Prister’s Preview: Notre Dame vs. USC

USC remains dangerous with an efficient, explosive quarterback in Cody Kessler with weapons at the skill positions, led by wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and a trio of RBs.

USC interim head coach

Clay Helton (6th year at USC) – Helton, 43, got his start in the coaching business in the mid-1990s after serving as a backup quarterback at Auburn and Houston. His first full-time coaching jobs came with Duke and then Houston as running backs coach.

Helton spent 10 seasons (2000-09) at Memphis, coaching running backs for three years, receivers for four, and then quarterbacks while serving as offensive coordinator his final three seasons with the Tigers

Lane Kiffin brought Helton to USC in 2010, where he served as quarterbacks coach for two seasons before taking over coordinator duties in 2013. He is 1-0 as an interim head coach. USC defeated Fresno State in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl.

Key personnel

• QB-Cody Kessler (Sr.) – Director of USC’s big-play offense with 15 touchdown passes through the first five games while completing 69.5 percent (105-of-151) for 1,453 yards and three interceptions. That gives Kessler 54 touchdown passes in the last 18 games, or exactly three per game. Kessler and two backup quarterbacks have completed passes to an incredible 17 different players.
• WR-JuJu Smith-Schuster (Soph.) – A statistically-dominant wideout for the Trojans with nearly 30 percent (33 receptions) of USC’s 114 completions and 40 percent (six) of the team’s 15 passing touchdowns. A rookie sensation in ’14 with 54 catches for 724 yards and five touchdowns. Has become more of a big-play, downfield threat with an 18.8-yard average per reception. Averaging 123.8 yards receiving per game.
• LB-Su’a Cravens (Jr.) – Five-star recruit has lived up to his billing, first at safety and now as an outside linebacker as he’s filled out to 225 pounds. The team’s top returning tackler for loss (12) and passes broken up (9) while also pacing the squad in interceptions (3). Currently the team’s second-leading tackler (31) while pacing the squad in tackles for loss (4) and interceptions (tied with 2).
• CB/WR/PR/KR-Adoree’ Jackson (Soph.) – The multi-faceted athlete literally contributes in all three phases of the game. Starting cornerback, part-time receiver and punt/kick return standout. Third on the team in receptions with a modest 10, although he’s averaging 19.6 yards per game with an 80-yard score against Arizona State. Averaging 10.2 yards per punt return (45 long) and 23.0 yards per kick return (40 long).
• LB-Cameron Smith (Fr.) – Early-entry, true freshman Mike linebacker has shared time with veteran Lamar Dawson. Leads the team in tackles (42). Second most tackles among freshmen in the country and in line to become the first true freshman to pace the Trojans in stops for a season.

What USC does well

• Score points: The Washington game not withstanding, the Trojans are a scoring machine, averaging 35.8 ppg. in ’14 (tied for 17th in TDs with 63) and on a better pace this year with 199 points in fives games (one point shy of 40 points per game). Granted, most of the Trojans’ damage came against Arkansas State (55 points) and Idaho (59), but the Trojans are 16th in the nation in total offense (494.8 ypg.) and hung 49 points on the Irish last year.
• Passing efficiency: The Trojans enter this week’s action with the No. 4 pass-efficiency rating (177.17) in the country. USC averages 316.8 yards passing per game and Cody Kessler has a 54-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio since the first game of ’14. The Trojans average 9.7 yards per pass attempt (6th in the country) while the 69.5 completion percentage is 7th.
• Protect the football: USC has just five turnovers in five games/332 snaps. That’s one turnover every 66.4 plays. Most FBS teams have played one more game than the Trojans, but the fact remains they are tied for 12th in turnovers, due largely to Cody Kessler’s protection of the football. His eight interceptions over the last year-and-a-half have come on 603 pass attempts (one every 75.3 throws).
• Fast starts: The Trojans have allowed just seven points in the first quarter (75 minutes) while scoring 59.
• Preventing big plays: USC has allowed just three plays of 40 yards or more compared to nine surrendered by the Irish.

