SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Zeke Motta was caught a bit off guard, interrupting a reporter who referenced USC's recent record against Notre Dame amid a question about the rivalry.
"You said they've won nine out of the past 10?" Motta asked.
"They did, yeah. They won eight straight -- you won one, they won last year," the reporter said.
"Oh yeah. OK, all right. I was wondering, because we beat them two years ago."
"Yeah, that's the one win."
Yes, Notre Dame is the No. 1 team in the country, and USC and 60 minutes stand between the Irish and the BCS title game. But these are still the Trojans, a four-loss campaign or not, and they have had Notre Dame's number at nearly every recent turn, including last year's two-touchdown midseason win that put an early kibosh on any and all remaining BCS bowl hopes.
Rivalry? There's not much of one right now, coach Brian Kelly said, although that can all change with what's at stake Saturday.
"We haven't won enough games," Kelly said. "They've had the upper hand on this. We need to make this a rivalry. And that is, we need to win some more football games against a great opponent in USC. Our guys know that. I don't have to tell them that. They've been around. They were here last year when we got beat."
Kelly said everyone, himself included, learned from last year's loss, which doubled as the Irish's first home night game in 21 years. A modest four-game winning streak preceded the contest against the then-unranked Trojans. Add all of that to a victory in Hollywood a year earlier, and much of the team was drowned in the hype surrounding the prime-time affair.
The Irish dug themselves into a 17-0 hole early and never escaped.
"I know my focus was a little bit off -- I can admit to that," junior noseguard Louis Nix said. "I didn't play my best game. I don't think others did."
Like last year, it would appear the tables are again on the verge of turning.
Fourth- and fifth-year Irish players committed around the time USC was dominating the then-Pac-10, piling up one Rose Bowl win after another while Notre Dame slogged through 3-9 and 7-6 campaigns, netting just three points over the course of two blowout losses to the Trojans.
Now USC is 7-4 and unranked, and its head coach is facing serious questions. The tumble out of the No. 1 spot in which it entered the season coincides with Notre Dame's rise to the top.
"It's spectacular to see the evolution and change that I've had over the past four years, and I can only imagine with the other guys on the team," said Motta, a senior. "Just to see and witness how this program has progressed and to be where we are at right now as a team, not only our record but who we are as a team, how we come to work every day, and to really play for each other and go out there on that football field and have fun."
A No. 1 ranking, Motta insists, does not mean a new order of business for a program already used to dealing with everyone's best shot.
"I think that no matter what, Notre Dame has always been a target, and we kind of have that understanding of, OK, no matter what position you're in, you're always going to be targeted and people are going to be coming after you because you are Notre Dame," he said. "At this point I don't know how much more you can give because of what's on the line. We're not changing; we can worry about whatever they're doing later. At this point we just love playing football."
They will love it even more if they can make it four more quarters of the same habits that have lifted them to an 11-0 mark so far.
One more win -- against a down-and-out archrival, no less -- and a shot at the sport's biggest prize would be theirs.
"It'd mean everything," fifth-year senior John Goodman said of a title-game berth. "That's something that we all dreamed about since we were kids, especially on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. That's going to be really special. But again, got to stay focused, got to get this win before that happens."