USC quarterback Cody Kessler//photo credit Lisa Horne
by Lisa Horne
Los Angeles, Calif— On a sunny November afternoon, two storied teams faced off in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. There were no national title implications. No New Year's Day bowl berths on the line. No Heisman Trophy candidates making their final statement to voters.
Just two elite football programs settling a score that most of the country did not care about.
Notre Dame limped through the game with a staggering amount of injuries. USC limped through the last three years with staggering scholarship reductions.
No excuses for either team. You play with what you have. You play against what is offered to you.
The Irish fielded a defensive line that featured Justin Utupo and Jacob Matuska. They had just four starts between them. The Trojans' offensive line was littered with freshmen.
In the battle of youth and inexperience, USC won 49-14. In the battle of getting that monkey off its back, USC is 1-1.
Notre Dame was conquered. UCLA is still the 8-4 Trojans' daddy.
First-year head coach Steve Sarkisian made no excuses for the Trojans' four losses this season. His predecessor Lane Kiffin had made numerous references to the NCAA sanctions as a reason for why he was handcuffed. Kiffin even held no-contact practices to avoid depleting his roster.
Sarkisian has held very physical practices. He still does not have the full approval of numerous USC fans. A Rose Bowl berth would help. Or maybe a tutorial on the history of USC football.
Sarkisian does not differentiate between beating Cal and beating Notre Dame.
“I want to win everything we’re doing," Sarkisian said, according to InsideSoCal.com's Scott Wolf.
"So whether it’s Notre Dame or UCLA or Cal or Stanford, they all mean the same."
No... they do not.
Perhaps what Sarkisian meant to say was that beating Notre Dame or UCLA does not define a winning season. That USC has to get up for everyone, not just its rivals.
USC does have a reputation of inexplicably dropping games it should not. Last year it was Washington State. The year before that it was Arizona. And let's not forget the 2012 Sun Bowl debacle where the favored Trojans lost to Georgia Tech, 21-7. Losing to an ACC team that needed a waiver to play was embarrassing. But losing to Notre Dame or UCLA is different. Those losses hurt more.
USC stopped one two-game winning streak but that school across town owns LA for the third consecutive year. The tide has not turned but it is getting frothy.
UCLA rested on its laurels after beating USC. So did its fans. Will USC do the same in the National University Holiday Bowl?
The Trojans face a Nebraska team that just lost its head coach. Bo Pelini was dismissed after Nebraska beat Iowa 37-34. Cornhusker fans travel well and a trip to sunny San Diego in late December will probably be an easy sell.
This bowl should be an easy sell for USC fans as well. The older alumni will love the match-up between two traditional powerhouses from the 1970s. It's also a day trip for Angelenos.
A huge showing of cardinal and gold in Qualcomm Stadium could reap a nice reward.
Quarterback Cody Kessler is going to have to make a decision on whether to return to USC or declare for the 2015 NFL Draft. The pool of quarterbacks could get too crowded, especially since Kessler has only one year of experience.
A big win over Nebraska could give Kessler pause for thought.
Next year will be the first time that any Trojan fourth-year senior will see a full signing class of 25. USC has seven home games at the Coliseum. The Trojans will be preseason ranked in the Top 15. Their NCAA probation is over.
Kessler could be a Heisman frontrunner playing behind an experienced offensive line. Kessler could be playing in the College Football Playoff. Could. Would. Should?
Notre Dame was so important for so many reasons. The tear-stained faces on the field told the story for both schools. Injuries aside, depth aside and lack of New Year's Day bowl berths aside, there was still pride on the line.
Now there is a bit of electricity in the air.
The Pac-12 is looking up. Oregon is a nine-point favorite over 2013 BCS champion Florida State in the CFP semifinal. If the Ducks win out, the conference will garner more respect. And the league's traditional powerhouse will be closer to full strength next year.
It all may have started with Notre Dame.
In the words of Elton John, "The b*tch is back."