Not sure any of you are aware, so I figured I’d quickly get everyone up to speed — the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team is 11-0 entering this Saturday’s regular season finale in Los Angeles against the USC Trojans, and that is a pretty good thing, I’d say.
ND, ranked #3 in the College Football Playoff rankings and fresh off an utter demolition of the then-12th-ranked, now-20th-ranked Syracuse Orange, roll to the Coliseum to square off against a 5-6 Trojans squad that just lost to the 3-8 UCLA Bruins last weekend.
This all, of course, sounds incredibly similar to 2012, when the #1-ranked Irish took their perfect record to LA in hopes of beating a downtrodden, preseason-hyped USC team and earning the postseason spot they coveted the most (then, it was a BCS National Championship berth).
So, to understand how much of an obstacle this talented, but poorly-coached and injured, team is, I spoke to Matt Lowry over at Conquest Chronicles, asking him about Clay Helton’s hot seat, JT Daniels, the Trojans preparing Thanksgiving dinner, and much more.
Let’s do this!
1. USC just fell to a UCLA team that was 2-8 heading into the rivalry game, bringing the Trojans’ 2018 record to 5-6. What’ve been the biggest issues for USC in what has turned out to be a pretty disappointing season? Did you anticipate this could be a down year?
Matt Lowry: The biggest issue with the Trojans this season has been the lack of adjustments made by the coaching staff and poor execution. USC just looked like a team that never got better as the season went. It showed in games against Texas, Stanford, Utah, Cal, and UCLA.
In a way I anticipated a down year, however I also felt they would win 8-9 games. Never saw them possibly missing a bowl game.
2. There’s plenty of talk about USC HC Clay Helton being on the hot seat after this season, but the guy is 32-16 in his Trojans coaching career with a Rose Bowl win and a Cotton Bowl appearance. Should Clay Helton be removed as head coach because he’s just not the right guy, or is the hot seat hysteria an overreaction? What do you think the USC program’s ceiling is with Helton at the helm?
Matt Lowry: Well, last year the issues were still the same with Helton. However, you had a Top 5 pick under center making plays for you too, which masked a lot of problems.
I think Helton should be out and it’s accurate — he’s just not the right guy. Helton and his staff failed to help the team develop and game plans haven’t exactly panned out. The last two seasons USC has failed to put teams away and have been out-coached on multiple occasions. He’s a good guy, however coaching-wise I don’t think he’s it at a program like USC.
To be honest, the ceiling at USC under Helton is Maybe a PAC-12 South title. I say that because If Helton does indeed stay he’ll have to get an experienced staff (Clancy Pendergast is a HUGE example) to help his team get better.
3. JT Daniels is SUPER young and clearly very talented. At this early point in his career, what does he do well, what are his biggest areas of needed development, and how do you think he’ll fare against the #2 pass efficiency defense in the country on Saturday?
Matt Lowry: Daniels throws a pretty accurate deep pass, that’s for sure. When JT is on, then he’s on and clicking for sure! That’s been my biggest thing on Daniels.
The down side of him is that he looks for the big play WAY too much. He’ll try to get the deep ball with someone in double coverage or double safety coverage over the top. My biggest criticism of Daniels has been the decision making.
Now, he is a freshman and has time to develop, but I think the coaching staff put too much of the offense on Daniels. Against Notre Dame, I think he can fare pretty well given the weapons he has, however again he lacks it in decision making and that’s what worries me in this game.
4. USC never lacks for any sort of offensive skill position talent. Who are the big weapons for Daniels on offense that the Irish defense needs to be worried about?
Matt Lowry: Michael Pittman Jr. has been very productive the last few games for Daniels. At 6-4, he’s a player I can see giving the Irish secondary fits.
Another is Daniels’ HS teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown. The two always seem to rely on each other in certain situations. The reason why I bring him up too is because Notre Dame will be a huge game for him because his older brother used to play for the Irish.
5. How has the USC offensive line performed so far this season? Do you think they’re up to the task of slowing down the Irish pass rush and opening running lanes against the ND defensive front?
Matt Lowry: The offensive line has been a weak point for the Trojans this season. I say this because in games they’ve had issues with the pass rush, missed assignments, and played a part in the run game failing. Let’s not mention Toa Lobendahn’s snapping issues which hasn’t gotten any better all season.
Against UCLA they did better in the pass protection. However, against Notre Dame, it could be a different story. This could be like how the USC o-line fared against Utah a month ago. However, Tim Drevno could have something to help the Trojans against the Notre Dame defense.
