The second half of Notre Dame's schedule, also known as the Irish's path to the BCS, begins with a home game against the program's most hated rival, USC.
The Trojans experienced a fair amount of turbulence late last month when former head coach Lane Kiffin was fired by USC athletic director Pat Haden at Los Angeles International Airport, though they rebounded well and gained stability with a 38-31 home victory against Arizona last Thursday evening.
During that so called recovery game, Notre Dame was in the midst of its first bye week of the 2013 season, after having defeated Arizona State, 37-34, at AT&T Stadium in Dallas the week prior.
Given the respective trajectories of these two programs, Saturday's meeting in South Bend, Ind., couldn't have arrived at a more decisive point in the season.
The undisputed goal for the Irish going forward is earning a BCS bowl berth, while the Trojans are intent upon salvaging the current season that was, by all accounts, a dumpster fire as recently as two weeks ago. The 85th edition of the "The Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh" will mark the outset of those journeys.
Until Saturday evening, here's what you need to know about Notre Dame's matchup with USC.
Time: 7:30 p.m. EDT
Place: Notre Dame Stadium
Radio: IMG Notre Dame Radio Network
Spread: Notre Dame by 3, per VegasInsider.com
1. Avoid a Slow Start
The last time USC visited Notre Dame Stadium, the pregame environment was electric, particularly with the contest marking the first the Irish had played under the lights at home since 1991. And with the Irish's most hated rival in town, the hype was palpable.
But the electric environment was quickly silenced, as USC raced out to a 14-0 lead by the conclusion of the first quarter.
That same trend has reappeared this season, as the Irish have consistently stumbled out of the gates in each of their first six contests. A continuation of that nagging habit against the Trojans will only decrease the odds of Notre Dame defeating USC at Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since 2001.
2. Establish the Running Game Early
Notre Dame's struggles running the football have been a contributing factor to what has been a lackluster 4-2 start to the season for the Irish.
Life won't be any easier for the group against USC and its 15th-ranked rushing defense that has limited opponents to 107.2 yards per game on the ground. Notre Dame's offense simply can't become one-dimensional—see the Michigan State game—for the results aren't pretty.
Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees is at his best when he has a consistent rushing attack to rely on, particularly because he excels when opposing defenses gamble by playing single coverage.
1. Run, Run, Run
USC's offense possesses a plethora weapons, particularly on the perimeter with receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor capable of taking the top off of opposing defenses.
With Notre Dame's defense likely to key in on containing those two, the Trojans would be wise to go to their 39th-ranked rushing attack led by running backs Tre Madden and Justin Davis. If that duo can establish consistency, the Irish defense will react by loading the box, which will open up the passing game for Lee, Agholor and quarterback Cody Kessler.
2. Dare Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees to Beat You as a Passer
Defending Notre Dame's offense with Rees under center isn't complex.
As has been the popular blueprint, opposing defenses have stacked the line of scrimmage to take away the Irish's running game, while not fearing the threat of Rees making them pay for such a gamble.
Now, that's not to say just any defense will achieve success with that game plan, but the elite units do. While USC's defense isn't of the "elite" variety, it possesses the athletes up front to consistently get the job done against Rees and the Irish offense.
Defensive Backs Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell
The most lethal receiving corps the Irish secondary will see all season is that of USC's.
The Trojans boast two of the most explosive receivers in college football, with Nelson Agholor and Marqise Lee making highlight reel plays look simple. Jackson and Russell will be counted upon to contain these two dynamic receivers, particularly in single coverage.
Against USC in Los Angeles last season, Russell limited Lee to five receptions for 75 yards. Agholor didn't record a reception, as former Trojan and current Buffalo Bill Robert Woods led all receivers with seven receptions for 92 yards and one touchdown.
That combined performance was due largely in part to what was Notre Dame's stingy front seven, which has regressed this season.
Thus, Jackson and Russell will be even more crucial factors for the Irish during Saturday's matchup.
1. Quarterback Cody Kessler
While Agholor and Lee are the leading names of the Trojan offense, the man responsible for delivering the football may be even more important during Saturday evening's game at Notre Dame Stadium.
Kessler, a sophomore out of Bakersfield, Calif., has completed 60 percent of his passes through six games, while accounting for 1,129 passing yards and eight touchdowns to just four interceptions. But as a young quarterback playing in a hostile road environment during a rivalry game, Kessler will be the X-factor for the Trojans.
2. The Defensive Front Seven
As previously mentioned, how USC's defense attacks the Notre Dame offense is, perhaps, the most significant storyline entering this contest.
Forcing the Irish to become one-dimensional has been the most popular approach to date, which is what the Trojans are likely to attempt. In order to do so, the Trojans will take every measure to take away Notre Dame's rushing attack, making the defensive front seven the most important group for USC this week.
Winning the battle at the line of scrimmage against a solid Notre Dame offensive line won't be easy but will be an interesting matchup, nonetheless.
I think our players will be the first ones to admit that this is our rivalry game. This is our game that we look forward to against USC. It's one that it's on our calendar as I don't want to say a red letter game, but one that we look forward to. It's such a great matchup, great tradition, great history. It's part of the history of Notre Dame football that they really recognize as that one singular game.
Kelly on Notre Dame not having beaten USC at Notre Dame Stadium since 2001:
Well, continuing with that same theme, I did not know that. So I wasn't aware of the history of that. Really, what we've talked about as a team as to really present our goals, what our goals are, our goals are pretty clear. We want to win every game that we play the rest of the season, and whatever that takes us, at the end of the season, we'll be excited about that. We want to beat USC, and those really are our goals, and we haven't really talked about anything else relative to how that affects how we prepare.
Kelly on the the big recruiting weekend on campus:
We have a great recruiting office, and they'll handle the lion's share of all that work. They'll take care of a lot of that. Our phone calls have been made. A lot of it has been done. We'll spend some of the time with the guys because we've got a long day, so it it gives us we can carve out an hour with them or so. But 90 percent of our focus will be on the game. We won't be distracted from the recruiting process. We've got a recruiting office that will take care of a lot of that.
*All quotes via Notre Dame's official athletics website
If there's one truth about college football, it's that the sport is cyclical.
Winning streaks don't last, dynasties eventually fall, etc. The same principle applies to USC's winning streak at Notre Dame Stadium, where the Trojans have won five consecutive contests dating back to 2003.
Something has to give, right?
This season seems to be the one in which the streak comes to an end, particularly with the Trojans under the direction of an interim head coach and outside the Top 25, a place in which they're not too familiar.
And considering the staggering number of points USC has allowed during its last two games—93 total—I wouldn't be feeling too comfortable if I was associated with the program. Add in the fact that quarterback Cody Kessler is making his first career road start in a rivalry game, and the pregame momentum seems to have swung in Notre Dame's direction.
But the Irish can't rely upon intangibles to earn a victory. Quarterback Tommy Rees and the offense must avoid stagnant play and turnovers, while the defense must contain an explosive USC offense.
If those two areas of the game are executed, Notre Dame will walk away with a win.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, USC 20