SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly caught himself this week when talking about the last time USC visited Notre Dame.
"I just think it was, you know, one of the pieces along the way," Kelly said. "It's just, you know, every family's going to have good days and bad days. That might have been one of our bad days, but we kept it in— we talked about it. We aired out our differences. We took accountability for where mistakes were made, and we moved on from it."
Everyone around the Irish remembers that 2011 contest for everything it wasn't and everything it eventually became — a season- and potential program-crushing moment that the Irish have since rallied from by going 20-5 and making a BCS title game.
Notre Dame has the chance Saturday night to make it 3-for-4 in the Kelly era against the arch-rival Trojans, who seemingly have been granted new life under interim coach Ed Orgeron following the firing of Lane Kiffin.
There will be lights. There will be two historic cross-country rivals. And there will be the chance for the Irish to beat the Trojans at home for the first time since 2001 — an unofficial span of five straight losses to USC here. (USC's 2005 win was eventually vacated.)
"I've been doing this a long time, so it's not really something I worry about," redshirt senior linebacker Dan Fox said of the atmosphere. "But obviously for younger guys and some younger linebackers that have been getting in the game, you've got to let them know it's been a little bit of a whirlwind — night game at home, it's a great atmosphere. So you've kind of just let them know how it's going to be so they're a little bit prepared for it."
That was not exactly the case the last time the programs met here. The Irish were riding a four-game winning streak following an 0-2 start. Notre Dame Stadium was hosting its first night game in 21 years. The players broke in shiny new helmets, and the building pumped in plenty of extra music to amp-up the environment.
Then the underdog, bowl-banned Trojans won 31-17, forcing three turnovers and effectively ending any BCS-bowl hopes for the Irish, who were coming off a bye. Kelly, then in his second year, was livid in the aftermath and drew a public distinction later in the week between the players he recruited and those of former coach Charlie Weis, which led to a social media firestorm from the players and sparked a closed-door apology to the team.
Notre Dame won its next four games after airing out its differences, and all was forgiven and forgotten during last year's perfect 12-0 regular season, a campaign that was punctuated with a win at USC to clinch a title-game berth.
With BCS-bowl hopes still barely alive, the Irish again have plenty on the line this time around as they come out of a bye week. The Trojans, under a new coach, are again seemingly playing with house money. But the lessons learned from that 2011 contest have brought Notre Dame together, as the Irish look to turn the tables in a rivalry that had gone USC's way in eight straight seasons before Kelly arrived in 2010.
"I guess in times where it's easy to kind of pull apart, that's when you truly find out what your team is, maybe find out who your guys are on the team and you pull together, whether it's player and player, coach and player," captain TJ Jones said. "You don't let things like that that can destroy a team destroy you, because you're playing for much more than what a few maybe comments or what a few negative things can do to a team."