6. USC’s defense is pretty strong (31st in the country in S&P+). What are that unit’s biggest strengths and weaknesses, who are the names to know, and what do you expect from them on Saturday vs. Ian Book and co.?
Matt Lowry: USC has been hit-or-miss lately on defense, however that’s in the large part of the offense not doing their job. The unit’s biggest strength right now has to be the front 7 in the run defense. Before UCLA, the Trojans run defense was playing pretty well. It was tough to run on the Trojans.
Their BIGGEST weakness has been the pass rush and that’s in the large part of Porter Gustin going down. Gustin grabs a lot of attention to where it opens things up for other guys such as Christian Rector and Brandon Pili, to name a few. Without him, the pass rush has struggled to get pressure.
A name to keep an eye on is cornerback Iman Marshall. He had a bad game against UCLA where he was beat a few times. It wasn’t his best of performances at all. I expect him to have a bounce back game against Notre Dame this week to make up for it.
7. Looking at this ND team, which players, if any, scare you the most?
Matt Lowry: I wouldn’t say “scare” to be honest, but the player that I have my eye on is running back Dexter Williams. Williams has been on a tear recently and could really give the Trojans fits this season.
WE INTERRUPT THIS VERY GOOD Q&A FOR SOMETHING INCREDIBLY STUPID: TIME FOR A WORD FROM PAT’S PERSONAL PANEL OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL FANS, AKA SOME BUDDIES OF HIS IN A GROUPME CHAT!!!!
Pat Rick: GUYS — what do you think of USC?
Hux: I think they’re on a high speed ride to this year’s Cheez-It Bowl!
Hux: Yes, it’s real.
Serglock Holmes: Lil’ Romeo’s stats while at USC:
- 9 games
- 19 minutes played
- 5 points
- 3 rebounds
- 2 steals
- 1 assist
Hux: Where’d he get that shirt? ^ The local Walmart?
AMAZING STUFF! Now, back to the Q&A...
8. Notre Dame has a freshman RB named C’Borius Flemister. What are the best/funniest/most ridiculous names on the USC roster, and do any of them measure up to my guy C’Bo?
Matt Lowry: Hahaha oh man, the nod for names would have to be Amon-Ra St. Brown because it’s SO unique. That’s a name you don’t hear every day. So I have to put that up against him.
9. Hypothetical: You need to assemble a full kitchen staff of current USC players to prepare, cook, and serve Thanksgiving dinner to all of your most hard-to-please relatives. Who do you choose, what are their roles, and why?
Matt Lowry: Amon-Ra St. Brown is one because of who his parents are. Another would be JT Daniels, because he would command the kitchen a little bit. I’d also choose Michael Brown, Cam Smith, and of course the offensive line, because I feel the line would prepare a great meal.
10. Karaoke battle between Brian Kelly and Clay Helton — what song(s) does each coach sing, who has the better stage presence and charisma, and who ultimately wins?
Matt Lowry: This is a tough one. Clay Helton looks like a country singing guy so anything country is Helton’s.
Brian Kelly, on the other hand, is tricky because I can’t quite tell. If I had to guess it would probably be country as well haha.
I would have to go with Clay as the winner. Clay is a more energetic guy where Kelly seems like a more serious and down-to-business guy.
11. Prediction time: give me the final score, who wins, and your reasoning why.
Matt Lowry: Given the way USC has been performing the last few games, I would be shocked if the Trojans were even in this game. However, there’s something about rivalries that makes things that much more interesting. I think the USC seniors and players will play for pride and play hard to at least make the AD want to keep Helton for another year.
Also, bowl eligibility is on the line for the Trojans, so, if anything, expect USC to come out swinging. However, I don’t think it’ll be enough to keep up with Notre Dame. The Irish win this game significantly to finish a perfect regular season.
Despite the team he covers and roots for, I wanna give a big ole shout-out to Matthew for answering all my questions with some great info, and encourage all of you to head on over to Conquest Chronicles to check out all the great content they’ve got going on over there. I also recommend following them on Twitter, as well as my man Matt, for any and all hard-hitting Trojan updates heading into Saturday night’s game.
Finally, my usual thanks go out to my personal panel of college football fans, AKA Hux and Serglock Holmes, for the undeniably useful answers they provided. Bravo!
That’s all for today, folks — see you all in my game preview on Friday!