1.) What's a common denominator in USC's 7 wins? When they're at their best, what's clicking? Conversely, can anything similar be gleaned from the four losses?
Abraham: This season the Trojans have played their best football against the worst teams. In the seven wins USC's opponents have a combined record of 35-42 and only two of those teams have a winning record (Stanford 6-5, Arizona 9-2). The four teams USC lost to have a combined record of 31-13.
Against the overmatched teams the USC offense is able to move the ball with balance, behind efficient passing by Cody Kessler and powerful running by Buck Allen. Against the tougher teams those yards are harder to come by, especially late in games.
In both wins and losses the Trojans have normally found themselves with early leads. In the wins, they typically give up a bunch of points in the second half and hold on to win. In the losses, they give up a bunch of points in the second half and lose.
Saturday against UCLA was the first time this season they were blown out, although the Boston College game wasn't as close as the final score indicated. In the losses to Arizona State and Utah the Trojans lost in the final seconds.
2.) Prior to last week against the Bruins, USC had played well since their embarrassing mid-September loss at Boston College, winning five of seven with two losses in the last 10 seconds. What's the team's mindset after last week's rivalry game humbling at the hands of UCLA and was that the official end of the Steve Sarkisian honeymoon period?
Abraham: I think the Steve Sarkisian honeymoon period ended at the press conference when he was hired. Fair or not, he was replacing Ed Orgeron who turned this team around after Lane Kiffin was fired at the airport. Somehow with three different head coaches USC finished the season with 10 wins and playing some inspiring football. Orgeron was extremely popular and anyone coming in to replace him was going to be expected to have success right away.
Because of that, this is almost a must-win game for Sarkisian. An 8-4 record with a win over Notre Dame would be immensely better than a 7-5 record with losses to both of USC's big rivals (and those fans who like to quote the nickname 'Seven-win Sark' would have a field day). And that win over the Irish is something Ed Orgeron wasn't able to deliver, so that would also create some separation to the comparisons between the two coaches.
Sarkisian said after Tuesday's practice that this was the perfect game following that loss to the Bruins. It should allow the players to put any bad thoughts behind them and focus on getting a win against a national rival on senior day in the Coliseum. Will the players bounce back quickly though? That remains to be seen.
3.) After the worst performance by a Trojans rush defense in recent memory at BC, USC held its next eight foes in check on the ground. Is that a function of playing in a pass-first league? Or were they able to right the ship after the Eagles rolled up 450-plus?
Abraham: I think after getting embarrassed by Boston College USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox made stopping the run the focus of this defense. They played Arizona State and Arizona back-to-back and in each game the Sun Devils and Wildcats were leading the conference in rushing. The Trojans did a good job shutting both of those teams out on the ground, but in doing so gave up some huge numbers through the air (510 and 395 yards respectively).
USC even did a pretty good job against UCLA, keeping Paul Perkins under 4 yards per carry and Brent Hundley to just 19 yards rushing.
The Trojan defensive calls have been fairly vanilla most of the season, but they have done a good job of limiting opponents' success on the ground.
4.) What has quarterback Cody Kessler improved upon since Irish fans saw him last October in South Bend? His numbers (36 TD, 4 INT) are Heisman worthy.
Abraham: Since last season I think Kessler has grown up as a leader on this team. He feels more comfortable running the offense and when things are going well, he can really get on a roll. He has got off to a fast start in most games this season, but at some point he and the offense usually hit a wall.
Kessler has run Sark's system extremely well as his numbers show. But if you break down the numbers, he is getting the majority of those touchdowns against the less talented teams on the schedule.
To truly be a great quarterback, Kessler needs to show that he can put the team on back against the toughest competition on the schedule and win when facing adversity. Can you get down early and bounce back? Can you lead a game winning drive late in the fourth quarter? He showed the ability to do that against Boston College, but the USC defense could never get a stop. Against UCLA the Trojans were in a big hole early and the offense essentially disappeared.
It will be interesting to see, against that young Notre Dame defense, if the Trojans get down early will Kessler be able to climb out of the hole and bring his team back to victory.
5.) How much of an issue is developed depth at USC, just a summer removed from the end of its NCAA sanctions? Is 2015 the season in which they'll be playing with a full deck, relatively speaking?
Abraham: This is a huge debate among Trojan fans. Personally, I am not a subscriber to the 'sanctions are the reasons they are struggling late in games' argument. If you look at the participation charts USC is playing close to the number of players as their opponents. Sure they don't have that many available scholarship players, but their two-deep is very talented and they have remained relatively healthy throughout the season.
Now can they practice as hard and do they not have as good of competition in practice because of the lack of players? Sure. But as far as front and second line talent goes, USC is fine. The Trojans had the same obstacles last season and won 10 games.
In February USC can bring in a full class for the first time in three years, but it won't be enough to bring the team back up to 85 scholarship players. It will take at least until the class of 2016 for the Trojans to get back above 80, and it could take longer depending on attrition.