USC-Notre Dame has lost some shine

LOS ANGELES -- You get the impression Notre Dame is reaching for gimmicks to prop up its storied but mildly ailing rivalry with USC.

The teams will play Saturday under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium, assuming the things still work. The
4:30 p.m. PT kickoff time is the latest of the 83 games the teams have played since the Roaring '20s. It's the Irish's first night game in 21 years, their first at home against USC ever.

"It should be a great scene, a great environment," said USC athletic director Pat Haden, who ought to know since he was an analyst on Notre Dame telecasts for 12 years.

It might be a grand scene Saturday night, but it's a lifetime removed from the electricity of 2005, when USC was at the apex and Notre Dame so desperately wanted to get back there. It's really nothing like the intervening years either, really. The Irish (4-2) are steadily climbing back from a historic low point and USC is still stuck in the crater of NCAA sanctions. The Trojans are 5-1 and yet unranked (the first time that's ever happened). For only the 10th time in the rivalry, neither team is ranked.

These are the kinds of realities USC deals with on a weekly basis nowadays, but when it's Notre Dame, the context becomes starker.

"I just think it's the dark cloud over us," USC coach Lane Kiffin said.

At this delicate moment in USC's -- pick one: rock-bottom, recovery, irrelevant -- latest phase, a win could go a long way to brightening the program's horizon. It would avenge a painful 20-16 loss at the Coliseum last year, the one that snapped USC's eight-game winning streak in the series. It would put the Trojans on track for an impressive turnaround from 2010, a good first step into a rough second half that will define this season.

It could redeem quarterback Matt Barkley, who didn't play against the Irish a year ago because of a foot injury and is coming off a drab performance against Cal. It could put receiver Robert Woods back in the Heisman conversation after an out-of-sync week in the Bay Area.

And beyond all that, it could cheer up a fan base whose pride has been smarting for nearly two years. Nothing can make loyal USC fans perk up like beating one of the school's two main rivals. So far under Kiffin, the Trojans are 1-1 against UCLA and Notre Dame.

"For the kids themselves, it really is just another game in a series of 12," Haden said this week. "I think all of us -- you, me, us old-timers -- feel differently than the players do."

The first time Barkley went to Notre Dame, the luster was still strong. The Trojans were ranked No. 6 in the nation and the freshman from Newport Beach threw for 380 yards and two touchdowns to keep up USC's domination with a 34-27 win. The veneer still lingered a year ago, with the Trojans riding a 19-game nonconference winning streak. But after Ronald Johnson dropped a touchdown pass in the rain and Mitch Mustain threw an interception at the 1-yard line, USC's mystique was gone. The shillelagh, that old Gaelic war club, is housed on Notre Dame's campus for the first time since 2001.

Now, the Trojans are 8-point underdogs on the road, proof that bookmakers no longer buy the hype and neither, apparently, does Notre Dame.

Haden didn't exactly give a ringing endorsement to the Trojans' first half. Only one of their first six opponents, No. 24 Arizona State, is currently ranked. He doesn't think their exclusion from The Associated Press Top 25 is a snub.

"I think we're probably right where we deserve to be," Haden said. "We've got to play better. We've got a series of important games coming up and this is certainly one of them. We'll just see where that goes. You are what you are."

In years gone by, USC players gave Notre Dame coaches sleepless nights in the weeks leading up to these games. Now, it's USC coaches furiously scrambling to figure out how to contain receiver Michael Floyd (with a suspect, undersized secondary) and linebacker Manti Te'o, a Hawaiian who turned down USC to play for the Irish.

"They're playing great in all three phases," Kiffin said. "They have no weakness."

If USC is going to regain its edge in a rivalry that's no longer lopsided, this weekend would be an opportune time.

Mark Saxon covers USC for ESPNLA.com.