NOTRE DAME — The stakes are high, the storylines plentiful, but Brian Kelly’s message to his players heading into USC week is as straightforward as it gets.
“Just win the damn game.”
Sure, there’s a lot to be distracted by. USC is coming to town, the one team Notre Dame acknowledges as its true rival. Notre Dame hasn’t beaten the Trojans at home since 2001. It’ll be a night game, like 2011’s match up. And like two years ago, it’ll be another huge recruiting weekend.
None of that should matter to a 4-2 Notre Dame squad that desperately needs to knock off a 4-2 USC team to keep its BCS bowl aspirations alive.
“As I told our guys, this is pretty simple, right?” Kelly said at his weekly news conference Tuesday, Oct. 15. “The atmosphere, the game, the people around will take care of the environment. And then just win the damn game. Win the game. That’s what you need to do.”
While his message is simple, Kelly recognizes the magnitude of the annual grudge match. The Irish coach, who infamously downplayed the Notre Dame’s history with Michigan earlier this year, said USC is the one truly mutual rival the program has.
“We go through the season and so many weeks, it’s on the other side,” Kelly said. “In other words, it’s other teams really calling it their rivalry game. Our players would be the first ones to admit that this is our rivalry game, one week that we look forward to against USC. It’s on our calendar.”
After Lane Kiffin’s midseason firing, USC comes to town under the leadership of interim head coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron inherited what Kelly calls a “versatile, talented” offense, led by receiver Marqis Lee and running back Tre Madden.
“Offensively, they certainly provide you with a number of different weapons to worry about,” Kelly said. “A slew of running backs, all of them are capable of carrying the football. It’s hard to pick one guy. There’s so much versatility there. You could go five, six deep at the running back position at USC and say that’s a really good football player.”
Lee has been nursing a sprained ankle the past few weeks, but Kelly said the team is practicing as if he’ll be back. On Notre Dame’s end, starting defensive end Sheldon Day has fully recovered from his sprained ankle and is expected to play.
Even without Lee, the Trojans can turn to Nelson Agholor, a sophomore receiver that Notre Dame had once recruited. Agholor’s 353 receiving yards on the season is just 32 behind Lee’s total, even though the sophomore has 12 fewer receptions.
Madden provides perhaps the most dynamic matchup for the Irish. The running back has 611 rushing yards on 115 carries and three touchdowns but has also grabbed 13 passes for 198 yards and a team-high four receiving touchdowns.
Kelly & Co. aren’t doing any special film study for Orgeron, who was once a head coach at Ole Miss and most recently the defensive line coach at USC. Kelly said Oregeron’s game plan against Arizona was not much different than what Kiffin had been doing.
“He’s not going to go in there and scuttle the offense and defense and special teams,” Kelly said of Orgeron. “His personality is coming out in this football team, but he knows all of his players. There’s an offensive coordinator and a defensive coordinator for a reason. They’ll be some slight variations, and we’ll have to be prepared for that. Again, they’re going to be who they are six, seven weeks into the season.” Who they’ve been the past 12 years is a home headache for the Irish. Two years ago, Notre Dame attempted to out-hype USC with new helmets, piping in stadium music and its first home night game since 1991. It failed, and the Irish lost 31-17.
Those same helmets and that same music will be on display on Saturday. The game will once again be played at night. The recruits will once again crowd the sidelines en masse.
But the battle plan is simple.
Just win the game.