No college football team has been the subjected to more discussion and debate in recent days than the USC Trojans (3-2, 1-2). One of football’s most prestigious programs, USC has suffered problems on and off the field in a headline-grabbing and chaotic seven days.
It all began on Thursday, when USC suffered a home loss to the Washington Huskies on national television to drop out of the Top 25. Three days later, athletic director Pat Haden announced that head coach Steve Sarkisian would take a leave of absence. Then on Monday, the school confirmed that Sarkisian was fired, after coaching 18 games, for alcohol-related reasons.
On Tuesday, ESPN aired “Trojan War,” a documentary film from its “30 for 30” series, which highlighted the rise and fall of USC’s football team under former head coach Pete Carroll that included national championships, Heisman Trophies, and then the NCAA sanctions that followed. In some ways, the documentary was a reflection on the good times and the possibility of a return to glory, but it seemed more about how the program is still feeling the hangover of their winning ways the consequences of their success.
Perhaps lost in all the commotion is the upcoming rivalry game against No. 14 Notre Dame (5-1) in South Bend, and a decade after the famous “Bush Push.” On Twitter, Sarkisian, who was the quarterbacks coach in 2005, posted encouraging comments to his former squad ahead of one of their most important games of the season. Indeed, Sarkisian’s absence looms large over new interim head coach Clay Helton as the offensive coordinator helps the Trojans cope with yet another coaching change. It will be up to Helton, who is the fourth different USC coach in four seasons to face the Fighting Irish, to keep the team focused in the midst of difficult circumstances.
But even the coach on the opposing sideline is mixed up with the USC coaching saga. Amid speculation that Notre Dame's Brian Kelly might be a candidate for the USC job, it didn’t take long for the out-of-thin-air rumor to get shot down.
"Yeah how about what we do here is we avoid the noise," said Kelly, who is in his sixth season. "And that would be considered a lot of noise."
The Fighting Irish are favored on Saturday’s game after a thorough win over Navy, and following their tight loss at Clemson on Oct. 3. But Notre Dame struggles after they face Navy, with just a 2-6 record over eight seasons. The Irish, however, will be playing with extra motivation against USC. Last year, with a limited number of scholarship players in uniform, the Trojans trounced the Irish at the Coliseum, 49-10.
The offense is led by C.J. Prosise, who has been exceptional this season. Prosise scored three touchdowns and rushed for 129 yards against Navy to raise his Heisman Trophy candidacy. While he failed to rush for 100 yards against Clemson, the senior running back caught four passes for 100 yards and a touchdown to maintain his six-game streak of 100 total yards.
Turnovers have plagued the passing game. Quarterback DeShone Kizer, who has filled in for Malik Zaire, has thrown an interception in each of his last four games. But the sophomore has also scored three rushing touchdowns has thrown for over 200 yards in his last four games. More than likely, Kizer will be a bit more careful with his passes against a strong USC secondary.
The Notre Dame defense could use a lift, too. Navy was able to convert on all four of their fourth-down situations, and rushed for 318 yards. Against Clemson, the Irish defense did an excellent job containing the Tigers’ passing game, but allowed two big rushing gains of 38 and 33 yards and allowed 212 total rushing yards.
USC will look to rebound from perhaps their most uninspiring game since a 38-20 loss to UCLA in 2014. In a 17-12 loss to Washington, Heisman Trophy candidate Cody Kessler provided his worst performance since his sophomore season. From the outset, Kessler looked awkward and unfocused, failing to lead the offense to a touchdown until the fourth quarter. The senior finished with just 156 passing yards and two interceptions.
While the passing game suffered, the ground game thrived. Tre Madden and Ronald Jones combined for 185 rushing yards against the Huskies, and have provided the Trojans with over 600 combined yards and seven touchdowns on the season.
The USC defense, which looked overmatched against Stanford in Week 3, has rebounded effectively, slowing both Arizona State and Washington in the past two games.
Betting Line: Notre Dame by 6.5
Over/Under: 60.5 points
Prediction: Notre Dame will be focused at home, and should be effective in running the ball on a somewhat vulnerable USC defense. The Fighting Irish should keep things simple, as USC is likely to take more chances on the road. Expect a bounce-back effort from Kessler, but for the Trojans to come up short at the end.
Prediction: Notre Dame over USC, 34-28