The last thing Notre Dame fans want to think about heading into Saturday’s Notre Dame – USC game is to think about last year’s disappointing Irish loss to the Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium. The Fighting Irish went into the game, which was the first played at night in their home stadium in more than two decades, with a chance to make a national statement.
Notre Dame had rattled-off four straight wins going into the Oct. 22 game after losing its first two games to open the season in disappointing and downright sloppy fashion. The lowlights that linger to most fans from last year’s 31-17 loss are an 80-yard fumble returned for a touchdown by USC when most fans were still settling into their seats to start the second half and a 14-yard TD pass to Trojan receiver Robert Woods to put the game away with 7:47 to play.
Talking about those plays now might still be like pouring salt on a wound, but the fact is the Irish learned something from that two touchdown defeat. It may even be the catalyst to where the No. 1 Irish (11-0) are today on the eve of their regular season finale against Southern Cal (7-4).
“That game in particular was certainly one where it required all of our players to really examine how they’re going to be consistent winners,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said this week of his team’s long-term takeaway from last year’s bitter loss. “I think they have obviously done an incredible job since that game. I don’t know how many games we’ve lost since then, but it’s not many. It was a great learning experience for everybody, including myself.”
For the record, Notre Dame’s only losses since that setback came on Nov. 26 last year at Stanford (28-14) and in the Champs Sports Bow on Dec. 29 to Florida State (18-14).
“It was just a defining moment,” Irish cornerback Bennett Jackson said this week of what he and his team learned from that defeat. “We can compete with any team in the nation, but small missed opportunities (such as) fumbles and interceptions can change the outcome of a game.”
“It really just helped us focus in on the little things matter a lot and when you don’t pay attention to the little things they add-up to be great things that really have a deficit on a team,” he continued. “After that game I feel like we locked-in a lot more. We had better focus. It just helped the guys realize the things we’ve gotta do on a daily basis.”
Turnovers played a huge factor in that game last year. Including that 80-yard USC highlight film touchdown by Jawanza Starling, the Irish also had two interceptions. Meanwhile, the Trojans had exactly zero turnovers in the game.
“It hurts to lose close games like that, especially when it was self-inflicted things that held you back,” Irish center Braxton Cave said of the mistakes in the loss. “The biggest thing this week has been concentrating on executing and taking care of the ball.”
“I think there’s been multiple things this team has gone through that’s helped put us in the position that we’re in now. Going out and finishing games and playing complete games. I think this is just a totally different team and we’re playing better as a unit.”
Turnovers have played a huge role in where both Notre Dame and USC are this season. The Irish forced just 14 turnovers all of last year, but have 21 takeaways for a plus-7 turnover margin this fall. Kelly is a remarkable 15-1 at Notre Dame when his squad has won the turnover battle on Saturdays. The only two games the Irish have lost the turnover margin this year were to Stanford and Pitt – both overtime triumphs.
Taking better care of the ball was one of many offseason points of emphasis by Kelly and his staff. The end result has been a more disciplined and consistent team that looks to finish strong in November – something Kelly is always striving toward.
“We go to work on it in January relative to playing better in November, because it’s not just your execution,” Kelly commented this week. “We know that’s a big part of it, how you execute on Saturday; but it’s your strength, it’s health, it’s taking care of yourself. All those things have to come together.”
While Notre Dame has had a positive turn in turnovers, the same cannot be said for USC. The Trojans, who turned the ball over just 18 times in 12 games last season, come into this weekend’s game with 29 turnovers through 11 games. They have committed 18 of those turnovers in their four losses alone (4.5/loss).
Kelly has preached to his team to stay consistent in its approach – to focus on “the process” and control the things it can control. That is something that did not happen enough in 2011 and the USC loss was a microcosm of that.
“That was a big game,” ND nose guard Louis Nix III recalled. “(There were) a lot of recruits there. A lot of things happened that week. It was really a great atmosphere. We came out sluggish, but I think now we’ve learned to focus our energy on our team. Not take things lightly. Just stay focused. Don’t let the hype around games make us go down.”
“I know my focus was a little bit off,” defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore added. “I can admit to that. I didn’t play my best game and I don’t think others did either. We’ve just gotta stay focused. I think this break from school will help us a little bit more with Thanksgiving. We’re together more as a team for Thanksgiving – eating together and stuff. I think that’ll help us out a lot.”
While players like Lewis-Moore and Nix remember the bitterness of last year’s loss to their rival, not everyone can make that claim -specifically, safety Zeke Motta, who was knocked-out on USC’s very first offensive possession when he went to make a tackle on a screen pass.
“I had a concussion that game, so I don’t recall much of it,” Motta said this week. “From watching on film I think that if there was something we need to take away it’s just to really focus each play going 100-percent and going and flying around like a bunch of mad men.”
Motta will have one of the most important defensive assignments on the field when he faces USC receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. The duo has combined for 173 receptions, 2,326 yards and 24 touchdowns this season.
“I think their speed and athletic ability really makes a lot of opportunities for themselves,” Motta said of the stellar receivers. “From what I’ve seen it’s gonna come down to not waiting, but going to them and not letting them make their move but attacking them.”
Woods had 12 receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns against the Irish last year, while Lee, then a freshman, played the role of the understudy with two catches for just 36 yards. Lee has blossomed into one of the best receivers in the nation this year though. The Biletnikoff Award finalist leads the FBS in receptions (107) and receiving yards (1,605).
Even with starting quarterback Matt Barkley out with a shoulder injury, redshirt freshman Max Wittek will try to get Lee and Woods the ball.
“They’re gonna throw it up and let their guys make plays,” Jackson said of what he expects from USC on Saturday. “It’s gonna be down to the guys back there to win the battle for the ball.”
For the last decade Notre Dame’s focus on when playing USC has been more about making statements against a better opponent than about simply playing its game. The focus this season has been about day-in and day-out consistency.
The focus Saturday night is not the Trojans. It is about taking the 12th step in a weekly succession of victories. If the Irish have truly learned from that game 13 months ago at Notre Dame Stadium their next game will be on Jan. 7 in Miami.