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Post-spring update: USC

Jul 7, 2014, 1:17 PM EDT

USC Introduces Steve Sarkisian Getty Images

No game means more to Notre Dame fans than the annual battle with USC. College football’s greatest intersectional rivalry serves as an annual litmus test for both programs, and when both teams are playing good football, it turns the Irish and Trojans’ annual battle into one of the year’s premiere matchups.

A rivalry that’s been marked by winning streaks has swung back in Notre Dame’s favor. And after watching the Trojans dominate for much of the 2000s as the Irish program sunk into instability, it’s USC’s turn to covet the program in South Bend, with Brian Kelly winning three of the last four.

After Pat Haden ended the Lane Kiffin era at LAX after an embarrassing September loss to Arizona State, he picked former Pete Carroll assistant Steve Sarkisian to run the program.┬áThe hire wasn’t the splashy one many expected, especially considering the head start Haden had, but it brings an established Pac-12 coach to Heritage Hall.

Getting us caught up on the tumultuous times at Southern Cal is USCFootball.com’s Ryan Abraham. With the Trojans still looking like a team with elite talent and great expectations, Ryan was able to give us a look inside the Irish’s rivals with a Thanksgiving weekend battle set as the 2014 season finale.

 

Times they are a changing in Heritage Hall. After four head coaches in a 65-day span, Steve Sarkisian enters year one and USC’s scholarship sanctions are complete.

Can you give us a brief state of the union on the USC program, independent of the on-field product that’s still TBD?

Certainly the last several months have been interesting for Trojan fans. The lows of losing at home to Washington State, Lane Kiffin getting fired and losing to both arch rivals made last season tough. But Ed Orgeron did a nice job of rallying the troops and got the fan base excited again with a win over a top-5 Stanford squad. When Orgeron wasn’t retained and left the program, there was more turmoil and a lot of upset fans and players. But Clay Helton stepped in and secured a double-digit win season for the Trojans with a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State.

When Steve Sarkisian took over, he had plenty of fires to put out. Many felt he was just Lane Kiffin 2.0 and the pro-Orgeon crowd wasn’t going to be happy with any hire let alone another more junior member of Pete Carroll’s old USC staff. Sark started to win more people over with his four-for-four close on Signing Day, including a couple of five-star prospects. Then the up-tempo style and open spring practices gave fans something more to look forward to.

Now with NCAA probation ending last month and fully attended summer workouts going on, the team appears to have some momentum heading into fall camp. But while most of the sentiment around the program is positive right now, an early loss this season could easily derail the team and knock them back down a few notches.

 

On paper, the Trojans look to be rock solid. Eight starters return on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Cody Kessler finished with a bang. Do expectations immediately return to the top of the Pac-12 South and a place in the Playoff?

When you are talking about programs like USC and Notre Dame, expectations are always high no matter what. So even though this team will likely have at most 69 recruited scholarship athletes on the roster, a new coaching staff and new schemes, the Trojans will still be expected to make a run at winning the Pac-12 South. It would be a lot to overcome, but they have the roster to do it. Kessler has been dealing well and now has a year under his belt and plenty of weapons around him. The defense should be even better than last year led by Leonard Williams, likely a top-5 pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Depth is still an issue, but as long as this team can stay healthy, they should be able to compete against Arizona State and UCLA for an opportunity to win the conference.

 

Watching Spring Practice, what are the biggest changes you see happening on the offensive side of the ball? Same for the defense?

The most obvious change has been the higher tempo at practice on both sides of the ball. There isn’t a lot of standing around looking at clipboards or play sheets any longer, they run a play and then run back to the line to run another. All of the teaching is done watching the film, when they are on the practice field it is all about getting in as many reps as possible. It seems much more efficient and the players seem to enjoy the pace.

 

Let’s go back to the hiring of Sark. He’s a native son. He was a part of Pete Carroll’s incredible run. But he didn’t ever seem to get over the hump at Washington. (Granted, he inherited a program in chaos, courtesy of Ty Willingham.)

Various reports had Pat Haden looking elsewhere before going to Sark. Where do you stand on his hiring and will he be more successful than Kiffin and get the Trojans back to college football’s summit?