Where USC struggles

• Sacks/tackles for loss: USC’s 27 tackles for loss through five games rank just 101st in the country while the 10 sacks (2.0 per game) are tied for 56th nationally. In addition, the Trojans have just eight quarterback pressures and four interceptions against 184 pass attempts.
• Possess the football: This can be a deceiving category because of Cody Kessler’s quick-strike ability. But the fact that USC averages just 25:09 time of possession compared to its opponents’ 34:51 could be a determining factor against a Notre Dame team with a ground game that averages 238 yards per contest. The Trojans are just 76th nationally in third-down defense at 38.4 percent conversion rate while the offense is 101st nationally at 34.5 percent.
• Second-half scoring differential: USC has scored just 71 points in the second half this year (14.2 average) while allowing 57 (11.4 average).
• Maintaining continuity: USC will be seeking its third head coach since Pete Carroll’s departure following the 2009 season in light of the recent firing of Steve Sarkisian. Clay Helton is the program’s interim head coach – for a second time – as was Ed Oregon in 2013. For the second time in three years, the Trojans are without its head coach after five games.

Kelly’s Call

“If you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny, I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.

“They have (some of) the finest athletes in the country. I recruited a lot of them. They have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride. They will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there’s no question about that.”

Odds and ends

Notre Dame played Navy for the 89th consecutive year last week and takes on USC for the 87th time with three years off during World War II…In a rivalry normally earmarked by lengthy winning/losing streaks, Notre Dame has won three of the last five, including a 22-13 victory as the No. 1-ranked team in the country in 2012, giving the Irish a shot at the national championship vs. Alabama…Pete Carroll led USC to eight straight victories over Notre Dame from 2002-09, four of which were by 31 points or more. The closest game during that span was a 34-31 loss in 2005 when No. 9 Notre Dame narrowly fell to the No. 1-ranked Trojans. An unranked Irish squad fell 34-27 against No. 6 USC in 2009…From 1965-80 – a span of 16 seasons – both Notre Dame and USC were ranked in the AP poll 14 times with the Irish winning four and the Trojans winning eight with two ties. Since 1981, including this week’s clash between No. 14 Notre Dame and unranked USC, both teams have been ranked at the time of the game just eight times (out of 35)…Since 1964, an AP-ranked Notre Dame team has played an unranked USC team 10 times. Each has won five. The last time a ranked Notre Dame team played an unranked USC team was in 2012 with the Irish winning, 22-13…The Irish are 10-2 all-time in night games at Notre Dame Stadium with a current four-game winning streak. USC was the last team to defeat the Irish at night at home. The Trojans claimed a 31-17 victory in 2011…For just the second time in Notre Dame history, the Irish are playing two night games at home in a season. The other time was in 1988 – the last time the Irish won a national title.

Prister’s breakdown

It’s difficult to imagine a more tumultuous 10 days for a college football team than what USC has experienced since last Thursday’s 17-12 home loss to Washington, dropping the Trojans to 3-2 and eliminating them from playoff consideration.

Three days later, USC athletics director Pat Haden put head coach Steve Sarkisian on a leave of absence, citing health issues, and within 24 hours, Sarkisian was fired.

Offensive coordinator Clay Helton became USC’s sixth head coach/interim head coach since 2009, following Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron (in place of Kiffin), Helton (in place of Orgeron), Sarkisian and now Helton once again.

Oh, yeah, and there’s a game this weekend. At night. In prime time. In Notre Dame Stadium. Against Notre Dame.

How do the Trojans take the turmoil that’s been dropped in their laps and turn it into a positive? Team Turmoil is used to it. From scholarship reductions to bowl bans and vacated national titles, rotating head coaches is just another part of the hand regularly dealt at USC.

Most USC players go there because of the opportunity they have to parlay their successes with the Trojans into lucrative contracts and long NFL careers. Nothing has changed with regard to that, although when it comes to team goals, the focus has been compromised as the 87th meeting between Notre Dame and USC comes together Saturday night.

The fact is 10½ months ago, the proverbial shoe of adversity was knotted on Notre Dame’s foot. Losers of three straight with a medic’s symbol serving as its new logo, the Irish never stood a chance in the Coliseum in the ’14 regular-season finale, falling behind 21-0 in the first quarter and finally absorbing a merciful 49-14 defeat as Sarkisian called off the dogs early.

Respective emotional upheavals aside, how does Notre Dame narrow the gap that was as huge as the distance between South Bend and Los Angeles? For starters, by putting a completely different defense on the field than the one that masqueraded as a legitimate Irish stop unit last November.

Among the players not in the lineup that day were Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones, Joe Schmidt, Cody Riggs, KeiVarae Russell, Drue Tranquill, Austin Collinsworth and, shortly after the game commenced, Max Redfield. Among those in the lineup that day were Justin Utupo, Jacob Matuska, Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan and Chase Hounshell, none of which were ready to put forth a performance that could stop the Cody Kessler-led assault.

Jones, Riggs and Collinsworth won’t be around Saturday night either. But a much more formidable starting unit will represent the Irish defense when Kessler and his many skill-position weapons take the field in what could be a season-saving game for the Trojans while the Irish desperately seek a spot of playoff ground upon which to stand heading into a bye week.

Besides a more stable defense, the Irish also boast an offense that is one of just 15 in the FBS averaging more than 500 yards total offense per game while ranking 20th in scoring (37.8 ppg.).

While USC frequently put out dominant defenses during the Pete Carroll era, those days are in the past, particularly now that first-round draft choice Leonard Williams has moved on to the NFL. The Trojans are among the bottom 20 percent in the country in tackles for loss while averaging just two sacks per game. Opponents are averaging nearly 160 yards rushing per game against the Trojans.

Notre Dame’s offensive weaponry looks well-equipped to put up a scoring total in the 30s, just as Stanford scored 41 while racking up 26 first downs. It should be noted, however, that the Trojans still have plenty of individual defensive talent on a unit dotted with four- and five-star prospects.

Where the Trojans continue to thrive is on the offensive side of the football as quarterback Cody Kessler heads into the home stretch of what has become a brilliant collegiate career. His 54-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 70ish completion percentage with a trio of running backs and a limited but deadly receiving corps gives this game a high-scoring feel.

A key variable that could sway it in the opposite direction is the absence of veteran center Max Tuerk, whose 38 career starts went down the drain during the Washington loss when he suffered a knee injury that will keep him out of the Notre Dame game. Kessler’s veteran status will help the Trojans maintain their pass protections in order. But by losing Tuerk and moving sophomore Toa Lobendahn from right guard to center, that means sophomore Viane Talamaivao will be making his first start of the season.

Individually, the Trojans boast plenty of offensive line talent, including former Irish recruits Zach Banner (RT) and Damien Mama (LG). The question is the cohesion with 13 sacks allowed through the first five games as well as 33 tackles for loss – both figures higher than what the Trojan defense has been able to create.

Notre Dame does not possess a great pass rush, which should give JuJu Smith-Schuster several opportunities to hurt the Irish through the air. But it’s a sturdy front that certainly can disrupt the balance of USC’s offense by unsettling the Trojans’ ground game.

Kessler has averaged three touchdown passes per game since the start of the 2014 season. He threw six against Notre Dame last year. As long as the Irish keep Kessler near his average, Notre Dame should have enough offensive success to compete for a victory.

Any turnover forced would be a bonus since Kessler has thrown just three interceptions on 151 passes and the Trojans have turned it over just five times on the season. Kessler’s weaponry has been reduced with the ankle injury suffered by USC’s second-leading receiver – Steven Mitchell, