Notre Dame’s monotonous, plodding approach if taking their resurgence one week at a time isn’t a novel idea for Brian Kelly or coaches anywhere. The locker room signage imploring such values was hung years earlier, but it took a pin-meets-balloon loss to rival Southern California last October for the message to really sink in.
Junior nose guard Louis Nix said he wasn't as focused as he needed to be against USC last season.
The Irish pushed its full stack of chips to the center of the table last year when the 5-1 Trojans visited South Bend. Sparkling new helmets lit up the first night game on campus in more than two decades. A record crowd of recruits dotted the sidelines. Fans waved towels, music blared from the PA system. “They made it their Super Bowl,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said following his team’s 31-17 win that night.
The game was a chance for the Irish to return to the BCS conversation they themselves started in August. A win would have elevated the team’s record to 4-2 and made it easier to explain away its season-opening losses as a pair of flukes. Instead, the hype swallowed Notre Dame alive. The Irish fumbled away their biggest game of the season by continuing to get in their own way.
“It was a great atmosphere and we came out sluggish,” junior nose guard Louis Nix said. “I know my focus was a little bit off, I could admit to that. I didn’t play my best game I don’t think others did either.”
USC pounded the Irish front for two first quarter scores and 219 total rushing yards. Notre Dame ran for only 41 yards. The Irish managed to keep the game close until a goal line fumble went 98 yards in the opposite direction to steal any wind that remained in their sails.
For the second time in a six week span the momentum Brian Kelly seemed to be building around the program screeched to a halt.
“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,” Kelly said earlier this week. “Manti Te’o, Brian Kelly, Bob Diaco, you know, everybody on this football team learned a lot from that game.”
Notre Dame is 15-2 since then. The talk of big picture expectations has disappeared completely from the coach and his players. As a result, the growing expectations have thus far been fulfilled.
Kelly mentioned the root of those 2011 problems came during the two-week crescendo of preparation leading up to kickoff, rather than in the amplified atmosphere of the stadium. Distractions during the week led to mistakes on Saturday and a loss that Notre Dame’s players believe could have been a win.
“They came in and played a good game, but I still feel like there were a lot of messed up plays and plays that could’ve gone our way but didn’t,” said fifth-year senior John Goodman. “That game was lost by us, not necessarily them winning it. We didn’t let that happen this year that’s why we’re 11-0.”
USC linebacker Chris Galippo and quarterback Matt Barkley made comments about the Irish “just quit[ting]” following last year’s game. This week redshirt freshman Max Wittek, who will replace an injured Barley as the starting quarterback, told a Los Angeles radio station that USC would win the game.
Some quickly spun Wittek’s words into a bold guarantee from the first-time starter. Notre Dame’s players brushed aside questions about the topic by saying it was a normal confident response.
“He’s not going to go out and say they’re going to lose,” senior center Braxston Cave said.