SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- For much of the aughts -- the past eight years of the decade, to be exact -- Notre Dame-USC was the rivalry that wasn't. The Irish dropped eight in a row to the Trojans by an average margin of 24.5 points per game, and they weren't even favored in any of those contests.
"It doesn't make for a great rivalry," Brian Kelly said, "if you haven't won any games."
USC's Matt Barkley missed last year's game, Ronald Johnson dropped a potential go-ahead touchdown pass in the fourth quarter and, just like that, the Irish escaped Los Angeles with a 20-16 victory, their first over the Trojans since 2001.
Be it luck, a breakthrough or just good timing -- USC's in the second year of a two-year bowl ban and in the first of three years with 30 fewer total scholarships because of NCAA violations -- Notre Dame, in its second year under Kelly, finally feels it can make its rivalry with the Trojans an actual rivalry again.
"I think it is, definitely, to get the monkey off the back," Jonas Gray said of the importance of last year's win. "But also it's just taking each game as a playoff. Coach Kelly has talked about it and the rest of the coaches have talked about it. We gotta take each game with the same type of urgency that we've taken the last game. Just like Air Force, we're trying to win out. We wanna play a playoff-type atmosphere. We know what it is, what it would be like to lose another game."
The atmosphere will be enhanced this Saturday, as Notre Dame Stadium hosts its first night game in 21 years and just its eighth overall.
Whether the Irish break out alternate green jerseys for the game remains to be seen after Kelly dodged the question for the second time in as many weeks, but he did acknowledge an added excitement in his team given the environment surrounding this weekend's contest.
"We are. There is no question," Kelly said. "We're at home. We're excited about being on national television. Clearly our players are looking forward to being that one game at night at Notre Dame Stadium. They haven't experienced anything. So this is a first-time experience. You know, like anybody else, they love those first-time experiences."
The circumstances are slightly different from, say, the 2005 and 2006 matchups, when both teams finished their seasons in BCS bowls.
Each team enters Saturday's game unranked, and USC is ineligible to play in the inaugural Pac-12 title game or a bowl game this season after being slapped with the "lack of institutional control" tag stemming from violations centered around former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.
Second-year coach Lane Kiffin took over for Pete Carroll, whose reign of dominance out West included four straight Rose Bowl appearances, with three straight wins in the historic contest.
USC may not be at that level again, and it will be an uphill climb once the sanctions have finally come and gone, but Notre Dame isn't downplaying the team that will enter its house Saturday.
"I see them as still a great team," Darius Fleming said. "It's hard to look at them like I did my freshman year when they had like Clay Matthews, Rey Maualuga and all those guys, but they still have some awesome athletes. They replaced those guys really well with the players they have and I think they're a dominant team. I'm not gonna look at them any differently because once you do that they'll come in here and take care of you.
"But I don't think that will happen because I think that we understand that they're a good team and we have to prepare very hard for this team, so there might be a little difference within personnel. But the atmosphere of the team and the vibe of the team, I don't really think that changed too much."