SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Irish gave USC no reason to respect them last year, with a 49-14 blowout defeat in Los Angeles the product of one of the worst games played by Notre Dame in the Brian Kelly era.
Injuries depleted Notre Dame’s depth to the point where it couldn’t keep up with a talented-yet-thin USC team that still had scholarship sanctions stemming from that whole Reggie Bush mess earlier this millennium. But Notre Dame’s team-wide effort wasn’t good on that season-ending Saturday, which is why Kelly called it a “red-letter day” for the program.
Since that loss, Notre Dame beat a top-25 SEC West team in the Music City Bowl, started the 2015 season 4-0 and only has one loss — a two-point defeat in the brutal weather conditions and hostile atmosphere of Clemson’s Death Valley. Kelly said this week he has no concerns about Notre Dame’s preparation and effort heading into Saturday’s primetime kickoff against USC (6:30 p.m., NBC), but it’s clear last year’s embarrassment against the Trojans remains somewhat of a festering wound inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
“They pushed us around a lot last year,” wide receiver Will Fuller said. “We know they don’t have any respect for us, so we gotta earn our respect back.”
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The shame shared by Notre Dame players about losing by 35 to its historic intersectional rival wasn’t the focus of practice this week, nor was the Steve Sarkisian turmoil that enveloped the Trojans beginning with the coach’s leave of absence Sunday and firing Monday. Kelly put the onus on Notre Dame’s leaders to mention last year’s calamity, but not harp on it.
“You touch on it a little bit,” center and captain Nick Martin said. “You don't want to dwell on the past, but obviously people have a chip on their shoulder after that game.”
Not only does Notre Dame expect to put forth a far better effort this time around against USC, it’ll have better players on the field, too. Defensive linemen Chase Hounshell, Grant Blankenship, Jay Hayes and Jacob Matuska all played, but Hounshell moved to tight end after the season, Hayes hasn’t played this year and Blankenship and Matuska each have appeared in just one game in 2015 (Sept. 26’s blowout of UMass). Freshmen linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan started, while reserve cornerback Devin Butler and former fifth-year defensive linemen Justin Utupo did as well.
“It was tough to see so many young guys get thrown to the fire against a team as high-powered as they were toward the end of the year, so it was tough to really see my team go through that,” cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who didn’t play in the game last year due to his academic suspension, said. “But USC is gonna be going against a totally different team. The guys they’d seen on the field last year, there’s a few of them, but the majority of them, Joe Schmidt, myself there’s a few guys, Cole Luke’s older, Max (Redfield) got hurt in the first half, so they’re gonna be going against a lot of different guys this year.”
That rivalry game loss to USC is the last lingering demon from 2014’s 8-5 season. The turnover issues that plagued Notre Dame’s offense under Everett Golson has largely been eradicated, outside of losing three fumbles in the driving South Carolina rain Oct. 3 at Clemson. The program’s defensive depth is far better, too.
Notre Dame has already done plenty to eradicate any memories of 2014. The last step is avenging that loss to USC.
“We don't go back into that, because this group has not shown anything that resembles the 2014 team that played on that day,” Kelly said. “So we put that kind of away. It's in that drawer. We know about it, but I think they're pretty clear in recognizing the way Notre Dame football needs to be played.”