Kelly's crew is 5-2 on the season and will sail to 7-2 over the next two weeks. Conversely, interim USC head coach Ed Orgeron has won once and lost once, that after epic fail Lane Kiffin was exiled from Troy forever, impossibly poor performance chief among many reasons for his dismissal.
Notre Dame up. USC down.
Nothing else can be gleaned from Saturday night's 14-10 Irish victory, at least not by fans, writers, and the critical eye. And for now, nothing needs to be.
Notre Dame up. USC down.
"We battled, and mentally and physical continued to play every play, and that's what we ask of them," said Kelly of his never-pretty Irish. "That's what I expect from our group, to keep competing regardless of what happens in the game."
They did. The defense, gashed early, was heroic late. With Irish starting quarterback (and apparently, its most important player) Tommy Rees out for most of the second half with a neck injury, the ghost of 2012 past rose to the occasion.
Three times in the second half the Trojans began a possession in Irish territory with a fourth just shy of midfield. They finished with zero points to show for it.
USC's first five possessions of the second stanza produced no first downs and the five consecutive three-and-outs (all in the third quarter) matched Notre Dame's high total produced by the defense for an entire contest in this uneven, still-developing defensive season.
Said Kelly of the Irish defense, one that's rediscovered its mojo over the last eight quarters, "I thnk we saw a great pass rush when we needed it. We're really starting to get that confidence that maybe at times we were lacking."
It Starts Up FrontJunior Stephon Tuitt's seven tackles, two sacks, two QB hurries, third-down batted ball, and consistent pocket push led that defensive front. Senior nose guard Louis Nix was again the player referenced post-game by an opposing head coach.
"Pressure. A lot of pressure. That was a good front," said Orgeron.
"Those are big guys to block, 350 (pounds) in the middle. It seemed that every time we had a first down or something like that we had a holding call or jumped offsides. We shot ourselves in the foot…but give them credit, they've got a good front."
The Irish do, and Saturday night, the linebackers were part of it, from freshman Jaylon Smith to fifth-years seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese to former walk-on turned dime-'backer starter, Joe Schmidt.
The unit played its best game of the season more than halfway through the campaign, and it had to, because backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix and the Irish offense couldn't have crossed the goal line in second half had they remained locked in the Stadium alone, long after the Trojans defense and 80,000-plus on hand departed.
"You can tell us the score, or that we're up by four points, who cares? We're just going to do our thing and prevent points," said Fox, back in the lineup as a starter after the season-ending leg injury suffered by up-and-comer Jarrett Grace two weeks prior. "I think we're finding our footing, I know it's already seven games in, but more games equals more confidence, and we're more confident."
That confidence was born from a string of quality practices, renewed trust in their teammates, recent successes, and to be blunt, a USC offense playing without its leading rusher for the entire contest, not to mention its best football player, wide receiver Marqise Lee, for the game's second half.
These weren't the Trojans tormentors of Irish past.
"To sing an alma mater after a win here, to beat USC at home, it was awesome," Fox said.
It was awesome, aesthetically displeasing, but nonetheless rewarding. It was USC.
"We talked about wanting to beat our rival," said Kelly. "Whether it's here or on the road, it's important to beat your rival, and this is our rival, USC. And now we've beaten them three out of the last four years."
After a sour performance by two-thirds of the Irish -- its offense was impotent, its special teams undisciplined, its defense conversely rulers of the day -- a win, by any other name over USC, remains oh-so-sweet.