Not sure if anyone is aware, so I just wanted to officially announce: the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team will be playing the USC Trojans football team in a football game this football weekend.
Since most of you probably don’t know much about this little football program from southern California, I figured I’d reach out to Conquest Chronicles, SB Nation’s experts of the USC variety, and ask them some questions about their team, this weekend’s game, and other stuff.
Brendan Kearney and Matthew Lowry were gracious interviewees and gave me some solid answers, so be sure to read below to get their perspective on USC’s unexpected offensive struggles, who ND should be afraid of, what the best names are on the USC side of things, and much, much more.
Before we dive in, I just wanted to quickly say the following:
1. We're in the second full year of Clay Helton's tenure at USC, and he's 16-4 in that time (22-8 overall as USC head coach) with a Rose Bowl win already under his belt. Are USC fans completely sold on/infatuated with Helton, or do fans still think he has more to prove before they buy in?
Matthew Lowry: It’s actually mixed at this moment and it depends on who you ask.
While many seem sold on what Helton has done for SC at this point, there are those who are critical of his X’s and O’s aspect of the game.
I think you take the good with the bad. I think If USC wins the PAC-12 Championship and constantly are in contention for the conference and the CFP, that will get more people to buy in and that’s a lot.
2. The hype and expectations surrounding Sam Darnold and the Trojans offense were immense coming into the year. How do USC fans feel about the offense's performance through 7 games, which has been strong (19th in total offense, 36th in scoring) but not nearly as impressive as expected? Is Darnold to blame? Coaching? Injuries?
Brendan Kearney: I think it’s really been a combination of all the above.
The offensive line and receivers took a while to start to gel, and that pressured Darnold, making him force his throws and only hurting his confidence and the offense’s success.
Tee Martin has been questioned on his puzzling play calling, mainly staying away from the run game even when Ronald Jones is running well and Sam Darnold is struggling to find his rhythm.
There have been signs of slow progress all season, and it really seemed to click second half of last week. We’ll see how it translates (if at all) into this week.
3. The Trojans have a number of talented receivers - Deontay Burnett, Tyler Vaughns, Steven Mitchell, Tyler Petite - how do you see them matching up against an ND secondary that has been very good this season but hasn't really been challenged by a good passing offense so far?
BK: The Trojans receiving unit got off to a shaky start to begin the season, but has only improved every week since.
Tyler Vaughns is starting to grow into his own and has become the most explosive SC receiver. Deontay Burnett is very reliable and someone Darnold looks to in big situations; the guy just finds ways to get open. Petite is a big, fast tight end who SC has really started to implement in the offense — tight ends had over 100 total receiving yards last week against Utah.
Notre Dame presents another great challenge, something USC faced earlier this year against Stanford. Don’t be surprised to see a couple crazy catches, a pattern that’s been developing for a few weeks.
4. Let's talk about the USC offensive line, considering its struggles and its injuries. How's it looking this weekend, and can the line protect Darnold from ND's best DL like Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara, and Jerry Tillery?
ML: This is where things get interesting because the Trojans had to face a very physical Utah team last week. Notre Dame’s front seven is also no joke.
USC is expected to get Chuma Edoga back which is a huge boost to the offensive line.
USC’s ability to protect Darnold hasn’t been the best, but the huge concern for me is the penalties for USC’s offensive line. If they can avoid getting into 2nd and 3rd and long situations, then they should be fine.
5. Ronald Jones is a freak athlete with an elite combination of power and speed. How do you expect him to perform on Saturday night, and does ND have enough athleticism at linebacker to contain him?
BK: Ronald Jones is one of my favorite players to watch because he’s so explosive. Notre Dame needs to meet him before or at the hole because once he’s given any type of lane, he’s gone.
If the offensive line gets a really good push I think Jones will be just too much to handle for these ND linebackers. However, with injuries to the O-line and ND front seven talent I don’t see SC running at will.
Notre Dame will do a good job in limiting him but Jones will still get his fair share.
6. On the other side of the ball, USC is 67th in total defense (91st in passing, 61st in rushing) and 52nd in scoring. What are the Trojans' strengths and weaknesses on D?
BK: This USC defense statistically looks average, but do not underestimate them. Linebackers Cameron Smith and Uchenna Nwosu are the heartbeat at the middle of this defense right now. Smith is a tackling machine Nwosu gets to the quarterback at will, and both also have a knack for coming down with interceptions. They are the biggest strength.
The biggest weakness right now is the secondary. They have been torched at times this season, and sometimes shy away from contact when it comes to tackling. However, Chris Hawkins is an absolute baller at safety and corner Jack Jones seems to have really turned the page last week. This defense may look average on paper but they have some big time playmakers who can really impact the game.
7. Will the USC defense be able to slow down Notre Dame's 5th-ranked rushing attack, and will the inconsistent Brandon Wimbush be able to throw on the USC secondary?
ML: USC has been able to weather the storm defensively. I believe their athleticism and speed will help hold the Irish in check.
