Notre Dame vs. USC Preview

Trojans look to get back to football

Remember football? No, not the firing of a coach, not the reports of his demise. No, not the hot seat of an athletic director, nor the state of a program’s future. No, not even the interim coach, beginning to wonder if the job will be his at year’s end. Football — yes, the game — that’s what I’m talking about.

Good news. It’s back.

After a Thursday night fiasco that was only the tipping point of a consequential iceberg, USC will be back on the field Saturday night. It will be, in fact, a new coach at the helm, perhaps a new style in the course of the game and a brand new outlook on the season ahead. But the opponent, however, will be a familiar one nonetheless.

It’s time for one of the most historic rivalries in the game. South Bend is the setting, and with the preceding storylines abounding, the game could be the match that lights the Trojans season’s fire, or the dousing water bucket that mitigates any sort of hopeful potential left.

Here’s what to watch for:

Offensive Identity

With all the turnover going on around this team, one of the intriguing storylines is how — if at all — the identity of this team will change. Due to his newfound play-calling role prior to the season, Helton has his fingerprints all over this Trojan offense. Yet, as it was stated before, the final call was always made by Steve Sarkisian.

READ MORE: Sarkisian Just Another Low Point Among Many For USC

Now, with Helton being the be all end all of all decisions, will the offense find their identity?

See, in the first five games of the season, USC has been relatively balanced, an even distribution of both pass plays and run plays.

But as they head into this rivalry ordeal, the Trojans are depleted at the wide receiver spot, facing the 12th-best pass defense in the nation. Dynamic second fiddle Steven Mitchell is out with an ankle injury. Darreus Rogers is a game-time decision with a hamstring, and transfer Isaac Whitney broke his collarbone during Wednesday’s practice.

Even if one of Jalen Greene, De’Quan Hampton, Deontay Burnett or even Dominic Davis is able to fill the wideout void in some form or fashion, it looks like this offense will have no choice but to establish the run. Something they retroactively wish they did more of against Washington.

“If I had to do it over again, I’d probably lean on it a bit more,” said Helton of the run game.
“I don’t need to have big numbers every game,” Kessler pointed out after Wednesday’s practice. “If we’re running the ball and it’s working, go with it.”

There’s no going back and fixing the past, but there’s a clear necessity for Tre Madden, Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II to step in and turn a very fluctuating run game into a consistent performance against a potentially-weak Irish run defense (85th in the nation.)

Madden and Davis averaged more than seven yards per carry against the Huskies, and, as shown above, the Trojans did run the ball more against the Huskies than they had in previous games. Even so, that was not enough.

In an emotional game amid a dangerous environment, the best antidote to temper the tide and get this team back on track may just be to hand the ball to the triumvirate of Madden, Davis and Jones and let them go to work.

Kessler’s Answer

If the Trojans do choose to go to the air repeatedly, however, they will be in a good hands given the history that QB Cody Kessler has had in games after losses.

Against Washington, Kessler’s passer rating (86.6) dipped below the 100 mark for the first time since the Sept. 7, 2013 when he posted an abysmal 72.6 rating in a 7–10 loss to Washington St. Kessler then went on to play Boston College and answered with the highest passer rating of his career — a 244.2 — two touchdowns and a stellar 88.5 completion percentage.

The trend continued through 2014 and into this season. Kessler has yet to lose two games in a row as USC’s under-center anchor, and after this season’s loss to Stanford, the fifth-year senior bounced back again with one of his best performances of his career in the desert against Arizona State throwing four five touchdowns in a much-needed win.

It’s not a reach to say Thursday night’s disaster was one of Kessler’s worst outings, but it’s also completely feasible — given talent and past precedent —that Kessler will head into South Bend Saturday and answers the only way he’s ever known how to answer, by performing, bouncing back and winning.

READ MORE: USC Student Rally

Defending Notre Dame

Finally, as much as injuries did not affect USC in the early part of the season, they certainly did factor into Notre Dame’s play. After talented sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire went out for the season, unknown freshman DeShone Kizer took over and has successfully navigated this Irish squad into a potent offense, and a mere close loss against Clemson.

Notre Dame’s offense has looked uninterrupted — the 14th best total offensive team in the nation — and has been led by not only the management of Kizer, but also by the explosiveness of running back C.J. Prosise.

Through six games, Prosise has topped the total rush yards of any previous running back in Notre Dame history with 779. Tack on nine — yes, nine — touchdowns and an average of over seven yards per carry, Prosise has been the force to be reckoned with in this Irish offense that will give the Trojans’ run defense some trouble.

After allowing another 100-yard game to Huskies tailback Myles Gaskin, giving Prosise any leeway to establish his game might have USC looking at a 200-yard game from the dynamic senior.

In what could be a cold, even rainy, tight game, the battle of the trenches on either side will be key. Stopping Prosise will certainly be difficult for an inconsistent defense like USC’s. Yet in a game where there are plenty of statements to be made, this could perhaps be the biggest one.

You can reach Sports Editor Paolo Uggetti here, or follow him on Twitter @PaoloUggetti.