LOS ANGELES – When Notre Dame and Southern California take the Coliseum field on a postcard-perfect Saturday afternoon, every disappointment and defeat during their difficult seasons won't mean much for a few hours.
Steve Sarkisian and Brian Kelly agree that the Trojans' historic intersectional rivalry with the Irish transcends geography and stands apart from every other week on the calendar.
Although USC (7-4) and Notre Dame (7-4) are wrapping up dismaying years by their lofty standards, both coaches are confident their players will seize their slice of college football history.
"This is an unbelievable rivalry, one I always cherished as an assistant," said Sarkisian, the Trojans' first-year head coach. "It is very unique — more unique than any rivalry in college football. We're all humbled and honored to be part of it. You think about some of the great players and coaches that have played and coached in this game, and to be part of this game, you just cherish the opportunity. That's the best thing we can do."
Both teams are entertaining, but flawed. Both are headed to minor bowl games after their national title aspirations fell apart in the second half — Notre Dame with four losses in its last five games, USC with two last-second defeats before a blowout loss to UCLA last week.
"From all the games that have been played between Notre Dame and USC, there were certainly great ones that meant so much to final rankings," Kelly said. "Certainly this one won't, but ... there's nothing like it. Being in L.A. and being in that Coliseum, and the white horse and that whole kind of atmosphere, is definitely unique and different than any game you play, for sure."
The Trojans' upperclassmen are eager to end their two-game skid against Notre Dame, including 22-13 loss to the top-ranked, undefeated Irish two years ago at the Coliseum.
Cody Kessler, Nelson Agholor, Javorius Allen and the Trojans are hoping to run up the score on an Irish defense that has given up at least 30 points in a school-record six straight games.
"I feel like at this point, it's a game of pride," said USC defensive end Leonard Williams, who's also likely playing his final college game. "It's the team that's going to go in there and make sure they're going to finish their season strong that's going to win the game. Both teams have been dealing with a lot of adversity this year, so it's about pride at this point."
The Irish could salvage their nightmare finish with a third straight win over USC, which would match their longest winning streak in the series over the past two decades.
"It's such a great rivalry," Notre Dame receiver Corey Robinson said. "The past couple of weeks have been rough, and this is a nice boost of energy. Everybody says, 'OK, we've got to pick it up. It's USC week.' It's not your average week."
Here are more things to watch in when USC attempts to reclaim the Jeweled Shillelagh from Notre Dame:
LOOSE BALLS: The Trojans are well aware of Irish quarterback Everett Golson's eight rushing touchdowns. They also know about his 11 fumbles this season, and they hope to take advantage. "We noticed he carries the ball kind of loose and puts it on the ground sometimes," Williams said. "We definitely practice strip attempts, that kind of thing. ... He's a little similar to Hundley because he scrambles a lot, but he's also a lot smaller than Hundley, so he's easier to take down."
INJURED IRISH: Stopping USC's offense would be tough enough with a healthy Notre Dame defense. Instead, the Irish have major injury absences — particularly on the line, where three projected starters are sidelined after Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day were ruled out this week. Freshman linebacker Greer Martini also must start because Nyles Morgan is suspended for targeting.
AMIR'S RETURN: Receiver Amir Carlisle is a projected starter for the Irish. The Bay Area native began his college football career as a USC tailback before transferring to Notre Dame after the 2011 season. He is just the second player to participate on both sides of the rivalry.
SENIOR SWAN SONG: USC bids farewell to a small senior class headlined by linebacker Hayes Pullard, tight end Randall Telfer and defensive back Josh Shaw. It's been five crazy years for Pullard, who was recruited by Pete Carroll and Ken Norton Jr. "I'm just trying to cherish every moment," Pullard said.
MILESTONES: USC is playing the 1,200th football game in school history, and the 85th against Notre Dame in a rivalry that began in 1926 at the Coliseum, where Notre Dame beat the Trojans 13-13 in what Knute Rockne famously called the best game he ever saw.