Eight would be great for Steve Sarkisian and USC against Notre Dame

Steve Sarkisian, Cody Kessler
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian stands near Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler during the first half of their team’s loss to the Bruins on Nov. 22, 38-20, at the Rose Bowl.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Steve Sarkisian is aware of the label.

He heard it often enough during his five seasons at Washington when his teams struggled to reach the eight-win plateau.

Seven-win Sark.

Asked this week if it bothered him, USC’s first-year coach said, “Not at all.”


Sarkisian points out that he took over a winless Washington program and turned it into a consistent winner.

“When I’m asked about it, I might subtly remind people where that program was to where we got it to when we left,” he said.

Last season — after three consecutive 7-6 finishes — Washington was 9-4, played in a fourth consecutive bowl game and finished 25th in the Associated Press media poll.

“I’m really proud of that,” Sarkisian said.


But Sarkisian knows expectations at USC are exponentially higher than they were in Seattle.

He did not take over a winless program. He inherited one that claims 11 national titles and won 10 games last season despite historic tumult.

So Saturday’s regular-season finale against Notre Dame is important for USC and Sarkisian on several levels.

The Trojans are coming off an embarrassing loss to UCLA. They need a victory over the Fighting Irish to avoid being swept by their rivals for the third consecutive season.

And with a 7-4 record, Sarkisian needs a victory to move off the seven-win plateau and at least partially silence his critics heading into a bowl game.

USC will meet a 7-4 Notre Dame team similarly struggling.

Two years ago, the Fighting Irish arrived at the Coliseum ranked No. 1 and needing a victory to advance to the Bowl Championship Series title game. They beat the Trojans, 22-13.

On Saturday, in the 86th game between the rivals, the stakes are substantially lower.


“From all the games that have been played between Notre Dame and USC, there were certainly great ones that meant so much to the final rankings,” Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said. “Certainly this one won’t.”

USC lost early in the season to Boston College and then played a series of games in which it was unable to put away its opponent in the second half.

The Trojans lost to Arizona State on a last-second Hail Mary pass. They barely hung on against Arizona and gave-up a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds at Utah.

USC lost any chance of playing for the Pac-12 Conference championship when UCLA dismantled the Trojans, 38-20, last week at the Rose Bowl.

The offense stagnated, the defense could not stop quarterback Brett Hundley and his receivers, and a special teams mistake also cost the Trojans in their third consecutive loss to their crosstown rival.

Sarkisian said it was “probably a blessing” to have another rivalry game immediately.

USC linebacker Su’a Cravens said the Trojans’ goal remains the same: Just win the next game.

“If you’re going into a game like, ‘Well, the season’s over’ — you’re going to get smashed, whoever you play,” he said. “I’m pretty sure all of the guys on our team, we’re not carrying the mind-set of feeling sorry for ourselves.”


Notre Dame began the season with six consecutive victories and appeared to be a team that would gain consideration for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

But the Fighting Irish suffered a 31-27 loss at Florida State, and then lost three of their next four games.

Notre Dame goes into Saturday’s game trying to break a three-game losing streak. The Fighting Irish lost to Louisville, 31-28, last week.

“We’re two teams that, unfortunately for us, found a way to lose a couple of those games at the very end,” Sarkisian said, adding, “They’re in a very similar boat.”

Before the game, USC will honor its seniors playing their final game at the Coliseum.

It also could be the final home game for several draft-eligible juniors, including defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who is regarded as a possible No. 1 NFL draft pick.

“For us, it’s about pride at this point,” Williams said of the Trojans. “I guess for both teams, Notre Dame as well.”

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein