- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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The four-loss football power dressed just 48 scholarship players for a showdown with a rival -- attrition that bubbled to the surface in an embarrassing blowout defeat.
Then USC came back a week later and beat its other rival 49-14 Saturday in a game that even head coach Brian Kelly would admit was not nearly as close as the score indicated.
Notre Dame is hurt, especially on defense. We get it. The Fighting Irish are not exactly alone, though, as we can see from USC. And they are not all that hurt when compared to last season.
The defense entered last year's New Era Pinstripe Bowl with nine regular contributors having missed a combined 44 games due to injury.
They will enter a similarly-underwhelming postseason destination this winter with 11 regular contributors having missed a combined 44 games due to injury.
No, that does not include the lost seasons, and lost half-season, of four defensive starters implicated in the school's summer internal academic probe. And that does not include the casualties of this weekend's nightmare in Hollywood: Max Redfield (broken rib), Austin Collinsworth (separated shoulder), Greer Martini (quad), Jay Hayes (high ankle sprain) and Jacob Matuska (shoulder).
But it is unlikely that any of those wounded at the Coliseum would have made much of a difference against a Trojans team that actually showed mercy on the battered Irish after racing to a 35-0 start in the first 25 minutes.
The 2013 edition of Notre Dame entered last fall as somewhat of a deflated group, having endured an offseason of questions following the Alabama beatdown, Kelly's NFL flirtations, the Lennay Kekua saga and the season-long dismissal of starting quarterback Everett Golson.
It made do with what it had. It handed eventual Rose Bowl champ Michigan State its only loss, it withstood a never-ending run of defensive depletion and it finished the regular season 8-4, a game better than this year's 7-5 team.
Asked 13 months ago if he ever coached a unit so decimated by injuries, Kelly said at the time: "I think this is probably close to the pinnacle."
He added then: "They don't give you any points for complaining about it. If they did, I'd complain every minute. So we just take care of it internally and get the next guy ready."
Problem this season is there were not all that many next guys ready. The 2013 unit returned eight starters from a 2012 unit that finished second nationally in scoring average. The 2014 unit returned three starters and was breaking in a new scheme under new coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Everything changed when the quarterback of that group, linebacker Joe Schmidt, had a season-ending ankle injury in a Nov. 1 win at Navy. Anyone around the program will tell you how he was the MVP of that unit, how he got those green guys ready, how he helped simplify things for his overloaded teammates.
Save for the Northwestern game, it is no surprise that Notre Dame is now 0-4 without Schmidt, a former walk-on. That Schmidt finished the regular season as the Irish's second-leading tackler (65) despite missing so much time speaks to just how little there was to work with after losing plenty of pro talent from last year, and especially after losing two preseason starters to academic matters.
None of this is breaking news. Notre Dame raced to a 6-0 start this season and was a play away from knocking off Florida State because that defense had played above its head, because it had some great injury luck, because, frankly, the competition it had played was nothing special.
Everything for these Irish hinged on Golson's arm to begin with, and his unraveling has been too much for that now-banged up defense -- and a special teams unit that remains M.I.A. -- to overcome against better competition. A Kelly offense hinges on quarterback play, and how that position shakes out with Golson and Malik Zaire will dictate everything about a 2015 Notre Dame outfit that will be more experienced than this year's, and even more seasoned than anyone had initially anticipated.
The same can be said of the rivals out west who just left these Irish beaten in a manner foreign to this regime.
"They got punched in the nose today," Kelly said Saturday. "You want to see a response too, right? They're young, but I want to see some bite, too. I want to see some bite. The bowl preparation, we're going to have to see a response. All jobs are available and we're going to have to see something from this group."
Example A may just come from, of all places, the Trojans who left them like this.