SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Lane Kiffin just couldn’t contain himself.
Minutes after his biggest win as USC’s head coach, Kiffin had to wind his way through a cluster of three-dozen recruits clad in dark blue Fighting Irish gear, many of the players still considering both schools. Just before he ducked through a metal door into the interview room, Kiffin got a wry grin on his face, turned over his left shoulder and said, “Fight on!”
For a program pushing hard to get out of the gutter of NCAA sanctions and a young team desperate to forge an identity, Saturday’s 31-17 victory was a rare moment to gloat.
Seven days from now, after USC has had to match up with a Stanford team that just hung 65 points on No. 25 Washington, that swagger might seem short-lived and silly. But for the first time since Pete Carroll left, things came together in one complete and dominating performance under trying circumstances.
It started about two hours before the game, when USC’s team bus was trying to get through the mob of Notre Dame fans that awaited it outside the stadium. The sun glinted off the golden dome in the late afternoon.
“There were a lot of bad gestures toward our bus, middle fingers, you could read the lips – just stuff you wouldn’t want your baby sister or your parents to even see,” senior defensive tackle Christian Tupou said. “But that just motivated us to come out and play smash-mouth football.
“We didn’t want to get embarrassed on the road again.”
For the first time under Kiffin, the Trojans played smart, they played tough and they played fast. At times, it looked like an entirely different group. Maybe something clicked or maybe it was a passing mood.
To Kiffin, the atmosphere at this old place Saturday was more electric than it had been in 2005, the year the “Bush Push” helped propel USC to its last national title shot. Notre Dame had a lot invested in Saturday’s outcome, meaning it had a lot to lose. Does anybody love to see Notre Dame lose more than USC, especially when more than 80,000 of their fans are in the house?
The Trojans seemed to savor Notre Dame’s pain as much as their own joy. Linebacker Chris Galippo went too far when he said that quitting is “what Notre Dame football is about.” Kiffin wasn’t much more gracious in victory. Winning with class may not be what characterizes this program right now.
“It felt a little better, I think, just because of everything around here that was put on this game,” Kiffin said. “You got the sense this was their Super Bowl here with all the official visitors coming in and moving it to a night game and the bye before.”
A young team showed all the poise it couldn’t muster in its first visit to a hostile environment, Arizona State. The Trojans (6-1, 3-1 in the Pac-12) played a nearly perfect first quarter, putting a lid on a packed house that had the potential for mayhem. For most of the night, the blaring music was the only noise USC’s offense had to contend with.
For the second week in a row, USC played with precision on the road while its opponent couldn’t get out of its own way. The Trojans are 8-1 in turnover margin the past two weeks. Notre Dame was one yard away from tying the game when a bad snap led to an 80-yard USC fumble return. How does that happen?
Irish coach Brian Kelly said he “leaned” on his team in the locker room after the game.
“We are better than that,” Kelly said. “To turn the ball over in the ridiculous fashion that we have, I just… it just makes me crazy. I don’t understand how something so easy can come out the way it does.”
It wasn’t long ago – less than a month – that USC was the team making the embarrassing gaffes. But this team’s confidence seems to be growing by chunks, game by game. A win next week at home against Stanford isn’t the most absurd notion. Winning at Oregon? Not impossible. Suddenly, a building-block season of 9-3, 10-2 or even 11-1 looks like a distinct possibility.
We don’t yet know how far this team can take it because we haven’t seen it look this good under Kiffin. The Trojans were supposed to be weak in the trenches, but they controlled them on Saturday. USC rushed for 219 yards, Notre Dame for 41. The defense was supposed to be allergic to tackling, but they blanketed Notre Dame ball carriers in packs.
They were balanced, at last, solid in all phases. And where do they take it from here?
“It’s going to give us a lot of momentum,” defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron said.
They’ve been waiting a long time to say those words. Now, we get to see them try to back them up.