For most of Lane Kiffin's tenure, USC struggled to figure out what it wanted to be. The 36-year old head coach spoke of wanting a physical team, only to come out with game plans built on finesse and trepidation. Too often they played not to lose instead of playing to win.
On Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium, the Trojans found their identity.
They were physical. They were poised. They were persistent. They played with a ferocity and determination that restored order in college football's greatest intersectional rivalry.
In short, they played like a Pete Carroll team.
Say what you want about Carroll's shortcomings in the "easy games" – Oregon State, Stanford, and the like – but he also got USC to show up on the biggest stages and come through with its best performances against ranked foes, in BCS bowls, and especially in rivalry games with an unparalleled 16-2 record.
He dominated Notre Dame like no other, running off eight consecutive wins. All but two were blowouts.
He did so with a tenacious defense, a power running game that made things easy for his quarterbacks.
Kiffin harkened back to those heady days, calling 11 runs in the first period en route to a 14-0 lead that sucked the energy out of an electrified sellout crowd of 80,795. That paved the way for a 6-for-6 start by quarterback Matt Barkley, receivers running free off play action that forced linebackers and safeties to come forward.
"We were dictating the pace of the game pretty well there," center Khaled Holmes said, understating the team's early dominance.
USC finished with 219 yards rushing, didn't allow a sack, didn't turn the ball over and had a 39:41-20:19 time of possession advantage. The defense limited Notre Dame to 267 yards, just 41 on the ground. That's a formula for winning football.
Compare that to the lackluster loss at Arizona State.
The difference, Barkley said, between the two games was that USC spent this week focused on itself. Headed to Tempe, they were too caught up in middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict and the Sun Devils' overly aggressive play, too caught up in the dynamics of going on the road.
"It's something that I noticed and I tried to emphasize with our guys that it's all about us," Barkley said. "There's nothing outside that can affect how we play."
This time around, coaches and players ignored Notre Dame's Super Bowl, with new gold helmets, music piped in to the stadium for the first time in school history, a host of top recruits in town for the first night game since 1990.
"With all the hype in games like this, it can be kind of easy to stray away from who we are as a team," Barkley said. "Our guys, on offense and defense, did a great job of focusing on us.
"Just focusing on this team and what we have to do and now we can soak in all the energy from this win."
Just maybe Kiffin realized what makes USC USC. Maybe he went back this week and watched the difference between 2001, a loss in Carroll's first game against Notre Dame, and the 44-13 rout in 2002, which set the template for years to follow.
They shut down the run. They forced takeaways. The defense fed off the offense and vice versa.
That is USC football. That is an identity for success, rediscovered.