It's USC-ND . . . nothing else matters

So much has happened to USC football since Sunday, and so much will happen to it and for it after this week's sojourn to South Bend, but right, right here, Saturday is all that matters.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- As hard as it may be to believe, coming here to the Notre Dame campus in the midst of a pre-USC-game Friday with all the excitement and anticipation, the concerts and pep rally, the visitors and families and all the folks without tickets -- thousands of them who never get inside the 80,000-seat stadium Knute Rockne designed in its original incarnation -- is just the place for anyone with a USC connection to be.

Which is exactly what you see when the first person to emerge from one of the half-a-thousand porta-potties all over the scenic Notre Dame campus is wearing a cardinal and gold USC sweatshirt.

Might want to wear more than a sweatshirt if the wind holds up at 15-mph and the temperatures that were sparking the first frost warning Friday are in the low 40's at kickoff (4:30 p.m. PT, NBC) and down around 33 or so at game's end.

"Definitely NOT USC weather," the announcer on WSBT Radio said as he intro'd every weather report Friday. But that's the charm of being here in this campus cocoon: Not much else matters.

It's the Trojans against the Irish. Sure, these folks are excited about the Cubs. And that Michigan-Michigan State game has them intrigued.

But not like this game. Every year, it's special even if it doesn't mean all that much all by itself -- although Notre Dame still thinks if they win out, they're in the final four.

But what's so one-of-a-kind this weekend is the way it's connected to so many special games, so many special plays, so many special players. With the "Bush Push" and "Fourth and Nine" a decade ago here, USC -- with wins in 10 of the last 13 meetings -- has had things going their way recently.

They're still trying to get over Brian Kelly's 2011 team getting pounded into the ground by Lane Kiffin's guys here that year -- Lane Kiffin. And then last year's 49-14 rout in LA -- and it could have been much worse -- was Kelly's worst-ever loss.

So forgive 14th-ranked Notre Dame's fans and the folks who cover the 5-1 Irish if they're not too bullish on their favorite's role. After all, they are starting a freshman backup quarterback -- DeShone Kizer -- against a fifth-year senior in USC's Cody Kessler in what he plans to be his bounce-back game after last week's Washington loss.

These fans here know the 22 national titles and 14 Heisman Trophy winners are divided evenly between the two programs. And with the likes of Rockne, Jones, Leahy, McKay, Montana, Munoz, Bettis, Allen, Paraseghian, Carroll, Davis, Brown, Holtz, Robinson, Hart and Gifford, well, you get the picture of why this is so special.

USC AD Pat Haden may stir strongly mixed reactions back in LA from USC fans but he's pretty much revered here as the longtime former NBC analyst for Irish games. Just another of those weirdly intertwined deals that happens in college football's greatest intersectional rivalry.

And history does matter. Like this nugget that in the entire 86-game history of this series, just one time has an unranked USC come to South Bend and beaten a ranked Irish team -- in 1971. That's 44 years for the math-challenged and evidence that either: 1) It's about time for another, the Trojans are due: or 2), No way, there's a reason it's happened only once.

And that's where the ND folks you talk to are right now. They know they're favored although the spread is shrinking. They know USC (3-2, 1-2 in the Pac-12) has had a tough week on top of a tough season.

They wonder how the Trojans could have possibly not been distracted by Sark's Sunday "not well" condition and Monday firing. How could the Trojans possibly put that behind them, they ask hopefully.

But then, smart football folks that they are, they ask: What if they do?

Indeed. That's the same question USC fans, who will be here in the 5,000 numbers that makes this by far the biggest weekend of the year for local businesses -- from the airport, where some 400 private planes are expected, to restaurants and hotels, expected to rack up more than $15 million in activity.

They know they need to get pressure on Kessler, but that's not what the Irish have done all that well. But they're worried if they concentrate on the pass, is that running game with those talented running backs USC keeps saying it's about to break out, going to bite them?

Again, same question USC fans are asking. Is this the game the O-line steps up -- even without Max Tuerk -- and takes over a game?

And as much as USC could have used that extra day after the Thursday night upset at the hands of Washington, that Sunday extra practice was the Sark no-show day to start the week. People here don't know what to say about that. It just never happens at this level of college football. So how to factor it in?

No one has a clue. So in looking for a decisive difference maker, South Bend Tribune ND beat writer Eric Hansen came up with this one: Notre Dame is No. 13 in the nation defending third-down conversions, allowing just 23 of 85. While USC is an inexplicable 103rd in third-down conversions after that horrific one-of-13 performance against Washington for just 19 of 55 for the season.

But a lot of that points to what went wrong on first and second downs for USC. A consistent, physical, pounding, solid run game like what happened here in 2011 when the Irish said "no mas" at the end would be the dream scenario for USC fans. Not to mention interim coach Clay Helton.

Since Sunday, Clay has had almost perfect pitch stepping in and taking the pulse of his team as well as "letting them feel me," he said. As he has. They want to get this past them. They want to be the Trojan team they thought they could be. This is their chance. "A great opportunity," is the line echoed by players and coaches this week.

But as the thousands of fans here for Notre Dame's pep rally Friday night know, what really matters -- all that matters -- is what happens Saturday night.

There will be plenty of time to talk about the USC coaching search in the coming weeks and months. Or what happens with Sark. But not on this day. Not here.

It's "next man up" time and Helton is that man. And if he and his Trojan team could somehow pull this off, Clay writes his name with his team's -- in Cardinal and Gold letters into the history of this series.

FRIDAY QUICK HITS: Trojans changed their pattern with a late flight getting in around 2 a.m. and then went late in the afternoon for the Friday walkthrough at the Michigan City High School stadium . . . terrific facility . . . but it wasn't just a walkthrough . . . Kessler stayed late to do some extra throwing after the three buses departed and was to be shuttled back to the team's Clarion Hotel on the other side of town by one of the Michigan City policemen escorting the USC team but with the request from USC personnel, both serious and with a smile, that we not photo Cody sitting in a police car in his USC gear . . . no worries . . . it was an unmarked car . . . but on the way back, we noticed running backs coach Johnny Nansen and director of scouting/high school relations Scott Thompson leading a small group of USC staffers on a two-mile walk back to the hotel. We think it was their choice . . . Injury report: Out: Max Tuerk (knee), Isaac Whitney (collarbone), Claude Pelon (knee); Doubtful: Steven Mitchell; Game-time decision: Darreus Rogers.

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