It’s BEAT SC week, you guys.
The Trojans have had an up-and-down year so far with plenty of QB injuries and that beloved annual talk about Clay Helton’s hot seat, but they also come into this game with super-dangerous talent at receiver, a solid defense, and a desire to right the ship and build lots of momentum by upsetting a hated, top-10 rival on the road.
So, to understand what exactly is going on with this USC team and to get the skinny on how they match up with the Irish, I talked to Matthew Lowry of Conquest Chronicles, discussing everything from Helton’s future with the program, Matt Fink’s abilities, assembling a squad of Trojans to take down an evil clown, and more.
Let’s do this.
1. It seems to have been a roller coaster start to the season for Trojan fans, considering USC has had a couple wins over ranked teams, lost a couple road games, and already has had to deal with a number of injuries. What are your thoughts on the season so far, and on how the rest of the year will play out for USC?
Matthew Lowry: So far, I feel the Trojans being 3-2 is just about right. Many fans will believe that this team should be 4-1 right now. I would say this team is about average, if not the same as 2018.
Now, keep in mind USC did have to deal with injuries, especially at quarterback. Moving forward the schedule is indeed favorable. USC can finish the season with about 8 wins, however you’re banking on a lot to change with USC moving forward.
2. What are your personal feelings, and also the general feelings of the fanbase, toward coach Clay Helton, who is seemingly always on the hot seat but also keeps managing to keep his job? Do you think he’s the right coach for this program, or is it about time to make a change -- especially with the regime change at athletic director?
Matthew Lowry: My personal feelings on Helton are that I feel he is a great guy, however as a coach he has lacked in several departments. If there was one year to judge him and his progress as a head coach, then this is it.
The fanbase, on the other hand, is a different story. After the loss to BYU, most wanted him out and it is hard to blame them at this rate. I don’t think he is the right guy for the program.
Many will talk about how he’s a great guy, however wins and being an elite program once again are what matters here, and Helton doesn’t fit that description unfortunately. If USC fails to perform against Notre Dame, then it’s time to make the change. Yes, USC is without an Athletic Director, but you have to ask “How much longer can you let this go on?”
3. Let’s talk about third-string QB Matt Fink, who is now the starter for USC due to injuries suffered by JT Daniels and Kedon Slovis. What does he do well, what does he not do well, and how do you think he will play against a stingy Notre Dame defense?
Matthew Lowry: Well as of this moment we don’t know the status of Kedon Slovis or who will start at quarterback.
*Editor’s Note: Slovis was medically cleared and it was reported he will start against ND after Matthew’s answers were sent over*
Assuming Slovis isn’t cleared, Fink brings a couple of things to this team, one being that he is mobile. Teams have to respect his scrambling ability as a threat if he can’t find anyone open. He’ll extend plays with his legs if need be. He also runs high off of emotions. You saw against Utah that after the big plays he made he was fired up, which fed into the team.
A downside to Fink is that he has issues making the proper read. Against Washington he had a bad time making the right reads, which led to three interceptions. On zone reads he made the wrong reads by handing off instead of keeping or keeping instead of handing off.
Notre Dame generates a lot of pressure with their four man rush. It will depend on what Graham Harrell has planned against the Irish defense. If he can take advantage of the soft zone coverage to nickel and dime his way down the field, then he’ll be in good shape.
4. The one thing USC definitely has, that should scare the fans of any Trojan opponent, are great offensive skill position guys — specifically wide receiver. Run through the big-time play-makers that Fink will have to work with on Saturday, and whom the ND defense will struggle to contain on Saturday night.
Matthew Lowry: USC will have Amon-Ra St Brown, Tyler Vaughns, and Michael Pittman Jr., which is a hard time to cover in general. Many already know about them, however it has been the running backs that have gained some attention.
Markese Stepp, Vavae Malepeai, and Stephen Carr have been productive in a pass-happy offense due to teams dropping eight into coverage. However, as mentioned, you could see USC work more short routes and screens to get the passing game going.
One player to keep an eye on is Michael Pittman Jr. The senior wide receiver has caught a touchdown pass in three consecutive games and has been Fink’s go-to man.
5. How has the USC offensive line been this year? Will the Trojans be able to effectively run the ball on Saturday, and do you think the Trojan tackles are prepared to block Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, etc. coming off the edge on passing downs?
Matthew Lowry: USC’s offensive line has been up and down. They’ve had some pretty good games against Stanford and Fresno State, however recently they’ve struggled against a three man rush brought by BYU and Washington.
They’ve also had a hard matchup against Utah’s defensive line. I think on Saturday against Notre Dame’s defensive line is going to be telling on if any improvements were made during the bye week.
6. Which position groups are strengths and which are weaknesses on the USC defense, and who are the X-factors who will need to bring their A-games in order to slow down Ian Book and the Irish?
Matthew Lowry: I think the defensive line is the strength and X-factor in Saturday’s game vs Notre Dame. USC’s defensive line has done an outstanding job generating pressure and slowing down the interior run. They are by far the strongest group on this team as a whole.
As far as a weakness, I have to say the linebackers at this point. We haven’t seen too much from them, and they have lacked the ability to help contain the outside run game. Also, the missed tackles have been a huge problem that needs to be handled right away.
7. Notre Dame has a sophomore 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?
Matthew Lowry: I would say the best nickname would have to belong to cornerback Olaijah Griffin with “OG.” That would have to be the best one by far to me.
8. Dance-off between Brian Kelly and Clay Helton — what song(s) does each coach dance to, who has the better stage presence and charisma, and who ultimately wins?
Matthew Lowry: For Brian Kelly I’d have to give him “Sorry Not Sorry” by Demi Lovato. As far as Helton, maybe some Toby Keith seeing as Helton is a southern man.
I have to give the nod to Helton with him having the better performance. Look no further than him dancing in the locker room following the victory over Utah. End of topic right there haha.
9. You and a select group of current/former USC football players and coaches need to band together to defeat an evil clown who’s been terrorizing your small town in Maine, killing people left and right. Who do you choose to go down into the sewers and fight alongside you, and why?
Matthew Lowry: I would go with Porter Gustin due to his size and the fact that the man hunts on his own free will, Pete Carroll for his boldness and leadership, and Matt Leinart because the man literally would go through anything just to get the job done.
10. Prediction time: give me the final score for USC @ ND, who wins, and your reasoning why.
Matthew Lowry: For three months I’ve been saying that this is the year USC defeats Notre Dame in South Bend. I’ve been wrong on predictions so far, however I have no problem sticking with this one. I feel this will be the game that USC gets it done on the road. A fresh and healthy Trojans team will pull off the big win in South Bend.
I want to give a big shout-out to Matthew for answering all my questions with great aplomb, and encourage you all to follow him on Twitter, follow Conquest Chronicles on Twitter, and check out the Conquest Chronicles site for any and all Trojans coverage heading into this game.
I’ll see y’all in my game preview on Friday. Until then — BEAT SC BAY-BEEEEE.