It’s more than just a game tonight. For Brian Kelly, for Notre Dame football, playing USC is a chance to make a statement.
For too long, Notre Dame has been the little brother to USC. The Trojans pick on the Irish, demoralize them, and never let them win. USC has beaten Notre Dame eight consecutive times–most of them blowouts.
Those losses matter because playing USC is an important measuring stick. USC was the premier football program in the 2000’s. Despite losing Pete Caroll to the NFL, and the ensuing NCAA sanctions, USC football still shines with luster. They symbolize everything Notre Dame hopes to achieve as a football program. USC is the goal.
For Notre Dame, beating USC would send a message to fans and, more importantly, to recruits that the Irish belong at the adults table, that once again Notre Dame has reached the status of ‘elite.’
Tonight’s game at the Los Angeles Coliseum reminds me of the first time Charlie Weis faced the Trojans. After his hire, Weis had made promises, had boasted of a “decided schematic advantage” for the Irish.
Entering the game, Notre Dame was 4-1, ranked No. 9 in the nation. USC was No.1, riding a 27-game winning streak into South Bend.
The Notre Dame pep rally was broadcast live on ESPNEWS and College GameDay came to town for the event. With the country watching, Notre Dame could announce its return to national prominence with a win.
Of course, you know what happened. The infamous ‘Bush Push.’ Brady Quinn orchestrated a late-game scoring drive to take the lead, but Matt Leinart answered back, scoring on a quarterback sneak with a little assistance from Reggie Bush.
Weis had been seconds away from solidifying the Notre Dame football program. Instead, he was fired four years later after a 6-6 season.
Tonight’s game may not have as much riding on it as that game, but it’s important nonetheless. Kelly and his Irish have turned their season around with back-to-back wins to become bowl eligible. A win tonight and Notre Dame would likely steal a spot in the Champs Sports Bowl from a Big East team and face either Miami or Florida State. A win tonight and Notre Dame could gain some all-important recruiting momentum.
USC is ripe for the upset. Quarterback Matt Barkley will likely miss the game with a high ankle sprain. Backup Mitch Mustain is more than capable of leading the Trojans, but he hasn’t started a game in three years. Michael Floyd is playing USC for the first time in his career and USC has one of the worst secondaries in major college football. Banned from playing in a bowl game this season, USC has little to play for other than pride.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, is playing for revenge, playing for respect, and playing for the future of its program. Notwithstanding its struggles this season, USC is still a respected football institution. For Notre Dame, a win against USC still means something more than just a win.
A win is a statement, loud and clear, that Notre Dame intends to return to football glory and big brother can’t stand in the way.