Notre Dame Football: Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: USC
In order to accommodate its scheduling requirements as a result of its ACC alliance, Notre Dame was forced to eliminate many of its yearly opponents from the schedule. One game that will never go away, however, is the Fighting Irish’s annual battle with USC.
The Irish and Trojans have met every year since 1946. After dropping eight straight meetings, Notre Dame has won three of the past four, including two straight in the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the next chapter of college football’s greatest intersectional rivalry will take place this November.
A wild 2013 for USC saw it play games with three different head coaches. Lane Kiffin was fired after a 3-2 start, after which Ed Orgeron went 6-2, including a loss to Notre Dame. Orgeron was not made the permanent head coach, and he left the team in December. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton guided the Trojans to a victory in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Now, the Steve Sarkisian era begins after the former USC offensive coordinator bolted Washington for a return to Southern California. The Trojans hit the practice field Tuesday, concluding spring drills April 19. Let’s look at what we can expect from USC in 2014.
Date: Nov. 29 (Time and TV TBD)
Site: Los Angeles Coliseum (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 14, USC 10 (2013)
Last Meeting in Los Angeles: Notre Dame 22, USC 13 (2012)
Current Win Streak: Notre Dame—2
Record: 10-4 (6-3 Pac-12)
Bowl: Las Vegas Bowl (defeated Fresno State, 45-20)
Leading Passer: Cody Kessler (So.)—236-of-362, 2,967 yards, 20 TD, 7 INT
Leading Rusher: Javorius Allen (So.)—134 carries, 774 yards, 14 TD
Leading Receiver: Nelson Agholor (So.)—56 receptions, 918 yards, 6 TD
Stats That Matter
Yards Per Play: USC—5.70 (64th nationally, ninth in Pac-12); Opponents—4.80 (15th nationally, third in Pac-12)
Turnover Margin: +6 (31st nationally, fifth in Pac-12)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage: USC—67.50 percent (33rd nationally, sixth in Pac-12); Opponents—51.16 percent (15th nationally, second in Pac-12)
Third-Down Conversions: USC—34.95 percent (98th nationally, ninth in Pac-12); Opponents—32.67 percent (11th nationally, second in Pac-12)
Explosive Plays*: USC—67 (40th nationally, seventh in Pac-12); Opponents—53 (42nd nationally, fourth in Pac-12)
*Explosive are plays in which a team gains 20+ yards
The competition to replace four-year starter Matt Barkley was intense last offseason. Sophomores Cody Kessler and Max Wittek and freshman Max Browne all vied to replace Barkley, with Kessler ultimately winning a battle that stretched into the regular season.
A disastrous performance in Week 2 against Washington State was the beginning of the end for Lane Kiffin, but Kessler turned his season around and helped the Trojans—laughed at in September—shake up the national title race in November with an upset of Stanford.
Wittek will graduate this spring and transfer, leaving Kessler and Browne. Kessler is a pocket passer who shouldn’t have much difficulty learning a new system, as Kiffin and Sarkisian were co-coordinators at USC under Pete Carroll. He closed the season strong, throwing 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions in his final seven games, six of them wins.
When Silas Redd chose to transfer to USC from Penn State in 2012 after the Nittany Lions’ NCAA sanctions were handed down, the Trojans thought they were getting one of the nation’s best running backs. That didn’t come to fruition as Redd finished his two-year stint in Los Angeles with just 1,281 yards.
With Redd battling injuries last season, USC turned to sophomores Javorius Allen and Tre Madden. After just 35 carries in a year and a half, Allen had a breakout performance last November against Oregon State, gaining 133 yards and scoring three touchdowns. Despite the slow start, Allen finished as the team’s leading rusher.
Madden was No. 2 on the team with 703 yards. Expect plenty of competition this spring, however, as sophomores Ty Isaac and Justin Davis (who will miss the spring with an injury) push for increased playing time in their second seasons.
For a unit that loses a former Biletnikoff Award winner, the USC receiving corps is loaded. Junior Nelson Agholor is becoming a legitimate star after 918 yards as a sophomore. Anything short of an All-Pac-12 season this fall would be a disappointment for the one-time Notre Dame target.
The Trojans will welcome back two receivers off of ACL injuries. Junior George Farmer, a 5-star recruit in 2011, and redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell both are nearing the end of their respective recoveries. Their availability this spring is uncertain, but both will be ready for re-launch come August.
USC’s biggest National Signing Day coup was landing 5-star athlete Adoree Jackson. The speedster will be expected to contribute early and often. Of all the Trojans receivers, sophomore Darreus Rogers could take the biggest step forward after 22 catches as a freshman.
