And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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The end is here. And now we’ll see if Notre Dame puts up a fight with their intersectional rival, or limps to the finish in a season that everyone would be happy to forget.

Because two programs that measure themselves against each other are trending in opposite directions. And as the Irish spend the offseason searching for solutions, USC will ride a hype train right back to the top of the college football scene.

That’s what happens when you win seven straight games. And that’s what happens when you find a quarterback like Sam Darnold. Since the redshirt freshman took over, the Trojans have looked like the team that had many believing they were one of the most talented in the country.

As the Irish fight for pride, we’re joined by Shotgun Spratling. A writer and photographer for USCFootball.com, Spratling took time out of a busy, busy week to put together our final preview of the season.

Enjoy.

 

* Let’s start with the obvious: How did this team turn it around? Is it as easy as saying, “Sam Darnold?”

Yes and no. Sam Darnold is definitely the No. 1 factor, but not the only factor. The offensive line was porous early in the season. Ronald Jones II struggled early and has now averaged over 150 yards and two rushing touchdowns for the past month.

The defense had big-play busts that helped turn the Alabama game from close battle for a little over a quarter into a rout by halftime. The players all talk about how the trust that has grown in the locker room. They have faith that the guy beside them is going to do his job and that gives the entire group confidence.

 

* Staying with Darnold, the redshirt freshman has been incredible to watch. While he’s certainly made some mistakes, he’s also played with a reckless abandon that I can’t remember ANY of the great USC quarterbacks playing with. It’s probably silly to start this comparison game — especially as you consider the Heismans that Palmer and Leinart won and the elite prospect that Sanchez was — but can you give Irish fans a player comp for Darnold — a guy that they might see now for the next three years?

I will first admit that I am terrible with player comparisons before saying that it’s hard to pinpoint one for Darnold. He has uncanny pocket presence and creativity when being pressured that has a hint of Texas A&M Johnny Manziel, yet similar to Russell Wilson, Darnold has the ability to run, but prefers not to. He has great arm strength and a gunslinger mentality, which is equal parts positive (Brett Favre) as it is negative (Jeff George).

The comparison that gets thrown around some among the media members covering the team is that Darnold is a better version of Stanford’s Kevin Hogan in terms of big, but mobile youngster that took over for a redshirt junior in the middle of the season.

 

* Clay Helton went from a guy who nearly had a revolt on his hands to a coach who might be earning a reputation as a big-game hunter. Is it safe to say that this run ghas helped Helton turn the tide — or is his job security only as secure as his team’s ability to win games. With a new AD (Lynn Swann) in charge, what are the long-term prospects of Helton as the man atop USC’s football program?

Anyone that meets Clay Helton thinks he is a good guy, including Lynn Swann. He’s genuine with everyone, which people appreciate after the last two USC head coaches. But as is the case most anywhere, it’s all about the wins and losses. Helton looks really secure right now, but USC could still finish the season 8-5 if USC were to lose to the Irish, make the Pac-12 championship and lose and also drop their bowl game.

The luster would definitely be gone. In baseball, your prospects are only as good as your next day’s starting pitcher. In college football coaching, your prospects are only as good as your last big win.

If Helton were to get on the hot seat again in the next year or two, Swann becomes the wild card since he didn’t hire Helton. If things aren’t going well and he decides he wants to put his stamp on the athletic department, the football coach is one thing that will do that with a quickness.

 

* Defensively, this team has really started to play impressive football, holding opponents to season-low point totals in 6 of the last 7 games. What’s been the difference, and who has stood out for Clancy Pendergast’s unit?

Cohesion. Much like the team, the defense had to get a feel for the new defensive system being implemented (re-implemented for a select few upperclassmen) and have turned the corner during the season and are progressing week by week.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has been able to be ultra-aggressive bringing pressure whenever he wants because of the ability of the secondary, particularly future NFL cornerbacks Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall. The addition of 25-year old Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, a graduate transfer from Utah, helping to shore up a major concern in the defensive line coming into the year can’t be overlooked either. He has brought a maturity to the entire team and his work ethic has rubbed off on former five-star defensive lineman Rasheem Green, who has been playing lights out the last few weeks.

 

* Notre Dame fans are calling for Brian Kelly’s head. USC may be the hottest team in the country. An afternoon kickoff reminds people of the bloodbath that took place at the end of the 2014 season, the last time these two teams met in the Coliseum. Is that your expectation as well?

It could quickly go that way if USC plays clean football, but that hasn’t been the case very often this season. Even in the midst of their winning streak, the Trojans have been prone to penalties and turnovers.

They are averaging more than nine penalties and nearly 72 yards the last five games and Darnold has thrown seven interceptions in the last six games, including four the last two weeks. However, those two games were on the road. At home in the Coliseum, he’s been much better throwing 15 touchdowns to only three interceptions this season, so I’m not expecting it to come down to the final snap.