So many times over the year we've seen sports teams get so hyped up to play in a big game that they end up leaving their emotions on the practice field and by the time the game rolls around the players are drained and any miscue or bad play is magnified. The question that faces Carroll as he tries to avoid that fate is this, can you treat this game as any other game?
The Notre Dame vs USC rivalry is known as the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football and that reputation has been well earned over the years with big games and standout performances too numerous to mention. As is the case with this years Trojan team, the game can also often match the top ranked team in the nation against a fierce rival eager to knock them off their perch.
"This game on Saturday has all the makings of a classic because we're #1 and we've knocked them down before when they were in that spot," said Darrell Rideaux, a defensive back who played at USC from 1999-2002. "I don't think you should downplay this game because it's not run of the mill. It's history. There are so many legends who have played in the game and I was always told the rivalry was not a place for the weak-hearted, it was a game for men. I certainly understand why Carroll is downplaying it but I think the young guys need to understand the passion that goes into it."
Rideaux said it didn't take long for him to truly appreciate the rivalry as a player even after he had been recruited by both schools. On his first visit to South Bend in 1999 he learned just how much the Trojans were up against when facing the Fighting Irish.
"We were up 21-0 at one point and it started to rain. It rained when we had the ball and when they got the ball it would lighten up. It was the weirdest thing I've ever experienced. Then you look up and see Touchdown Jesus, something was going on in that stadium. We ended up losing the game and that was the day my respect grew for this rivalry."
For the past two years Rideaux has spent time with the Indianapolis Colts and he said there have been plenty of reminders for him about the importance of the rivalry.
"There is a big Notre Dame following in Indianapolis and they definitely knew who I was. They remembered and I heard a lot about it. People would come up to me and say "can we have our ball back?" because they knew I had a pick in the 2002 game. For the people who are part of this game and follow it, the rivalry is embedded in their hearts."
Craig Fertig is another former Trojan who has experienced the long memories of Notre Dame fans as he remembers an encounter he had in Chicago prior to a recent USC vs ND game.
"A few years ago I'm back in Chicago during the Notre Dame weekend. We walk in to a place for lunch and the hostess she says, "I'm sorry Coach, it's going to be about an hour and a half wait." So, I said, "We'll be at the bar, don't worry about it". They're about 3-deep at the bar; a guy comes up to me, nicely dressed guy, he says, "Do you have 2 for tomorrow?" I said, "Naw, I'm looking for 2." He said, "Well, you son of a bitch." I said, "You're calling me a son of a bitch because I don't have 2 tickets?" He says, "Charlie, do you know who this son of a bitch is?" Charlie comes over, pulls out his wallet, has a picture of Rod Sherman from the LA Times 34 years ago catching a ball to beat Notre Dame. I said, "Boys, I heard about holding a grudge but, damn, isn't this taking it a little too far?
"Turns out these two guys were attorneys and their third partner in the law firm is Tony Carey, who is in this picture, the defensive back at Notre Dame that Sherman beat on that quick post route. And I said, "Well, hell, why don't you call Tony up and join us for lunch?" So they sent a bottle of wine, later they came over and I said, "Hey, great. Is Tony coming?" He said, "No. He told you to go to hell!" So what I'm getting at is, they take this game very seriously, as we do, too."
With so much importance in the hearts of fans it's easy for all of us to get carried away with the spirit of the match-up and, according to former Trojan wide receiver John Jackson, that is exactly the kind of trap Pete Carroll is trying to avoid while downplaying the build-up this week.
"Pete shouldn't be changing anything for this game," says Jackson. "If you stress that this game is somehow more important then guys start to push more or work a little harder. You're the #1 team in the country so why are you changing anything? Be confident. They are the ones who should be adjusting as they try to figure out how to beat you. USC is #1 because they have proven to have the best team so why should they do anything different than what they do."
So the question comes back to this, can you treat this like any other game? For the fans, the answer is clearly no and we don't have any desire to treat it that way. It will always be looked upon as the greatest rivalry in college football and we aren't going to shy away from that. For the players and coaches, a case can be made for both sides. You want everyone involved to have a genuine appreciation for what they are a part of because it truly is something special. At the same time, you want to keep a steady focus because that has certainly worked under Carroll to this point. Regardless of how you look at it the USC vs Notre Dame game is a special match-up and we will all be fortunate enough to see it play out once again on Saturday in front of a sold-out Coliseum and national television audience getting a look at the best college football has to offer.