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Win over SC means much more

Eric Prister | Tuesday, November 30, 2010

LOS ANGELES — It was a win over an unranked team. It moved the Irish to 7-5, certainly not a spectacular record and nowhere near the top 25, let alone a BCS bowl game or a national championship.

It was a victory over a team that is having its worst year in the last decade, a sanction-riddled team with a new coach and a backup quarterback. The Irish turned the ball over four times, and USC was a caught pass and 15 yards of open field away from continuing its eight-game win streak in the series. But Notre Dame’s 20-16 win over USC Saturday in the rain at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum could not have been more meaningful.

If the win over Utah was the true beginning of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame, then Saturday’s win was it’s first meaningful victory. It hardly matters that the Trojans are down and that the victory was not nearly as decisive as some of the ones USC has handed the Irish since 2002. Notre Dame beat USC, and that’s what matters.

Each season, it is jokingly claimed by Irish fans that even if Notre Dame goes 1-11, they will be satisfied as long as the win comes over SC. And while this season didn’t quite reach that extreme, a win over the Trojans to cap off an undefeated November changes the outlook on the 2010 campaign dramatically. The close losses to Michigan and Michigan State, the embarrassing performance against Navy and the heartbreaking loss to an inferior Tulsa can be basically ignored because of Notre Dame’s performance in November, and particularly Saturday’s win over the Trojans. The Irish still underachieved, but they did not quit. And this will be what characterizes the Kelly era.

In his first year, Tyrone Willingham started the season 8-0, beat two ranked teams but went into the Coliseum and lost by 31. Charlie Weis went 10-2 in his first year, including a win over then No. 3 Michigan, but lost to USC in the most heartbreaking fashion possible, a game that would set the tone for his entire tenure at Notre Dame. Both coaches had successes in their first year, but they could not beat USC, and could not bring Notre Dame back to prominence.

Kelly’s rookie season has been filled with controversy, both on and off the field. His coaching decisions have been questioned, his scheming critiqued. But when it mattered most, Kelly and the Irish succeeded, and did it in a spectacular way. A 7-5 record certainly isn’t ideal, for the fans nor the team itself. But the record that matters is 3-0 in November. The Irish were 3-10 over the last five years in the last month of the season, including five losses to their archrival, both heartbreaks and blowouts. Winning at the end of games and at the end of seasons needs a change of mindset, and this Irish program certainly looks to have made an attitude adjustment.

It is this attitude, which can only be crafted by facing adversity and still coming out on the other side, is what will bring Notre Dame the success that has escaped it for so long. The Irish lost a lead into the fourth quarter against both Michigan and Michigan State, but went into Los Angeles and beat the Trojans in the fourth quarter. They were outplayed and out-schemed by Navy, but came back and dominated a similar-in-style Army squad. They lost to an undersized Tulsa, but came back with a toughness that allowed them to beat a ranked Utah team. Notre Dame is not only learning from its mistakes, but is confident that it has learned from them, and is taking that confidence onto the field.

The win over USC is still just one win. But it is also a sign of things to come — not a sign of excellent recruiting or a decided schematic advantage, but a sign that this team has a willingness to see its faults, correct them, and know that it is better for it. It is a sign of good things to come.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Eric Prister at [email protected]