USC game offers Irish chance at mulligan

When Brian Kelly plays golf, he says he starts from the black tees. By the time he makes the turns and is shooting 17 over par, he might move up to the whites.

That's how Kelly justified his lofty talk upon taking the Notre Dame job, when he spoke of returning the Irish to national championship contention. By comparison, his first team's 6-5 record is a triple-bogey.

"Clearly, 6-5 is not what I had in mind," Kelly said.

Yet, like a golfer who shoots a 98 but drills the approach shot on No. 18, the Irish can still leave this regular season feeling good about themselves and itching to tee it up again. The way to do that is to win at USC this week.

The Trojans have beaten Notre Dame every year since 2001, and the games in Los Angeles have been particularly embarrassing for the Irish. Check out the scores of those four games:

2002: 44-13

2004: 41-10

2006: 44-24

2008: 38-3

"This one has been one-sided," Kelly said. "It's our job to make this a true rivalry."

After the Army win on Saturday, Kelly said his players were already talking about their next opponent in the locker room for the first time all year. That's how much the USC game means, and it shows how big ending this losing streak to the Trojans would be for the program.

The Jeweled Shillelagh looks as ripe for the taking as it has been in a decade, too. The probation-saddled Trojans are just 7-4 this season and may not have starting quarterback Matt Barkley, who suffered an ankle sprain in last week's blowout loss to Oregon State.

USC is just 3-4 in its last seven games, while Notre Dame might have finally built some momentum with two straight highly impressive victories over Utah and Army. If the Irish can finish with a sweep in November after going 3-10 during that month the previous three years under Charlie Weis, that will speak volumes about Kelly's player development and conditioning regimens. And remember they would be doing this without a score of injured starters, though receivers Theo Riddick and TJ Jones and linebacker Carlo Calabrese are expected back in at least backup roles this week.

A strong finish would allow the Irish to go into the winter on a positive note for the first time in a while. There would be plenty to build on, especially since so many key contributors and starters will return next season.

The team already qualified for a bowl thanks to last week's win over Army, but another win opens up new possibilities. At 7-5, Notre Dame would be eligible to take the Big East's slot in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando and would become a more attractive at-large option elsewhere.

"I certainly want to make sure we get to a warm-weather area so you can play some golf," Kelly joked to the media on Tuesday.

A 7-5 season wouldn't set any course records. But given all the circumstances, it would look pretty good on the final scorecard.