It was one of the greatest spectacles seen at Notre Dame Stadium in recent memory, the first night game in two decades complete with music blaring over the loudspeakers and shiny new helmets. And Notre Dame fell on its face last year, losing 31-17 to USC and sending the Irish reeling to 4-3 on the 2011 season.
For some, that game represented a turning point in the program. Notre Dame beat itself with a bevy of mistakes, headlined by Dayne Crist muffing a snap and watching as it was returned 80 yards for a touchdown. When Tommy Rees threw an interception down two touchdowns with under seven minutes left, it sealed Notre Dame's fate.
"Guys really learned that you can't get caught up in all the hype that's going in to the game," center Braxston Cave said. "Last year, it was our first night game, and we had new helmets and obviously the whole ND nation was coming down on you because they want this win so bad. I think a lot of guys got wrapped up in all of this and it really affected the way we played."
Notre Dame entered the contest winners of four in a row, looking to take out USC and keep alive the hope of a BCS bowl berth. With the loss, Notre Dame fell to 4-3 -- but since then, the Irish have only lost two games, both at the back end of the 2011 season.
"That game in particular was certainly one where it required all of our players to really examine how they're going to be consistent winners," coach Brian Kelly said.
A loss to Andrew Luck and Stanford in Palo Alto was certainly forgivable, but Notre Dame's loss in the Champs Sports Bowl to Florida State -- again, the product of untimely turnovers -- looked like more of the same. Really, the lesson of the USC game was the lesson of the 2011 season.
"We learned that we have to stop beating ourself, and when we do that we'll come out with the victory," wide receiver John Goodman said. "That's kind of what we built this year and what will hopefully happen this Saturday."
Notre Dame paid the price of getting caught up in everything surrounding the USC game last year. This year, it'd be easy to do just the same, what with a bid to the BCS Championship on the line in Los Angeles. Notre Dame is No. 1 in the polls, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and has dismissed claims of irrelevancy over the last three months.
But after what happened last year on that late October evening, Notre Dame players say they're laser-focused on the task at hand.
"We know we got one shot to get to 12-0, and if we don't stay focused and do our job then we have no chance of accomplishing that," Cave said.