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. The 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.
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