And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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The greatest intersectional rivalry in college football might not have the shine of previous years, but it doesn’t make it any less important. Both Notre Dame and USC will enter the Coliseum desperate for a victory.

The Trojans are coming off an ugly loss to crosstown rivals UCLA, with the boys in Westwood taking up residency as the Kings of LA, their third-straight victory in a series that used to be a Trojan strangehold.

For Brian Kelly, a victory would be a much needed eighth win, a number that seemed like a formality a month ago, but has since turned elusive. That eighth win would make Kelly the first Notre Dame head coach to win eight games in his first five seasons. Not that it’d salvage a season, but winning four of five against USC is a nice step in the right direction after losing the plot in November this season.

To get us ready for the season finale, Shotgun Spratling joins us. Covering all things USC at Conquest Chronicles and TrojanSports.com, Shotgun’s byline is everywhere around Southern California, including collegebaseballdaily.com

Hope you enjoy.

 

We just watched USC get trounced by UCLA. How much did that one game define this season?

It was emblematic of the Trojans’ woes in many ways. There were errors in the secondary Saturday, which has been an issue on and off this season. They have started off several games strong only to fade in the second half. In this game, that fading began in the third quarter, but the only reason USC didn’t fade in the fourth quarter of this game was because the game was already out of hand by the fourth quarter.

 

What was the most surprising part of last Saturday? Offensive line play? The secondary? Help Irish fans feel better about what they’ve been watching this past month and their chances on Saturday.

The most surprising part was actually some of the coaching decisions. Why 25-year old senior safety Gerald Bowman wasn’t on the field in a regular safety position rather than using a three-safety rotation with Bowman near the line in a quasi-spy position for Brett Hundley and having Leon McQuay III end up playing 69 plays when he’s had issues all season seems strange, especially considering Josh Shaw was fresh and back on the field.

It has also been baffling to watch the offensive line struggle with no adjustments. Toa Lobendahn has struggled at times at left tackle since moving there with Chad Wheeler’s season-ending injury at Utah and was pretty much terrible against UCLA, grading out at a whopping -8.2, according to Pro Football Focus.

What in the world senior Aundrey Walker did to never be allowed on the field must have involved some coach’s wife or daughter. It makes no sense why an experienced senior that has actually looked pretty good when allowed to play this year can’t get in the game when a true freshman that is expected to be a guard or senior going forward is having so many issues.

 

Steve Sarkisian is in the middle of his first season as USC’s head coach. He’s lost four games — two in rather dramatic fashion, and a shocking upset at Boston College. How do Trojan fans feel about their native son after 11 games?

It’s definitely a split bag. People realize that the sanctions do have an impact and that’s part of the reason why the Trojans have had issues down the stretch in some games, but there are some decisions and gamelans that have been confounding, which have some Trojan fans worrying that the “Seven-Win Sark” nomenclature is here to stay.

 

Cody Kessler’s numbers look mighty impressive, especially his 30:4 TD:INT ratio. Notre Dame fans have seen a lot of very good Trojan quarterbacks, all but supplying Heisman votes for Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Where does Kessler slot in among the recent starters we’ve seen since the Trojans returned to the elite of college football?

The problem with Kessler’s numbers and the reason why he isn’t viewed in the same light as Palmer, Leinart, Sanchez or Barkley is that his stats have been terribly inflated against poor competition. In six games against unranked opponents this season, he has 26 touchdowns to only one interception, but in five games against ranked opponents, Kessler’s TD:INT numbers dwindle to 4:3. Being 0-3 in rivalry games isn’t helping his case either. A big game this weekend and in the bowl game could propel him toward Heisman contender for next season, though.

 

Every year we see a few stars on USC’s roster. Walk us through the key playmakers — and the future NFL stars — current wearing cardinal and gold.

Recently, it starts with the single-digit jerseys, but this year there is no player like No. 94 Leonard Williams — BEAST! Potential No. 1 overall pick. Amazingly, the Trojans have a future NFL star at each level on defense. Su’a Cravens is a guy that is always making big plays around the ball. He’s playing a hybrid outside linebacker role, so he can be nearer the action and get his hands on ball carriers. Then there’s the freshmen sensation at cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. You might see him on offense and he’ll return kicks. He’s an explosive playmaker, but the true freshman is already the Trojans’ lockdown corner that gets a ton of one-on-one matchups.

On the offensive side of the ball, Cody Kessler might have NFL potential, but it’s the weapons around him that are really special. Nelson Agholor is a really good route runner that has burst. He’ll likely follow the Robert Woods/Marquise Lee second round draft pick mini-pipeline. Another fabulous freshman is JuJu Smith, who has great athletic ability and only just turned 18. As he matures, he’s going to continue to get better and better. There’s also the tough running of Buck Allen in the backfield. Allen also has versatility. He catches the ball really well and he’s the only player in the country that has had 100+ yards from scrimmage in every game this year.

 

The Trojans passing defense is ranked 111th in the country. The run defense gave up 452 on the ground to B.C. On paper, this group is giving up only 24 points a game, not all that bad. But when Notre Dame looks at the tape, how will they decide to attack USC?

The Boston College game was a mirage as far as running the ball against USC. The Trojans were outschemed in that game and couldn’t make tackles in the fourth quarter. Besides that game, USC is allowing only 103.4 yards per game on the ground. Teams have found much more success through the air where defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox plays a bend-but-don’t-break defense that uses blitzes sparingly. In fact, as of two weeks ago, USC was blitzing the least of any Power Five team in the country.

Since that fact has been harped on, USC has come out of its shell a little bit blitzing both Jared Goff and Brett Hundley more. With Notre Dame’s struggles against Arizona State’s blitzing, Trojan fans are really hoping Wilcox tries to put pressure in Everett Golson’s face, but I’d be surprised if it happens a lot. The coaching staff plays scared too often (see Bowman playing at the line of scrimmage against UCLA) and will likely be too frightened by Golson’s running ability to constantly attack.

 

We’re done with the scholarship sanctions at USC (right?). What’s the state of this roster? Notre Dame is decimated by injuries (especially in the front seven). But how healthy are the Trojans? And what should we expect on the recruiting front when Sark and company can get their roster back to 85 scholarships?

While the limitations are gone with the upcoming signing class, the sanctions won’t fully be over for another couple of years. The Trojans still have to add players to get back to the full 85 scholarship players allotted each school. But they are going to be bringing a lot of talent in with those 25 scholarships this year. Expect a lot of stars with this coaching staff. Pretty much everyone on the staff is a good recruiter.

Fortunately, USC hasn’t suffered any truly debilitating injuries this season. The loss of Chad Wheeler has seen the biggest impact while injuries like DT Kenny Bigelow, LB Jabari Ruffin, LB Lamar Dawson and RB Tre Madden are forgotten now, but each of those players likely would have seen significant playing time.

 

The Trojans are seven-point favorites. After getting trounced by their crosstown rivals, do you see USC rallying to beat Notre Dame in the Coliseum for the first time since the Carroll era?

My cousin is flying in from Georgia to get his first taste of the rivalry (and to avoid family Thanksgiving functions), so I’m hoping he gets to see a great game with the Trojans making a play at the end, unlike Notre Dame’s last two trips that have been more defined by close games that USC failed to win whether it was Ronald Johnson’s drop in the rain in 2010 or the Trojans’ inability to get a yard on four plays in 2012. USC has the stars to win…it’s just up to the coaches to put them in the best position to succeed — something that hasn’t always been the case this year.