I have covered Sark before when he was at USC and he was someone that was always popular with players and media. If I was hiring the head coach for USC he would not have been on my short list, but I understand why Pat Haden went in that direction. His turnaround of a 0-12 team in Seattle was great, but taking a team from bad to good is one thing, good to great is another. We never saw great at UW and he was a coach that could have been on the hot seat if they would have lost to rival WSU last year.

But having said all that, I think he and his young coaching staff are set up pretty well at this point. The schedule isn’t overly difficult (skipping Oregon and Washington this year) and they get to recruit 25 players again during what is probably the best recruiting class in California over the past decade. To me, he should be more successful than Lane Kiffin was at USC.

 

Under Carroll, there was an undeniable swagger that came with the Trojans, and they played their best in the season’s biggest games — especially dominating their local rival UCLA. The balance of power has swung in the Bruins favor after a 50-0 beatdown, with two straight losses to Jim Mora.

In a region where SC has held the most power for recruits in their own backyard, has that changed in the years since Carroll exited and the sanctions began?

Jim Mora does have momentum on his side with two-straight victories over USC. But really until UCLA starts grabbing the local top-rated prospects in recruiting battles between USC and UCLA, it is still going to be a USC football town. We saw in the 90′s when UCLA won eight in a row, the balance of power had shifted. USC dominated the series after that and become not just the local favorite but a national power as well.

If you look at last year’s recruiting class, only one of the top-10 players in California took an official visit to UCLA. Of the 12 prospects they had a shot at on signing day, only one signed with the Bruins. That has to change in order for UCLA to get to USC’s level.

I feel with another couple of victories over the Trojans UCLA can get back to what we saw during the Cade McNown years, but they are not there yet.

 

In a series marked by dominant runs by either USC or Notre Dame, after a really impressive run by the Trojans, the Irish have won three of the last four.

Pat Haden is no stranger to Notre Dame and the rivalry. From the SC perspective, where does this game measure on the schedule and what is its importance, both to players, coaches and alumni/fanbase?

The Notre Dame and UCLA games are always the most important to USC fans. On the local level, it is unprecedented to have two major football programs in the same city and that creates unique challenges for the coaches, players and fans. On the national level it doesn’t get much better than USC and Notre Dame and having that out of conference game on the schedule always creates drama and adds credibility to both programs.

Most USC fans you talk to feel that if they had to pick one, the game against the Fighting Irish is the most important. So much history and so many All-Americans, Heisman Trophies and National Championships to make that rivalry second to any. But I think if you ask the players and coaches I feel UCLA would likely win on the importance scale simply because of the proximity of the two schools. The teams not only compete for recruits, they compete for headlines in the same newspapers and local television stations. You can keep a loss to Notre Dame in the back of your mind a lot easier than you can a loss to UCLA.

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Special thanks to Ryan for taking the time over the holiday weekend to get us up to speed on the Trojans. For more of his excellent USC coverage, check out USCFootball.com on the Rivals network and follow Ryan on Twitter @InsideTroy

  1. bernhtp - Jul 7, 2014 at 1:51 PM

    Kelly’s biggest accomplishment may be 3/4 over USC given the long and dismal streak that preceded him. He now has the bigger challenge of doing it against a Kiffin-less USC tedam.

    • onward2victory - Jul 7, 2014 at 7:45 PM

      As Coach Kelly always says, it’s hard to win football games. So it certainly is an accomplishment t to win 3/4 against the Trojans. But this series has been incredibly close and each game could have gone either way.

      2010: We finally get over the hump and beat SC in the rain thanks to Robert Hughes. But we were fortunate that Barkley was out that game, and even more fortunate that Ronald Johnson dropped a wide open, game winning TD.
      2011: SC appeared to be the better team this day, but ND was giving them all they could handle until the infamous Crist fumble.
      2012: Again the pre-season #1 ranked Trojans were without Barkley, a huge break for the Irish. ND controlled the game and was the better team.
      2013: This game was just ugly. NDs defense somehow holds SC scoreless in the 2nd half to bail out a completely inept Andrew Hendrix led offense.

      I’m thankful for the wins because I despise everything about SC, but Kelly has seen some fortunate bounces go his way in order to go 3/4.

      • ndirish86 - Jul 7, 2014 at 8:41 PM

        I get your point – but I really dislike perpetuating the myth that Ronald Johnson dropped the “game winning TD”. There were 2 minutes left at the time. Yes it would have put us in a hole, but it would not necessarily have decided the game. We would have been down by less than a TD with 2 minutes to go and the ball. I for one am not ready to write this off as a certain loss just because our opponent almost landed a big punch late in the game. Do I have to remind anyone that ND-Michigan in 2011 “featured” 3 lead changes inside of 2 minutes?

      • onward2victory - Jul 7, 2014 at 9:54 PM

        That’s fair. I thought it was closer to a minute left, but I really don’t remember specifically. I was busy hugging and celebrating with strangers in the upper corner of the Coliseum. Either way a minute still would have been enough time to score, although unlikely with 5 turnover Tommy behind center.

  2. johngaltisspeaking - Jul 7, 2014 at 2:31 PM

    USC is back and the recruiting engine has ignited. They will close a top 3 class this year and it will only get better over the years. Considering we have been squeaking by USC every year I would say this year could be the last we get a win for a long time. Talent wins when it comes to these games and one of the main reasons we have been winning is because of USC sanctions. I predict a NC win for USC within the next 5 years against a top notch SEC opponent.

    • papadec - Jul 7, 2014 at 5:22 PM

      jg – if usc doesn’t close a top 3 class this year, and/or ND beats them by at least 14 points – will you just go away?

      • johngaltisspeaking - Jul 7, 2014 at 9:57 PM

        you any team can compete against the sec it will be Usc. Usc is a monster recruiting team.

      • papadec - Jul 7, 2014 at 10:48 PM

        jg – you didn’t answer the question.

  3. shaunodame - Jul 7, 2014 at 2:42 PM

    Easily my favorite (most hated) Rival. Michigan is a pretty close 2nd but I think there’s been more respect between UM and ND. USC and ND seems to be a more bitter rivalry, IMO.

  4. mediocrebob - Jul 7, 2014 at 3:06 PM

    Irish beat $C not with Tommy Rees last season, but with Andrew Hendrix who looked like he had never played the position before. The season before, the Irish dominated the spoiled children in the colliseum with a RS freshman QB. Season before that, Dayne Crist happened. Season before that? True freshman Tommy Rees went into LA and came out with a win. Sure the Trojans have been down. But the Irish haven’t exactly been full strength either.

    (And I realize people will say that the ’12 game wasn’t dominated by the Irish due to the 22-13 score, however the Irish wore that team down and very easily could’ve put up another 2 Tds)

    $C doesn’t strike fear like they used to and they won’t until Sark proves he can win in a big way. I’ll take BK and staff over Sark right now. Ask me again in a few years.

  5. upthera44 - Jul 7, 2014 at 3:20 PM

    No more like function?

    I’m wondering what the main achilles heels are for USC in terms of depth. ND coaches and fans moaned a great deal about only having 80 or 82 roster players, so 69 seems almost unthinkable — there must be some serious depth issues at certain positions. Or do they have some stellar walk-ons since it’s USC?

  6. fnc111 - Jul 7, 2014 at 3:22 PM

    Is it me or is every coach USC hires look like a scumbag used car salesman?

    • papadec - Jul 7, 2014 at 5:30 PM

      Hey – I’ve known some nice, decent used car salesmen. Not fair to denigrate them, by lumping them in with sc coaches.

  7. fnc111 - Jul 7, 2014 at 3:35 PM

    I prefer to say Robert Hughes/Harrison Smith went into the Coliseum in 2010 and came out with a win. Tommy Rees turned the ball over four times in that game. Rees didn’t do anything to help get a win.

    2011: what kind of coach has three different QB’s take a snap in one drive? Crist led ND right down the field that night vs. USC, unlike Rees who had been struggling all game. Can’t fumble that ball on the one but in all his time at QB under Kelly, how many times was Crist under center to take the snap? I’m going to say almost never until that play.

    The Crist bashers are the ones who will never say a critical thing about Rees. That’s odd. Put in the tape of the first half of that 2011 USC night game and you’ll see Rees unable to do anything against the Trojans defense. But it was all Crist’s fault.

    • mediocrebob - Jul 7, 2014 at 5:19 PM

      He didn’t lose the game for them either. He didn’t light it up but isn’t an offense that’s somewhat one deminsional easier to stop? Similar to this last season’s game (after TR’s injury, bc before that the offense was moving the ball fairly well) $C knew what was coming and couldn’t get it done.