You could see a thing where Pendergast (USC defensive coordinator) forces the Irish to beat SC through the air. Notre Dame’s passing game isn’t great, and the Trojans will dare the Irish to try and pass on the defense — which could play into the Trojans hands.
8. Who are the X factors for USC -- which players on offense, defense, and special teams (if there are any) need to have fantastic games in order for USC to win?
ML: I think offensively the X-Factor is obviously Sam Darnold. USC needs him to perform well in order to have a shot at winning this game. If he struggles then it could be a long day for the Trojans offense.
Defensively, I will have to say Jack Jones. If Notre Dame tries to pass then he’ll see most of the passes come his way. Jack Jones could either give them a good reason to pick on him or make the Irish pay.
9. What players on Notre Dame's team are USC fans most afraid of?
ML: Josh Adams is a guy who I think USC fans should fear the most. If Notre Dame can give him lanes to run through then it could be a long night for the defense.
He’s a guy the Trojans should try to slow down when it comes to the run game.
10. What's your favorite moment of all-time from the USC/ND series?
ML: One of my all-time favorite moments of the USC/Notre Dame rivalry obviously has to be the 4th-and-9 Pass.
WARNING: ND FANS, YOU MIGHT WANT TO LOOK AWAY
Had Matt Leinart not completed that pass, then USC likely doesn’t play for the National Championship and it changes their whole season. It’s something I always look back on with that drive, plus it was a very emotional moment if you’re an SC fan.
11. Notre Dame has guys like Equanimeous St. Brown and Greer Martini...what are the best/funniest/most ridiculous names on the USC roster?
BK: My favorite names are as follows: Freshman corner Je’Quari Godfrey, junior running back Aca’Cedric Ware, Senior corner Yoofi Quansah, junior tackle Chuma Edoga, sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe.
12. You're putting together a team of USC players to compete on the game show Family Feud. Who do you choose, and why?
ML: Hmm if I had to, I would choose maybe Deontay Burnett, Tee Martin, Austin Vorhees, and Chris Hawkins. I’m not a family feud guy Haha.*
*Pat Rick note: WHAT??? Matthew doesn’t like this???
Follow-up: Same question, but you're choosing just 2 players to compete on Nickelodeon's Legends of the Hidden Temple
For Legends of the Hidden Temple? Sam Darnold, Tyler Vaughns, Stephen Carr, and Cam Smith. Take the athleticism and smarts to win that one.*
*Pat Rick note: Matthew is the first person to ever name 4 people for this question, and I love it. Either he’s building a team with substitutes so everyone stays fresh, or he’s entering two teams into the game to hedge his bets. Either way, it’s next-level Legends of the Hidden Temple thinking.
13. Brian Kelly vs. Clay Helton in a dance-off. What one song does each coach dance to, and who ultimately wins?
ML: I think Clay Helton wins that one. He seems like a guy who likes to dance. I can see Helton dancing to country or something like that.
14. Are USC fans embarrassed that their mascot is part of an army that was tricked into losing a battle by a large wooden horse they thought was a gift or something but was actually full of dudes about to kill them?
ML: I don’t think many SC fans are embarrassed at that at all. Given they all love Traveler (USC mascot).
15. Prediction time - give me who wins, your projected score, and your reasoning why.
ML: This game could go one of two ways — it could be a narrow USC victory or two-score Notre Dame victory.
USC hasn’t won at South Bend since 2011, the game where Lane Kiffin was in his second year as the head coach. I don’t see USC coming out with a win in this game.
USC just played a very physical and close game with Utah, where they also struggled in the first half offensively due to a couple of Sam Darnold fumbles and miscues. They can’t afford to do the same in South Bend against Notre Dame.
Plus, the defensive front for Notre Dame will give the USC offensive line some fits. I see this being a 35-24 game for Notre Dame. Not to mention, the Irish will be fresh and ready as they’re coming off a bye week. Then again, last time I picked against USC, they managed to win in convincing fashion against Stanford, so we’ll see.
16. Anything else Irish fans should know about USC's team, coaches, fans, traditions, etc.?
ML: There are so many that can be named. Singing Conquest, Traveler the Trojan horse, kicking the flag post headed to the Coliseum — so many things I can bring up tradition-wise.
With the team, USC has no bye week whatsoever. They’ve played seven straight games. Also, as mentioned, USC has not won in South Bend since 2011. Clay Helton was the interim head coach when the Trojans last met Notre Dame in South Bend. He’s 1-1 against the Irish with the win last year over them in the rain at the Coliseum. That was also the game that put SC into the Rose Bowl.
I want to give a big shout out to Brendan and to Matthew for putting up with all my question-shenanigans, and encourage you all to go follow Conquest Chronicles on Twitter. Furthermore, head on over to the Conquest Chronicles site for any USC-specific news and updates (and for my answers to their questions, which are coming soon), and to talk as much trash as you can.