Cody Kessler is still seeking his first rivalry-game victory as USC’s starting quarterback.
The junior came up short against UCLA and Notre Dame last season, and the Trojans suffered another loss against UCLA last week.
So Kessler is preparing for what he hopes to be a winning performance against Notre Dame on Saturday at the Coliseum.
Kessler struggled in the Trojans’ 38-20 loss to UCLA. He completed 22 of 34 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown, with one interception, and was sacked six times.
Asked Tuesday what he thought he could improve upon, Kessler said, “Everything. I’ve got to play better.”
Kessler has passed for 30 touchdowns, with four interceptions. He is ranked fifth nationally in passing efficiency.
Kessler took the blame for some of the sacks by UCLA.
“I was trying to hold onto the ball a little longer and make things happen because we were down, and my competitive spirit took over,” he said. “But at the end of the day, as a unit, we’ve got to play better. And I’ve got to play better.”
Coach Steve Sarkisian intimated after the game that Kessler had perhaps relied too much on junior receiver Nelson Agholor, who caught 16 passes against California and was coming off consecutive 200-yard receiving performances.
“Any quarterback will tell you when you have a guy that you’ve been working with for awhile, and a primary receiver, you’re always going to expect him to be open or look for him to be open,” Kessler said.
Said Agholor: “My job is to get open and make the plays that come my way. If I make those plays that’s not the conversation.”
Notre Dame recruited Agholor, and Fighting Irish Coach Brian Kelly remains impressed.
“As good as there is out there,” Kelly told reporters Tuesday.
Agholor caught six passes for 89 yards in USC’s 14-10 loss to the Fighting Irish last season.
Agholor has 85 receptions this season, 10 for touchdowns. But UCLA limited the junior to three catches for 24 yards.
Agholor also muffed a punt that led to a Bruins touchdown. “Always catch it up high, eyes on the ball and look it in, not worry about contact,” he said. “I went away from my fundamentals and also I didn’t make the right read.
“Should have fair-caught it.”
Former USC tailback Amir Carlisle is making an impact for the Fighting Irish as a receiver.
Carlisle, who transferred to Notre Dame after the 2011 season, has 19 receptions, three for touchdowns.
Carlisle started four games at running back last season and rushed for 204 yards.
“The transition was difficult for him,” Kelly said of Carlisle’s move to receiver. “It wasn’t easy. And it’s one that he has I think evolved into.
“He’s learning every day a little bit more about the position.”
Freshman tight end Bryce Dixon did not practice because of “concussion-like symptoms,” Sarkisian said.
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein