And In That Corner … The USC Trojans return to Notre Dame scuffling on both sides of the ball

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Oregon State at USC
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Notre Dame and USC had played every year since 1946. Aside from a three-year hiatus during World War II, the two college football bluebloods had met every year for 91 years.

Then the pandemic (obviously) interrupted the rivalry for a year. Even if the Irish had not joined the ACC, the Pac 12 would not have allowed the Trojans to play a non-conference game to continue the streak of 74 years straight.

So it is understandable if some fans do not quite remember USC’s roster. For that matter, some of Notre Dame’s players will never make a trip to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, as junior safety Kyle Hamilton pointed out Tuesday. This will be the Trojans’ second trip to South Bend in a row. Considering Hamilton, and likely junior running back Kyren Williams, will head to the NFL after this season, they will never make the return trip in this rivalry.

To help explain why the road trip may actually be a good thing for USC, let’s turn to the Orange Country Register’s Adam Grosbard.

DF: I should probably try to focus on USC this week before I look at its long-term questions. In at least one respect, though, they seem to overlap. While the Trojans are 0-3 at home in Pac-12 play this season, they are 2-0 on the road and have won eight straight games while traveling. Irish head coach Brian Kelly speculated that dichotomy comes from them getting “away from the distractions they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis.” How do you explain USC’s road successes? Eight straight is far from a flash in the pan, despite this being such a yo-yo of a team.

AG: I think there’s a lot of truth to Kelly’s evaluation. I do think USC has benefitted from being on the road and feeling like it’s them against the world. That’s been easier for the team to swallow and absorb than playing at home and having fans boo the former head coach and leave early as the team falls behind. It’s been a rough environment for USC at the Coliseum this year, and getting away from it seems to help these Trojans focus a little.

When I say “yo-yo of a team,” I am referring to the up-and-down nature of the Trojans. It may be more precise to say they are wholly unpredictable. Favored by 10 against Oregon State? Fall by 18. Favored by 2.5 against Utah? Lose by 16. Favored by a touchdown at Washington State? Win by 31. Maybe my real point should be that USC is the antithesis of Notre Dame, never playing a close game. The Trojans’ closest game has been two touchdowns, while the Irish have played in three games determined by a field goal. What should I read into the lopsided nature of USC’s results?

That USC either has it, or doesn’t, on any given week, and there’s little you can do to try to predict which version of the Trojans will show up each weekend. After Week 2, in one of his final media appearances, Clay Helton said that the team wilted away after getting punched in the mouth against Stanford. It looked like the same thing would happen in Week 3 against Washington State when the Cougars went up early, but USC responded that time. So USC has figured out its response to adversity, right? Nope, based off the next weekend’s blowout loss to Oregon State.

This is a roster that is top-heavy in talent and a little confused about its identity. So if everything is grooving early, the team gains confidence and starts to roll. If things start to snowball, they snowball quickly. But there’s no predicting it, and anyone trying to bet on this team at this point in the season might as well practice self-flagellation instead.

I could simply read into it that the Trojans have raw talent. We all know this. For this week, when Kelly praises the opposing roster’s talent, he is not simply offering lip service. The Kedon Slovis-to-Drake London connection should be good for two touchdowns a week in my eyes. (London, pictured at top, has 64 catches for 832 yards and five scores through six weeks. He might be the best professional player Notre Dame will face in 2021.) When I have watched USC this year, it has not struck me as quite an “Air Raid” offense like I expected it to be. How are the Trojans trying to capitalize on their talent advantage most weeks?

That’s an excellent question, because whatever it is the coaching staff is doing doesn’t seem to work very often other than “throw the ball to London.” Honestly, there are a lot of guys on the USC roster who looked like high-end NFL prospects entering the season who have not lived up to billing. Cornerback Chris Steele‘s stock has plummeted, as has safety Isaiah Pola-Mao‘s. Slovis’ struggles could lead to Jaxson Dart taking over at quarterback at some point this season. Linebacker Drake Jackson has had some good performances, but not on a consistent basis. So it feels like the coaching staff has squandered talent most weeks instead of capitalizing on it.

Slovis has not put together the Heisman contender season once expected. For a second consecutive year, his completion percentage is down (72 percent in 2019 to 67 last year to 64 currently), and his nine touchdowns compared to five interceptions is hardly an encouraging ratio. In the past, a shoulder issue has plagued Slovis, but he was supposedly past that entering this season. Where do Slovis’ struggles begin these days?

The talent level around Slovis has dropped since he was a freshman, and his results have followed. When he was a freshman, Slovis could throw to London (also a frosh at the time), Michael Pittman (now in the NFL), Amon-Ra St. Brown (ditto) or Tyler Vaughns (NFL practice squad). Now it’s just London and the corresponding receivers are either too young or underperforming. Because the current USC receivers don’t get as open as their predecessors, Slovis tends to hold onto the ball too long rather than trying to force into tight spaces. Holding the ball leads to more pressures, more sacks and more bad throws by Slovis. Combine that with an offensive coaching staff that’s largely failed to adjust to how defenses play USC and you’ve got the right recipe for an underperforming passing game.

Defensively, again we focus on a Drake. If I was more hip, I’d make some lyrical pun here. With only three sacks for loss, some might overlook junior linebacker (slash end?) Drake Jackson, but that would be a mistake. He is the greatest terror on a defense intended to be aggressive. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s arrival created 16 turnovers in six games in 2020, and it has forced 10 turnovers through six games this year, a dropoff that is logical considering turnover luck but not so extreme as to diminish Orlando’s scheme. I am not sure I have any “but” or “however” to apply to Orlando’s defense. I almost want to argue it is USC’s strength. What am I missing?

The defense is USC’s strength this year, as it was during spring football and fall camp. That said, the tackling has been awful, the coverage has been lagging and the Trojans are still geting burned on outside runs like Clancy Pendergast was still in charge of the USC defense. What it comes down to on defense for USC is that this team does not have much depth, to the point that freshman offensive lineman Max Gibbs is getting serious consideration at nose tackle. Without depth to either relieve the starters or to push them for playing time each week in practice, you aren’t seeing this unit play up to its full potential.

I can’t really discuss the Trojans without finishing with their head coach, or lack thereof. Donte Williams has the interim tag after Clay Helton was fired in mid-September. I know you can’t suitably answer these questions without devoting a thousand words to it, but to keep some of this simple … Does Williams have a viable chance at the job long-term? How has the team reacted to Helton’s ouster and Williams’ month in the gig?

No, I don’t expect Donte Williams to get serious consideration for the job. USC needs someone with head coach experience and the last four games have shown us why. USC’s players did seem to respond positively to Williams and the accountability he’s tried to create in the program since taking over. But this is a long-term project to try to overhaul, and Williams can’t do it overnight.

Falling to 3-4 and 2-3 under Williams will not help his chances at leading USC next year, but with Notre Dame favored by a touchdown, that seems likely. What do you expect this weekend?

I’m expecting Notre Dame to cover the spread. I don’t think it’ll be as bad as the 2017 blowout for USC, but these Trojans just aren’t ready for this level of competition. My biggest question — if Dart is cleared to return from his meniscus surgery — is who finishes the game at quarterback for USC.