Coach Brian Kelly said Sunday the biggest concern for Notre Dame (7-4) this week won't be the rivalry with Trojans (7-4), who are coming off a disappointing 38-20 loss to UCLA, but on finding a way to win.
''Finishing the season with a victory is all we're focused on,'' he said. ''It's a great rivalry, great tradition, great history. But I think in a sense this week is about just finding a way to get a win for these guys.''
A month ago, the Fighting Irish were a play away from knocking off No. 1 Florida State and improving to 7-0. Not much has gone right since a pass interference call erased what would have been the winning touchdown against the Seminoles.
The Irish are 1-4 in their last five games. With three straight losses, the Irish are trying to avoid becoming the fourth Notre Dame squad to lose their final four regular-season games. The other notorious years: Charlie Weis' final season as coach in 2009; Bob Davie's third year as coach in 1999; and 1963 under interim coach Hugh Devore, when they lost their last five.
Already, Notre Dame has more losses than any of the previous 32 squads that started 6-0. Nine of those teams won national championships, five more finished No. 2. The only other squad with a fast start to finish with at least three losses was the 2002 team that started 8-0 under first-year coach Tyrone Willingham and finished 10-3.
This year's Irish squad has been hampered by turnovers on offense, a young and inexperienced defense missing too many tackles and assignments and problematic special teams play, highlighted by bobbled snaps and missed field goals.
Kelly, though, doesn't think the 6-0 start was a fluke, pointing out three of the losses are by a combined 10 points.
''Very easily this team could be in a totally different position. That's college football,'' Kelly said. ''They're very close. We needed to make a play here or there, a kick here or there, and it's a totally different look on it.
''But it doesn't change the fact that the effort that these kids have been given has been outstanding with the loss of five players and a ton of freshmen having the play.''
The Irish players believe they are better than 7-4.
''We know we're a good team, which is the crazy part about it, we know we're a good team,'' cornerback Cole Luke said. ''We've just got to eliminate mistakes, eliminate big plays and just play like we did at the beginning of the season. I feel like it's not that hard.''
Linebacker Jaylon Smith said being close isn't good enough.
''It's all about understanding the magnitude of the game you're playing, especially the place you're playing at. You've got to get better. You've got to find a way,'' he said.
Center Nick Martin, a team captain, said the Irish need to finish strong.
''Every team faces adversity and our team is facing adversity right now,'' he said. ''It's really about how you respond and come together.''
NOTES: Kelly said he expects cornerback Cody Riggs to play against USC with a stress reaction in his foot. He's not sure about defensive linemen Sheldon Day (sprained knee) and Jaron Jones (foot injury). ... Kelly said the reason former starting safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have seen limited playing time the past two weeks is they haven't been practicing well enough.