- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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An unranked USC-Notre Dame matchup is still a USC-Notre Dame matchup. For the Trojans, it's a chance to make something of their season under interim coach Ed Orgeron, who is 1-0. For the Irish, it's an opportunity to put five straight home losses to their arch rival behind them, and to start the second half of their season with momentum as they take aim at a BCS-bowl bid.
Here are five things to watch when the two squads take the Notre Dame Stadium field tonight at 7 ET.
Tommy Rees' improvements. The senior has become an easy target for those frustrated with Notre Dame's two early-season losses, but there is no question that he has to improve if the Irish want to make a BCS-bowl run. Rees has completed less than 50 percent of his throws in each of the last three games, and he has thrown a pick-six in each of the last two. He will need to be more accurate and make better decisions against USC.
Sheldon Day's return. Notre Dame has been hoping for the sophomore to play in the three games since he sprained his ankle at Purdue, but nothing says "he'll play" more than making him available for interviews to talk about his health, which he did this week. The bye week gave the ankle some extra rest, and it gives the Irish a needed body on its defensive line, as freshman Isaac Rochell was thrust into extended action and nose guard Kona Schwenke shifted to the outside to start in place of Day. The Irish need to rush the passer with the same tenacity as they did against Arizona State (six sacks), and having Day back makes that task much more manageable.
Inside linebacker rotation. Jarrett Grace's season-ending knee injury against ASU hurts, as the redshirt sophomore was just beginning to hit his stride. Dan Fox responded the way Brian Kelly had intended for the redshirt senior to after he was benched, most notably by notching a game-sealing pick-six in the win over the Sun Devils. Carlo Calabrese has improved this year as well, and it will be interesting to see how long the Irish leave Fox and Calabrese on the field with Kendall Moore and former walk-on Joe Schmidt now making up the second team. Don't be surprised if Schmidt, a Southern California native familiar with many USC players, makes some sort of impact in what will be his biggest game to date.
Atmosphere. It's a little less simple when Notre Dame plays just one home night game a year. The players got over-psyched for the USC game two years ago, as their new helmets and livelier jukebox (hello, Ozzy) could not stop them from committing three turnovers in a loss. They are facing a must-win, again, are favored, again, and are coming off a bye, again. Still, this team has too many upperclassmen who have performed well on big stages in the games since that 2011 loss to not come out sharp for a rivalry game against an overmatched Trojans squad.
Playing surface. We won't use that dreaded "F" word here -- is it an "F" word, or a compound word, "F-T"? -- but the Notre Dame Stadium grass took a beating during the Oklahoma game and was re-sodded shortly afterward. Kelly went against his routine and did not have the team practice inside the venue Thursday, so seeing what's in-store for everyone tonight is something worth noting.