Historic USC-Notre Dame rivalry gets next chapter
Although Brian Kelly is new to Notre Dame's rivalry with Southern California, the best intersectional matchup in college football isn't new to him.
Like any good Irish Catholic football fan, Kelly was glued to the television for this game every year. The Jeweled Shillelagh, the crazy results, the pride and passion - none of it is news to the Notre Dame's new coach.
''I go way back to (USC's) Sam 'Bam' Cunningham, and then all the great ones on the Notre Dame side,'' Kelly said. ''It just seemed to be the game that you always watched. If you had something (going on), you were always going to plan around that game.''
The rivalry dates back to Knute Rockne's unusual decision to take a Midwestern team to the West Coast in 1926, but the first taste for head coaches Kelly and Lane Kiffin arrives at a bit of a low point in the schools' combined history. The Trojans (7-4) and the Irish (6-5) are preparing for their 82nd meeting - but for just the ninth time since the AP poll began in 1936, neither team is ranked.
What's more, USC has won eight straight in the rivalry, with Notre Dame coaches Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis combining to go winless against Pete Carroll.
''This one has been one-sided, and it's our job to make this a true rivalry (by) winning the football game,'' Kelly said. ''I know as a head coach this game meant so much to me growing up, and it's great to be a part of it.''
New USC coach Lane Kiffin has been equally respectful of the rivalry's history, which he absorbed during several seasons as Carroll's assistant. With NCAA sanctions keeping them out of bowls, Kiffin realizes the Trojans will treat their final two games as their big finish, including Saturday's Coliseum finale.
''This is why you come to SC - to play these two teams and be part of the rivalries,'' USC tailback Marc Tyler said. ''There's all this history. Everybody in the Trojan family really wants the Trojans to win this game. You hear about it all the time.''
At least Tyler won't have to stare across the field at Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, his high school teammate in nearby Westlake Village. Clausen, now with the Carolina Panthers, still chimed in with a few text messages from Charlotte earlier this week.
''Yeah, Jimmy said Notre Dame has been bringing it the last two weeks,'' Tyler said with a laugh. ''Since he's not playing, it's the only way he can talk smack any more.''
Kiffin believes the Trojans' season-ending meeting with UCLA is ''the players' game,'' since many of those involved in the rivalry know each other from high school. The meeting with Notre Dame is ''the fans' game,'' he said.
''It is a huge game for us, but we're going to approach it the same way,'' Kiffin said. ''We're not going to all of a sudden try harder and stay later.''
The Irish are bowl eligible after consecutive wins over Utah and Army, setting up the USC showdown as a chance to head to the postseason on a significant roll. Quarterback Tommy Rees, who showed signs of star potential while leading those victories in his first two starts, has an extra reason to go after the Trojans: The 18-year-old freshman's father spent 15 years as an assistant to former UCLA coach Terry Donahue.
After making his starts at home and at Yankee Stadium, Rees is looking forward to his first taste of the Coliseum.
''It's a pretty rare opportunity to play at three places with that tradition,'' Rees said. ''That's something as a player that you've got to respect.''
While the Irish are surging, the Trojans are reeling after following up a gritty road win over Arizona with a blowout loss to Oregon State, a result that embarrassed Kiffin. USC also lost quarterback Matt Barkley to a high ankle sprain.
Kiffin said he'll wait until game time to decide whether Barkley can play, but backup Mitch Mustain is eager to finish his college career with two starts. Kelly said the Irish will prepare for Barkley to be the Trojans' starter, but neither quarterback had much success against the Beavers.
Slumps and struggles have a way of evaporating when these two teams line up. Barkley led USC to a 34-27 win in South Bend last season, and the Irish are eager to send out their seniors with their first wins over the Trojans.
''We have multiple rivals, but this is the big one,'' Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert said.