      My other issue is people that are calling for Sark to return the Trojans back to dominance. Those same people still give BK he’ll even with a proven track record. Sark hasn’t won anything yet as a HC. He did a good job at uDub but nothing that turned heads.

  8. fnc111 - Jul 7, 2014 at 3:42 PM

    Thank Anthony Barr for that 2012 game. If Barkley plays in that game the odds are it’s a different outcome. The reason why ND didn’t tack on a couple more TD’s in that game was because of EG’s inability to hit Eifert on several fade routes. I hope Golson improves in bunches this year. It’s best for the program that he steps up in a big way in 2014 and we only see Zaire in spot duty.

    • 1notredamefan - Jul 7, 2014 at 10:34 PM

      fnc? Does that stand for Fox News channel?

    • irishdog80 - Jul 7, 2014 at 11:52 PM

      I disagree. Barkley was getting worse by the game and was a shell of himself leading up to the hit by Anthony Barr. Take a look at the hit on Barkley by Barr. Decent play by Barr, but the real issue was the USC line. They don’t even notice that Barr is coming…the end zone angle shows it perfectly:

      Barkley knew his line was awful thus his deteriorating performance in 2012. Barkley was gun shy and had thrown 9 interceptions in his last 4 games that year. ND wins in a rout if Barkley plays.The only reason it was close was conservative play by ND. The win was all that mattered…especially for that team.

  9. oleolehey - Jul 7, 2014 at 3:56 PM

    I don’t hate often, but when I do I always hate Michigan………….TMIMITW.

    • mattymill - Jul 7, 2014 at 9:44 PM

      Agreed. Although I hate SC, my hatred for Michigan burns hotter . . . especially this year’s game, as it’s the last in the foreseeable future. That may be due to growing up in northern IN, as there are a scattering of Mich fans to annoy you. 12-1 with a loss to Michigan this year is a bad year!

  10. irishwilliamsport - Jul 7, 2014 at 4:35 PM

    SC could have hired a much better coach than Sarksleazian, Pat Hayden is a straight shooter and a SC man thru and thru but it seems like they are trying to hang on to the Pete Caroll era with this hire and it’s not gonna work. The team quit on Kiffin, they have talent but we’ll see what happens.

    FNC, Christ and Rees are not major college football caliber QB’s period. The Christ fumble is on par with the Mark Sanchez butt fumble and the Joe Psarchek NY Giants fumble where Herm Edwards returned it for a TD. One of the worst plays in ND history. TR is TR and was a stopgap until we got the QB situation under control.

    • bernhtp - Jul 7, 2014 at 4:49 PM

      Sacrilege!! Christ did not fumble. He is without sin.

      Rees a stopgap? Two or three games is a stopgap. Four years is, well, uuuuuuuuuuuuuugggggggggggghhhhhhhh!

  11. irishmob89 - Jul 7, 2014 at 10:30 PM

    In last year’s game, Andrew Hendrix looked like his talent was sucked out of him by those little evil aliens from Space Jam. If USC would have just scored once on us in the second half, chances are we would have lost that game. In 2012, that game wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. Our offense moved right down the field but had to settle for five field goals. The Irish should have scored 30 or even 40 on the Trojans that game. If our red zone offense is more efficient, we beat USC easily.

  12. yaketyyacc - Jul 7, 2014 at 11:23 PM

    Ever since the Rock took Notre Dame west to teach USC how to play football, the Hollywood upstarts
    actually think they are better than their mentors. tsk tsk tsk.
    With a cast of thousands, you march armored onto the field, and with the cameras rolling, draw the mighty Trojan sword and sink it into the turf. Cut, cut, no no that is not how attack the enemy, you are supposed to sink the sword into the enemy.
    Oh dear me, the Irish have their own version, something akin to what the Greeks did, and the finale has the Trojans struggling off the field with the sword planted firmly in their derriere. Now that’s how a truthful historical movie is supposed to be shot. Thank you Fighting Irish of Notre Dame!

  13. justafan2014 - Jul 10, 2014 at 11:11 PM

    Lol.

  14. irishdrg1 - Jul 14, 2014 at 3:54 PM

    Blalock kept going on and on about Barkley being out, but never mentioned that ND was without starting QB, TE, and RB (Cryst, Allen and Roudough not sure if the TE spelling.) One of the reasons I will be glad when Blalock is GONE!!!

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