Randall Telfer returns at tight end, but Xavier Grimble opted to leave early for the NFL.
The Trojans enter the spring in transition mode along the offensive line. Center Marcus Martin, who started 33 games over the past three years, bypassed his senior season to enter the NFL Draft. Right tackle Kevin Graf also departs, as does part-time starting guard John Martinez.
The most versatile lineman is senior Aundrey Walker He suffered a broken ankle against UCLA and is still working his way back to full health. Walker played mostly guard last season, but could play tackle as well. The left side of the line returns intact with sophomore Chad Wheeler at tackle and junior Max Tuerk at guard.
There is plenty of young talent, led by sophomore Zach Banner and redshirt freshmen Khaliel Rodgers and Nico Falah. Mammoth freshman Damien Mama arrives in the summer and should compete right away for, at minimum, a rotational role.
Perhaps no position was more affected by USC’s scholarship restrictions than the defensive line. Even the 2012 Trojans, who began the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, had major concerns up front. New coordinator Justin Wilcox will move the Trojans to a base 3-4 system after they ran what amounted to a 5-2 last year under Clancy Pendergast and a 4-3 under Monte Kiffin in 2012.
They’ll be without three key starters from a year ago in ends Morgan Breslin, Devon Kennard and George Uko, but do return their star, All-Pac-12 end Leonard Williams. The junior had five sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss last season. He’ll man one of the end spots, with 315-pound junior Antwaun Woods and former 5-star recruit Kenny Bigelow at nose tackle.
The second end position is in flux entering the spring. J.R. Tavai started eight games last season after Breslin’s injury, but is probably a better fit as an outside linebacker. Texas Tech transfer Delvon Simmons could earn a starting role by default.
The Trojans move back to a four-linebacker alignment this season. They’ll only be searching for two starters, as seniors Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson return for their fourth and third years respectively at the inside positions. It was Dawson whose hard hit knocked Notre Dame’s Tommy Rees out for the remainder of last year’s game in South Bend.
As fate would have it, Dawson’s night would end far worse than Rees’, as he suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. He won’t do much this spring but should be at full speed for the fall. Pullard led the team with 94 tackles last season and is the unquestioned leader of the defense.
Turai and Anthony Sarao, who started the final seven games of 2013 after Dawson’s injury are the logical fits for the remaining two spots. If Sarao is deemed better inside or Dawson’s recovery slows, he could shift inside with Pullard, opening the door for promising sophomore Michael Hutchings.
Yes, Dion Bailey is off to the NFL a year early, but the Trojans should still sport one of the nation’s better secondaries. They’ve recruited extremely well at the position, with sophomores Leon McQuay and Su’a Cravens looking like a potentially dominant safety duo for at minimum the next two seasons.
Both primary starting cornerbacks return from last year in senior Josh Shaw and junior Kevon Seymour. Shaw is perhaps a more natural safety, but there’s a bigger need at cornerback with McQuay and Cravens having 5-star talent at safety.
True freshman John “JuJu” Smith, who Notre Dame pursued heavily but couldn’t lure out of Southern California, is a two-way player who could end up here or at wide receiver depending on depth. Redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins is likely the first player off the bench.
It’s hard to believe that placekicker Andre Heidari isn’t out of eligibility, but the 2011 Freshman All-American returns for a final season in Los Angeles. The junior made only 15 of 22 attempts last season and was just 1-of-3 at Notre Dame Stadium. He also missed a key field goal in the 2011 game against the Irish that kept Notre Dame’s ultimately failed comeback attempt going.
Junior Kris Albarado returns for a second season punting. He struggled last season, averaging just 37.1 yards per punt. Expect Albarado to face some competition for his job, as the Trojans hope to boost their special teams play under Sarkisian.
Agholor and Lee shared kickoff return duties last season. With Lee off to the NFL, Agholor should become the primary guy this season in addition to his punt return duties. He excelled more so on punt returns last season, averaging 19 yards per attempt and returning a pair of punts for touchdowns in a win over Cal.
Sarkisian was extremely consistent at Washington, but never got the Huskies to a point where they were competing for conference titles. That was enough to put him in the good graces of most in Seattle, but that won’t suffice in Los Angeles.
After Pete Carroll went a combined 16-2 against Notre Dame and UCLA, the Trojans have lost four straight to their two biggest rivals. A turnaround in Troy must begin with regaining control against the Fighting Irish and Bruins.
As for the 2014 Trojans, there is, as always, plenty of speed. Depth concerns along both lines will probably keep this team from being a Pac-12 title contender, but the skill position talent makes this team dangerous. Another 10-win season is an attainable goal.