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Football: Kelly anticipates ‘great matchup’

Matthew DeFranks | Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Irish coach Brian Kelly did not beat around the bush regarding Saturday’s matchup with USC.

“I think our players will be the first ones to admit that this is our rivalry game,” he said. “This is our game that we look forward to against USC.

“It’s such a great matchup, great tradition, great history. It’s part of the history of Notre Dame football that they really recognize as that one singular game.”

Notre Dame (4-2) has made the rivalry a more competitive one in recent years, winning two of the last three contests after dropping the previous eight matchups with the Trojans (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12). The road team has won the past four games, and the Irish have not beaten USC at Notre Dame Stadium since 2001. Additionally, USC has not lost a non-conference road game since 2002.

“We would hope that both programs are competing each and every year for BCS Bowls and playoff opportunities, and I think that’s where both programs want to be, that they’re on equal footing, that you don’t have to wait three, four years to get a win,” Kelly said. “You know, I think both programs are looking forward to those days where it’s a great matchup, year in and year out.”

Despite playing 84 times before, this game will be new territory for USC interim coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron took over for former coach Lane Kiffin after Kiffin was fired following a 62-41 loss to Arizona State on Sept. 28.

Orgeron was previously a head coach at Ole Miss from 2005 to 2007. He went 10-25 with the Rebels.

Only two USC coaches have ever beaten Notre Dame on their first try. Neither did so in South Bend.


Learning from 2011

In 2011, the Irish welcomed the Trojans to Notre Dame Stadium for the first night game in more than 20 years. They brought out special new helmets and piped music into the stadium for the first time ever.

But Notre Dame’s extra additions were not enough, as they fell to USC 31-17 in front of a group of prized recruits. Kelly said impressing the recruits this weekend is simple.

“The atmosphere, the game, the people around will take care of the environment.

“And then just win the damn game. Win the game. That’s what you need to do.”

After the game two years ago, Kelly, then in his second year, pointed out the differences between his players and former coach Charlie Weis’ players.

”You can see the players that I have recruited; you know who they are,” Kelly said on Oct. 22, 2011. ”We’ve had one class of kids that we’ve recruited that I’ve had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along. But it’s a process.”

Some of the veteran players, including Braxston Cave, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Manti Te’o, lashed out on Twitter against their coach’s comments.

Since that game, however, Notre Dame is 20-3 in regular season games.

“Every family’s going to have good days and bad days,” Kelly said. “That might have been one of our bad days, but we kept it in. We talked about it. We aired out our differences. We took accountability for where mistakes were made, and we moved on from it.

“We didn’t relive it. We moved from it. And so I think that’s probably the point – that, as you move forward, you learn from past experiences, and you build off of those past experiences.”


Lee in or out?

USC senior receiver Marqise Lee’s status for Saturday’s game is up in the air after he missed the Trojans’ 38-31 victory over Arizona with a knee injury.

Lee, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, has 30 catches for 385 yards and one touchdown this season and owns or shares 24 USC records for receiving and kick returning. In 2012 against the Irish, Lee had five catches for 75 yards. According to various reports, Lee said he would be ready for Saturday’s game.

Kelly said the Irish are preparing as if Lee will play.

“Obviously, you have to pay special attention to that,” he said. “There will be times where you’ve got to think about double coverage. You’ve got to think about special coverages for him. So all that has to be part of your thought process. So we move forward thinking that he’s going to be in the lineup.”

In Lee’s absence against Arizona, sophomore receiver Nelson Agholor stepped in seven receptions for 161 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown catch.

“The one thing is if you watch that game closely, to close out the game, they needed to convert some third downs running the football late,” Kelly said. “[Agholor’s] in there blocking safeties, physical. That’s the kind of player he was. That’s what we saw. A guy that plays every single play. 

“He was a very good defensive player, too, in high school. So that’s the kind of player, that tenacious, every play, and elite speed and size. So just a complete player from that standpoint.”

The Trojans finally have stability at quarterback after alternating redshirt sophomores Cody Kessler and Max Wittek early in the year. Kessler has nailed down the starting job and has thrown for 1,129 yards and eight touchdowns while completing more than 60 percent of his attempts.


Replacing Grace

Graduate student linebacker Dan Fox will see more playing time at one of the inside linebacker positions after junior linebacker Jarrett Grace fractured his leg in Notre Dame’s 37-34 win over Arizona State. Grace is out for the season.

Earlier in the season, Fox was listed as the starter at the “Mike” linebacker position but lost his job to Grace. Kelly said Fox reacted the way he expected him to.

“He was livid,” Kelly said. “He was mad. And then he handled it like a captain, senior, leader – although he doesn’t have a ‘C’ on his shirt, he handled it the way that I would expect somebody of his character to handle it. He just went to work. And worked on getting better.

“Now he’s got a great opportunity to finish his senior year and finish it in an incredible fashion. So we’re really proud of him. I told him that. We’re proud of the way he handled himself in a tough, tough circumstance, and it’s only going to benefit him down the road.”

Fox and junior Joe Schmidt will man the “Mike” position, while graduate student Carlo Calabrese and senior Kendall Moore will play at “Will,” Kelly said.

Kelly had previously mentioned the possibility of playing freshman Michael Deeb but said the Irish would rather not play him, preserving a year of eligibility.

“If we have a situation there where a man goes down, he’s got to be ready to play,” Kelly said. “So we’re preparing him to play, and he’s capable of playing.”


Day to be ready

Sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day should be ready to play Saturday, Kelly said. 

Kelly said Day, who has missed the previous three games with an ankle injury, practiced Monday and will meet with the media Wednesday evening.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu