First Look: USC

If all goes to plan, the primetime date with USC on Oct. 17 could clear Notre Dame’s path to playoffs. It could do the same for the Trojans.

Steve Sarkisian is used to this, just not as a head coach.

The USC boss served as a Pete Carroll assistant for seven seasons as the Trojans dominated Notre Dame and consistently challenged for national championships. Then Sarkisian went to Washington for a rebuilding job, where winning the Apple Cup was an accomplishment.

Now in his second year as USC’s head coach, the task for Sarkisian is clear. He needs to get back to Carroll levels of winning. With USC’s scholarship restrictions coming off the books, a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback, overflowing skill talent and a favorable early schedule, the Trojans are primed for a run.

“Nine wins last year was a little bit short of what people thought, even though it was his first year,” said Ryan Abraham of “Now you’re seeing Top 10 predictions and it’s getting real for Steve Sarkisian. There’s no grace period now.”

USC opens with three straight home games (Arkansas State, Idaho, Stanford) before heading to Arizona State and hosting Washington. Then comes the showdown in South Bend on Oct. 17, with a trip to Oregon on Nov. 21 another national game.

Irish Illustrated’s off-season look at Notre Dame’s slate moves to rival USC.

Big Game Cody?

Cody Kessler faced Notre Dame last season dogged by questions that he only threw darts against inferior competition. Turns out the Irish didn’t help him answer that charge. Kessler took advantage of Notre Dame’s collapse with a near perfect game: 32-of-40 for 372 yards, six touchdowns, zero interceptions.

Against mediocre competition, Kessler was deadly. Fresno State, Colorado, Boston College, Oregon State, Washington State, California and Notre Dame all found out. Kessler threw 32 touchdown passes against that group against just one pick.

But defenses with a pulse pushed Kessler, who threw two touchdowns total against Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA. The Trojans lost two of those games and nearly dropped all four. Now Kessler is being pumped as a Heisman Trophy candidate, following Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart there, along with other USC prototypes Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley.

“I think he’s handled things pretty well,” Abraham said. “This will kind of be his first year of coming back established with a second-year head coach. I think this will be his year to have a breakout season. And he knows he can’t have one-touchdown, one-interception games against bigger programs.”

“His personality is different than those other guys. He’s not as gregarious as a Leinart, but Carson Palmer really wasn’t (outgoing) like that either.”

Defensive Rebuild

At its best, USC was more than a tinderbox of offensive gunpowder.

Pete Carroll’s last great team (’08) bludgeoned opponents and allowed just nine points per game during a 12-1 season that ended in the Rose Bowl. It hasn’t been the same since. Last year USC allowed 25.2 points per game despite holding Fresno State, Stanford and Oregon State to 33 points total in September.

That’s part of the reason why the Trojans missed the Pac-12 title game could fail to make a serious run at the College Football Playoff this year. And what USC did achieve on defense last season came with All-American defensive end Leonard Williams, who went No. 6 in the NFL Draft this spring.

Despite the demolition of Notre Dame, there was also the 452 yards rushing allowed at Boston College, the Hail Mary loss to Arizona State and the 3,569 yards passing allowed for the season. That figure ranked No. 120 nationally, although it was actually mid-table in the Pac-12.

USC returns starting experience at every position on defense but still must replace Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard and defensive lineman J.R. Tavai. They combined for 14 sacks and another 14.5 tackles for loss. Su’a Cravens returns at linebacker, the USC equivalent of Jaylon Smith.

 “A lot of uncertainty on the defensive line,” Abraham said. “A lot of talent there, but guys are going to have to come in and make plays that haven’t really done it before.”

The Trojans need middle linebacker Lamar Dawson to continue his surprising off-season after missing last fall with a knee injury. Dawson went down midway through 2013 with a torn ACL and needed more than a year to get back.

“He changed his whole attitude and really turned a lot of heads,” Abraham said. “He’s a senior that you didn’t expect much production from and I think they’re going to rely heavily on him this year.”

The Indefensible Positions

It’s difficult to know who got the worst of Adoree Jackson.

But it was definitely Greer Martini or Brian VanGorder.

With the game still in doubt – it was still the first quarter – USC put the five-star freshman in the backfield, then sprinted him out at the snap. It left Martini helpless to cover the dual-threat athlete with literal world-class speed. Jackson is open about his goals to medal in the Olympics next summer in Brazil. He competed with the Trojans track team this spring and finished fifth in the long jump at the NCAA meet.

Martini never got close and Jackson never got touched.

Schematically and athletically, the Irish had no answer for Jackson. And now he’ll be more than VanGorder’s problem. USC plans to amplify Jackson on offense, defense and special teams, rotating him through roles this off-season. He only made cameos in those roles last season.

“They say his football IQ is off the charts,” Abraham said. “He knows the playbook on both sides. And really last year on special teams, the schemes weren’t all the great, it was more about Adoree just making an individual play.”

Jackson returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last season. Now there’s an opening on punt return, where Nelson Agholor scored twice before departing early for the NFL. The receiving rotation should open up too, with Agholor and George Farmer gone, although Juju Smith, another former five-star recruit in the sophomore class, returns.

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