior middle linebacker Chris Galippo and redshirt junior defensive end Wes Horton.
As the team’s other 19 starters this year look to face off against the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium for the first time as starters, many look to leave their own legacies in a rivalry that dates back to 1926.
“I went there my redshirt freshman year when I didn’t play,” junior left tackle Matt Kalil said. “It’s a pretty historic stadium. The campus is just insane. It’s a great place to go play.”
USC ended up surviving a scare against Notre Dame in the final moments that day, as quarterback Jimmy Clausen fielded the ball at the USC four-yard line, but his pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph was knocked down by senior cornerback T.J. Bryant, who is redshirting this season.
But that was the last time USC, then coached by Pete Carroll, defeated Notre Dame.
Last season the Trojans’ watched the Irish snap their eight-game winning streak 20-16 at the Coliseum, a game that remains familiar for many current starters including Kalil.
But with both teams looking to crawl back into the top-25 after being ranked at the beginning of the season, Saturday’s contest carries other implications as well. Notre Dame, which began the year ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press top-25 poll, opened the season with consecutive losses at home to South Florida and at Michigan. But it has reeled off four straight wins, including most recently a 59-point outburst against Air Force.
“This is very important for them because they can’t lose anymore,” freshman linebacker Dion Bailey said. “For us, we’re out playing for respect, because no one really respects us.”
Though Bailey and others might like to gain more respect, particularly on the national level, beating Notre Dame would appear to be high up on a list of goals.
USC coach Lane Kiffin, however, opted to downplay the significance of the rivalry and all the hype surrounding the matchup.
“Because we’re so inexperienced and so young the last thing we want to do is build it up too much and you put too much pressure on them and they can’t handle that,” Kiffin said. “It isn’t about that. You don’t all of a sudden play different because of where you’re playing or who you’re playing. You still have to prepare extremely well in all phases of the game.”
Though much of the talk in recent weeks has centered on the defense, as well as the receiving core headlined by sophomore Robert Woods and freshman Marqise Lee, the Trojans’ offensive line has put together an impressive first half of the season of its own.
Through six games, USC has allowed just four sacks — tied for ninth best nationally with UCLA and Nevada.
“It just shows our attention to detail, listening to the little assignments,” Kalil said. “Basically winning our matchups, our one-on-ones.”
On the season, Notre Dame’s defense has recorded 15 sacks, highlighted by junior linebacker Manti Te’o, who leads the team with four sacks. Te’o originally committed to USC before signing with the Irish on signing day in February 2009.
“We’re just focusing and doing what we have to do as a team, get our assignments done and get after these guys,” Kalil said. “They’re a great team that could easily be 6-0 right now. Notre Dame has always been a great team and we certainly have a challenge ahead of us.”
Injuries could prove problematic for USC on Saturday, as its injury list continues to grow. Lee and senior tailback Marc Tyler, who each sustained shoulder injuries against California last week, will be game-time decisions, Kiffin said Wednesday.
Tyler suffered a dislocated shoulder at Cal, but Lee’s injury is said to be less serious.
“If there’s any way for [Lee] to play he’s going to try to play, so we have to really watch that,” Kiffin said.
With redshirt freshman cornerback Anthony Brown out for the season because of a broken ankle and redshirt sophomore cornerback Torin Harris still sidelined with a shoulder injury, junior cornerback Isiah Wiley is expected to start Saturday in place of Brown. Freshman cornerback Ryan Henderson will serve as the team’s fourth cornerback, Kiffin announced.