SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Two years ago, a depleted Notre Dame headed to Los Angeles to face USC, didn’t put forth a good effort and was clobbered, 49-14, in one of the more humiliating losses of the Brian Kelly era.
Notre Dame entered that day on a three-game losing streak but had secured bowl eligibility back in October. After losing to Arizona State, the Irish were out of the College Football Playoff discussion, and narrow home losses spiked by significant injuries on defense followed to Northwestern and Louisville.
So the 2016 Irish aren’t in the same situation this time around as they digest a seven-loss season and prepare to face a USC team that’s played like one of the four best teams in the country since inserting quarterback Sam Darnold into its starting lineup. But after losing, 34-31, to Virginia Tech on Saturday to secure the program’s first losing season since 2007, there seemingly is a chance Notre Dame’s effort level will be as low as it was in 2014 this coming Saturday afternoon at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Notre Dame players and Kelly, though, pushed back on that low-effort question.
“It sucks that we lost, but we gotta look forward to USC,” nose guard Jarron Jones said. “It’s our rival. Two years ago, we got demolished out there. We’re trying to change that.”
"I have no doubts that they will have the effort, the intensity, all those things necessary," Kelly said. "But they're going to have to battle again late in the game and find a way to win the football game. We have not been able to shake the little things that keep cropping up."
A close loss might but a moral victory for Notre Dame, though. USC beat UCLA, 36-14, on Saturday to extend its winning streak to seven, a stretch that’s included wins over top-10 teams in Colorado and Washington. That hasn’t been enough to erase the Trojans’ three season opening losses to Alabama, Stanford and Utah from their ledger — had USC’s only lost to ‘Bama and one of Stanford or Utah, they’d be a halfway decent bet to reach the College Football Playoff — but it does mean Notre Dame could be walking into a buzzsaw when Saturday’s game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. E.T. on ABC.
The Trojans are the kind of team that could throw a lighted stick of dynamite into the close loss narrative Notre Dame has built up this season. All those defeats by one (Navy) three (Texas, Duke, Virginia Tech), seven (N.C. State, Stanford) and eight points (Michigan State) have taken their toll on the Irish: After Saturday’s game, Kelly said he was almost at a loss for words as to what to tell his team anymore.
“It’s tough because you know deep in your heart you wanted it,” running back Josh Adams said. “It’s hard to explain why it didn’t happen when you put so much energy, so much passion and so much of your time into it and you don’t get the outcome that you wanted. It does make you at a loss for words, so I can understand that.
“But we’re the Fighting Irish and we’re always going to move forward. I know as a coach he’s going to stay aggressive and fight for what he wants. We’re behind him 100 percent. We’re going to keep moving forward and focus on SC.”
Over the course of the last two and a half months, Notre Dame’s expectations have been lowered on almost a weekly basis. First it was to make the College Football Playoff; then it was make a New Year’s Six bowl; then it was win 10 games; then it was to reach a bowl game. Now? The only carrot left to dangle is beating USC.
“It's USC in the Coliseum — Notre Dame, USC, what else do you play this game for?” quarterback DeShone Kizer rhetorically asked. “What I do know is we have seven days to practice together and prepare ourselves against USC and I think, with the mindset of that I just saw in that locker room, that everyone's going to be a hundred percent committed to doing whatever it takes to beat those guys and finish the season off on a win.”
Notre Dame opened as a 16 1/2-point underdog to the Trojans, according to VegasInsider.com, if you’re looking for an illustration as to how difficult that task will be. Chances are, all this trip to Los Angeles will represent is another failed goal of an embarrassing 2016 season for Notre Dame.