Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly briefly addressed his players about Steve Sarkisian's departure from USC, but prefers to keep this week's focus on his team and avenge last year's embarrassing 49-14 defeat in Los Angeles.
Sarkisian was put on an indefinite leave of absence Sunday and fired Monday, ending a one-and-a-half-year tenure at USC. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton will serve as the Trojans' interim coach for the second time in his career -- he led USC to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl -- and the message Kelly wanted to deliver was to not take USC lightly despite its recent turmoil.
"We talked about there would be an interim coach, and you know what that means," Kelly said. "Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best.
"... They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I recruited a lot of them. They have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride. They will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there’s no question about that."
Kelly pointed to Texas' upset of Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout over the weekend of how teams can respond to adversity in a rivalry game -- after the game, the 2-4 Longhorns doused coach Charlie Strong with Gatorade -- and expects USC to do the same against longtime rival Notre Dame. No matter how rocky things are in Los Angeles, it doesn't take away from the talent possessed by guys like cornerback/receiver/returner Adoree' Jackson -- who Kelly called a "game-wrecker" -- receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, quarterback Cody Kessler and linebacker Su'a Cravens, among plenty of other former blue-chip recruits.
Helton, too, is in his third year as USC's offensive coordinator and fifth on the Trojans' staff, so there should be continuity with the Trojans' playcalling on Saturday.
"I’m certain that the system that’s in place is one that we’ll continue to see," Kelly said. "Playcalling is such a combination of art and science. Now that he is clearly running the program, you tend to see a little bit more of that individual come out. Where maybe Steve had his kind of thumb or stamp on it, certainly it would make sense that Clay would have a little bit of his. But I don’t think you go too far from who they are or what they are as an offense."
Last November, an injury-riddled Irish side looked listless in a five-touchdown loss to their historic rivals in Los Angeles. Notre Dame was missing plenty of key players on defense and was completely out-matched, but its offense didn't show up, leading to the beginning of the Malik Zaire era after Everett Golson was picked off in the second quarter.
Notre Dame is in a much better place heading into Saturday night's primetime game against USC in South Bend than it was 11 months ago, and Kelly sees the right kind of mentality to avoid anything more than a passing thought on the Trojans' coaching strife.
"After getting beat last year out there it’s one we have really set our eyes on in wanting to eradicate that," Kelly said. "... It was an embarrassment. I think it’s fair to say that. But there were circumstances in that game where we were not at full strength in some areas. But what stands out more than anything else was the mental toughness that we didn’t exhibit that we needed to exhibit in that game. This group, this football team has exhibited that every single day, so we don’t go back into that — this group has not shown anything that resembles the 2014 team that played on that day."
While his players haven't been caught up in the Sarkisian situation, Kelly has. Fox Sports and USA Today both mentioned the sixth-year Irish coach as a person USC athletic director Pat Haden should reach out to about the program's head coaching job, though Kelly dismissed that speculation on Tuesday.
"What we do here is we avoid the noise," Kelly said. "That would be considered a lot of noise."