Despite playing Notre Dame every season, for 74 consecutive years, it can be maddeningly hard to keep up with the happenings at USC, especially in a year with two quarterback injuries and turmoil surrounding the Trojans head coach. To help sort out pertinent facts from misguided hyperbole, let’s pepper questions at Adam Grosbard, the beat writer at the Orange County Register.
DF: Thanks for agreeing to do this, Adam. As you can imagine, I have a lot of questions about USC. I am genuinely not sure where to start, so I will begin with the micro and build into the macro. Which is to say, let’s start with the Trojans defense.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday, “Probably the best defense we’ve faced from the Trojans since — maybe since I’ve been here. Very good up front, now in a four-man front. They can bring pressure.” My notes list off three defensive tackles of note — Jay Tufele, Marlon Tuipuloto and Brandon Pili — as well as a pair of defensive ends in senior Christian Rector and freshman Drake Jackson. USC as a whole has 13 sacks in five games, but has also given up 4.51 yards per rush. Across Saturday’s line of scrimmage, Notre Dame’s offensive line has excelled in pass protection but struggled in consistently creating holes in the running game.
In that balance of strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness, how would you expect the Trojans to adjust?
AG: I would expect USC to get creative in its looks up front in the pass rush. Drake Jackson blitzed as a middle linebacker against Washington and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will likely try some different things, including sending outside linebackers like Hunter Echols on blitzes to keep the pressure on.
As for the run game, Pendergast said his biggest priority for the off week was to work on USC’s containment, both on passing downs and outside runs. It’s been the Trojans’ biggest weakness on defense all season; that 4.51 yards per carry you mention is largely due to these runs, as USC’s tackles have been adept at stopping runs up the middle. As to what exactly USC is doing to fix the edges, that’s a state secret, but whether or not the Trojans fix it will play a big role on Saturday.
As I mention Jackson, let’s spend a moment longer on him. A heralded freshman, I am not sure if he was a literal day-one starter, but he may as well have been, making three tackles with 1.5 for loss and half a sack in the season opener. To date, he has 5.5 tackles for loss with three sacks and three pass breakups. Like you said, he showed up some as a blitzing middle linebacker at Washington two weeks ago. How much of a headache is Jackson going to be for Irish fans for three seasons? Yes, I am presuming he is a three-and-done talent.
He seems like the real deal, no doubt about it. He was the breakout star of spring ball after enrolling early and carried it over to the fall. He still has the freshman inconsistencies, but he has all the tools to be a good player long-term: Quickness on the edge, high IQ, long arms to break up plays at the line of scrimmage. He definitely seems like a three-year guy.
The back end of USC’s defense was hampered in that loss to the Huskies because it was without sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga (concussion). Is he cleared to return and how does he change the defensive approach?
Hufanga is cleared to return to practice, and Clay Helton said he “anticipates” the safety returning against Notre Dame, though nothing definite at this point. I wouldn’t say Hufanga changes the USC defense’s approach, so much as he gives them something they don’t otherwise have at safety: An instinctive player who can sniff plays out as they happen and be proactive, not reactive. Even after missing the Washington game, he’s still second on the team in tackles.
Without Hufanga, the Trojans still held Washington to two touchdowns on four trips to the red zone, a theme in a season in which USC’s defense allows a touchdown on only 37.5 percent of opposing trips to the red zone. Notre Dame’s offense, meanwhile, has scored a touchdown on 85 percent of its possessions inside the 20-yard line. What have the Trojans done for success in this crucial area of the field?
That’s certainly one of the most interesting matchups in this game. USC’s success in this area has varied from week to week. Sometimes, it’s been the pass rush, led by Jackson or Connor Murphy. Others, it’s been the secondary. Corner Olaijah Griffin has made some incredible plays in the end zone this season, and, like Hufanga, is progressing toward a return against Notre Dame.
Typically I would guess that kind of red-zone defense is somewhat turnover-reliant. That is not the case with USC, having forced all of four turnovers through five games while giving away 13. The crux of that latter number comes via nine interceptions, a figure so high it puts the Trojans in the company of teams like New Mexico, New Mexico St., UAB and UMass. Kedon Slovis and Matt Fink have each thrown four. The Irish will face Slovis, correct? How was he able to so quickly grasp control of that team and that offense as a freshman thrown in on a moment’s notice after not just an injury, but an injury to the supposed star?
Slovis will be the starter against Notre Dame, yes. The thing is, Slovis has as much experience in USC’s Air Raid offense as sophomore JT Daniels did. Slovis enrolled early in the spring, so he’s spent as many practices under offensive coordinator Graham Harrell as any of the older quarterbacks on the roster. Slovis has a very even-keeled personality, which has allowed him to transition to the college game easily. Now, we’ll see if it allows him to move on from his last full game, a three-interception performance at BYU.
Slovis has the luxury of throwing to three dynamic receivers in Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown. Kelly spent the week lauding them, deservedly so, and Notre Dame is a bit short-handed in the secondary at the moment. What makes each so good and how do their skills complement each other so well?
All three are threats deep and in short routes, which means no matter which route each runs, the Notre Dame defense will need to respect it. Vaughns and Pittman can make athletic plays in the air or on the sidelines, while St. Brown is quick and shifty, which makes him a threat in the flat. USC views them as a pick-your-poison problem for opposing defenses: Take one away, and the others can thrive.
Unless you feel I’ve missed anything on the ground, it is time to take to the 30,000-foot view and simply ask, if the Trojans lose this game, is Clay Helton going to be fired?
Is it a possibility? Yes. Is it definitely going to happen? Only USC president Carol Folt knows at this point, given USC doesn’t have an athletic director right now. But I would think USC gives Helton a chance to win the Pac-12 and save his job even if the Trojans lose Saturday, though a total blowout could change that.
USC should lose this game, per bookmakers. Notre Dame is favored by 10.5. I began to write “The last time the Irish were favored by this much against the Trojans was …” before I realized that was 14 points last year. What do you expect Saturday night?
USC plays well against top-25 teams (2-1 this season), so I’d expect something similar to what we saw against Washington: USC plays well in a road environment and stays within striking distance, but makes too many mistakes to close the gap. That’s more or less been the Trojans’ identity this season, and I think we see it again in South Bend.