Looking back at the turning point

October, 23, 2011
10/23/11
9:41
AM PT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- This game was clearly not all about USC, with Notre Dame's two self-made turnovers playing such a huge role in the outcome. But the single biggest takeaway from the Trojans' 31-17 win over the Irish on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium was this: This USC team plays a lot better when it's worrying about itself and not much else.

It's been well-documented that the Trojans failed to put together an all-around game in the first part of the 2011 season, and Saturday's game was the closest they've come yet. Special teams was the only facet of the game they were missing. But aside from Arizona State, the Trojans haven't had an outright bad game, either.

In the weeks before and after the game against Sun Devils, the team slogan during practice was the self-explanatory,"It's all about us." Then, the week of ASU, USC head coach Lane Kiffin tried a new motivating tactic for the best team he'd face in the first half of the year, hyping his players up about the opponent -- like linebacker Vontaze Burfict -- all week. That showed in the 43-22 loss to the Sun Devils in the desert heat that night.

Since then, though, Kiffin has gone back what worked previously and focused on his players, not their opponents. And, in looking at the Trojans' win here Saturday, that's what stands out the most.

USC was prepared for the Irish, sure. It knew about the underrated run game, the fast-moving linebackers, the pair of receivers, the playmaking safety and everything else Notre Dame had to offer. But the Trojans weren't preoccupied by those things. They played their own game, and they won.

"You can definitely see that trend," Barkley said Saturday, well after USC ran out the clock on the 31-17 win over Notre Dame. "It's something I've noticed and I've tried to emphasize with our guys, how it's all about us. Emphasize it during the week and especially pregame, when we get close to kickoff. It's all about us. There's nothing outside that can affect how we play.

"Focus on us and we'll be fine."

That problem is, of course, that that gets harder and harder as the opponents get tougher. How can USC not worry about Andrew Luck next week against Stanford? How can the Trojans not get pumped up about ESPN's College GameDay coming to Los Angeles for the game?

That's tough. But while it wasn't quite the same, they definitely did some of that in a difficult atmosphere in South Bend. A number of players mentioned the middle fingers they drew from fans as they approached the stadium and the chants and phrases directed at them, but they managed to successfully minimize the effects.

"With all the hype in games like this, it can be easy to kinda stray away from who we are as a team, and I think our guys on offense and defense did a great job of just focusing on us, focusing on this team and what we have to do to win," Barkley said Saturday. "And now we can soak in all this energy from this win and realize what we just did, with this rivalry and all."

Right now, Saturday's win was just a big win for the Trojans, already the biggest of Kiffin's career but not anywhere near the most memorable of the last several years. But if it ends up leading to a win over Stanford and more wins as the season wears on, it could go down as a program-changing victory.

But, of course, a lot of that credit has to go to that loss to Arizona State last month, when the Trojans realized their approach wasn't working and worked to find a new one that would. In a nutshell, the new one is this: Prepare for the opponent in the week leading up to the game, but, on the day of the game, focus on yourself and nothing else.

One reason the Irish lost: They didn't do that.

"I think from the players' standpoint, we didn't stay true to who we were," said Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith. "We may have bought into the hype somewhat.

"We can't do that again."

Neither can USC.

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