As Notre Dame has learned this season, an 0-2 start doesn't leave much room for error.
Four wins and a bye week later, the Irish face their most daunting challenge of the season against USC on Saturday night. The long-storied rivalry continues in South Bend for the first night game there in 21 years.
For both teams, this is a must-win game. The Trojans have a hiccup of their own against Arizona State—a team they should have beaten. With tough games with top 25 talent looming in the next few weeks (Stanford, Oregon, Washington), USC knows they need to take care of Notre Dame.
Unlike the Trojans, however, Notre Dame is looking to get to a BCS bowl game. By beating the Trojans this weekend, they will be well on their way to doing just that.
In order to achieve that goal, the Irish must win out. With a daunting season finale matchup versus a top 10 Stanford team, no more hiccups can be afforded for Brian Kelly's team.
The Irish look to be favorites this year, especially with the game being played in South Bend. You can expect (or hope for) an electric crowd and an amped up football team.
With an improved defensive line, along with a defense that screams top 25 caliber, the Trojans will need to play their very best football in order to beat the Irish. Quarterback Matt Barkley, although one of the most exciting play-makers in college football, will need to beat his inconsistency against this talented Notre Dame secondary. Last season, Harrison Smith sealed the victory with a game-clinching interception late in the fourth quarter.
USC will also face the challenge of stopping one of the best rushing attacks in the country. Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood are not the same duo as they were in 2010; they are drastically improved and seasoned. If Notre Dame is allowed to run the ball efficiently, the aerial attack will be opened up, leading to what one would expect to be a Notre Dame victory.
On top of keeping the ball rolling towards a BCS berth and building a winning streak against a rival, Notre Dame is also hosting one of its most promising recruiting weekends in some years. Many committed Irish pledges will be on hand, in addition to an influx of five- and four-star talents holding Notre Dame offers. Many of these recruits have USC and the Irish in their final groups.
To say that Saturday night's game is a must-win may be an understatement in Kelly's eyes.
Then again, the rest of 2011 will be must-wins. This one just has a little more importance—it's USC week.