LOS ANGELES - There was no sign of celebration Tuesday at Southern California. Rather, a sense of urgency.
That was the sentiment of coach Pete Carroll three days after the top-ranked Trojans came up with one of the most dramatic and important victories in school history, extending their winning streak to 28.
"The game brings us much more down to earth than you might think," Carroll said of USC's 34-31 triumph over Notre Dame. "We didn't play very well. We struggled in all facets. The truth is, we have to play better. I think everyone realizes we were fortunate to get the win."
The Trojans moved 75 yards in the final two minutes, gaining 61 yards on a Matt Leinart-to-Dwayne Jarrett pass on fourth-and-9 to reach the Notre Dame 13-yard line, and winning on Leinart's 1-yard quarterback sneak with three seconds left.
Thus, the Trojans (6-0, 3-0 Pac-10) remained on track for an unprecedented third straight national championship.
USC has trailed at halftime in three of its last four games before beating No. 15 Oregon 45-13, then-No. 14 Arizona State 38-28, and finally, the ninth-ranked Fighting Irish.
Those games were all on the road, and at three of the most difficult stadiums to play in the country.
But Carroll didn't sound impressed.
"I'm disappointed that we're not playing closer to what our potential is," he said. "I think we're just being realistic. In addressing our team about it, I was pleased to see they responded like crazy. We had our best Monday that we've had all season.
"We need to play better, we need to perform better. That's what I'm concerned about at the halfway point. Earlier in the year, I thought we were performing at a higher level."
USC beat Hawaii 63-17 and Arkansas 70-17 in its first two games. The following four games have been far more competitive, but the caliber of the opposition certainly has something to do with that.
The Trojans don't figure to be seriously challenged in their next three games, starting Saturday at Washington (1-5, 0-3). They follow that up with home games against Washington State (3-3, 0-3) and Stanford (3-2, 2-1) before traveling to play California (5-2, 2-2).
"We've taken great pride in coming back the next game after getting all that attention," Carroll said, referring to the fact that if USC is ever primed for a letdown, this would be the time.
As the coach pointed out, the Trojans have had some problem areas. The defense has shown some vulnerability, at least in part because of injuries. The opposition is averaging 350.3 yards per game and 40.9 percent in third-down conversions. The last three foes have averaged nearly 27 points.
In addition, the Trojans are averaging 74.8 yards per game in penalties - third-highest in the conference.
"In our eyes and (Carroll's) eyes, we're underachieving," linebacker Oscar Lua said. "Our expectations are so high. Last week felt like a loss. We gave up so many penalties, our defense gave up so much. When you analyze the situation later, it's like, `Man, why was this such a close game?'
"It's kind of gut-check time. We've got to take our game to the next level and accomplish even more."
Lua also issued a warning.
"I think it's when all of the hype gets to the players, a team falls," he said. "It's been a factor. I don't foresee it as a problem. It's a tough situation to try and fight through."
Leinart, who usually makes an appearance at USC's weekly news conference, wasn't around Tuesday, and neither was Reggie Bush.
Carroll said the spotlight is an issue for Leinart, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
"He's just a young man trying to make it," Carroll said. "It's only normal that he would have to shoulder all this. It's challenging. He's doing the best he can trying to manage it as best as possible."
Carroll confirmed that Desmond Reed, the team's third-leading rusher who also averaged 38.8 yards on five kickoff returns, sustained a season-ending knee injury at Notre Dame.
"Everything he does, he does well. He does so many unique things," Carroll said. "It's like losing two or three guys. I can't emphasize how much we will miss this guy."