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One More Test

Andrew Gastelum | Tuesday, November 20, 2012

For the first time ever, Notre Dame is No. 1 in the BCS standings. But given one final road test against a USC team that started the year at No. 1, the Irish have not had too much time to celebrate with a national championship berth at stake.

“You know what, they didn’t even talk about [being No. 1],” Irish coach Brian Kelly said in his Sunday teleconference. “A couple of the guys were congratulated by a couple of the trainers, and their first response was ‘Yeah, but it doesn’t mean much if you don’t beat USC,’ so that’s really all I needed to hear.”

USC (7-4) began the season as the title favorite with the Heisman leader in senior quarterback Matt Barkley, but it has lost three of its last four to Arizona, No. 5 Oregon and No. 17 UCLA on Saturday.

Several media outlets have also reported that Barkley (3,273 yards, 36 touchdowns) will miss Saturday’s season finale with a sprained shoulder. Despite the absence of the prolific signal-caller, Kelly said he is still concerned about an explosive Trojan attack.

“No, because they have great weapons.  [Sophomore receiver Marqise] Lee and [junior receiver Robert] Woods and the running back situation, they’ve got two great backs.  So we’re going to have to defend all of those players, not just one.  Certainly if Barkley is playing, which we’ll prepare for him like he is playing, the offense is still going to be about getting the ball to their playmakers.  So it really won’t change much in terms of what we do.”

Lee has been at the center of recent Heisman talks and leads the country with 1,605 receiving yards. In a 39-36 loss at Arizona on Oct. 27, Lee had a breakout performance with 345 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 16 receptions. Woods have put together a solid 2012 campaign as well with 721 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns after going for 1,292 receiving yards last season.

When asked how the Irish defense could slow down USC’s dynamic duo, Kelly had one major focus.

“Tackle, tackle, tackle, tackle and tackle,” he said. “They’re incredibly skilled with the ball in their hand, and if they have a lot of space, they’re going to make you pay. We felt that we had to – against Oklahoma – limit some of the catches and the extended runs.  We’ll have to do a great job tackling, and that will be paramount to our success against USC.”

USC has won nine of the last 10 meetings with Notre Dame (11-0), with the only Irish win coming in their last visit to the Coliseum in 2010. Last season, the Irish gave up 443 total yards and turned the ball over three times in a messy 31-17 loss at Notre Dame Stadium.

“I don’t think [the players] look at USC and think of dominance,” Kelly said. “They felt like last year they let a game slip through their hands with sloppy play, [USC] beat them at their place. So no, our guys are excited about the challenge of playing a rival in USC, but there’s no trepidation.  There’s a great deal of respect for USC and what they’ve done, but our guys are very confident in themselves, as well.”

For Kelly, the No. 1 ranking marks an accomplishment unreached by any Notre Dame coach since Lou Holtz. But the third-year coach also said he realizes how short-lived a ranking can be.

“I’m sure there’s a great deal of excitement, but again, we’ve got to hit the pause button here and realize that we’re not doing this to be No. 1 for three or four days; we’re doing this because we want a consistent program that is in the hunt every year.  That’s really the focus of this program.”

No. 1 Notre Dame heads to Los Angeles with a national championship berth on the line against USC on Saturday at 8 p.m. on ABC.

 

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu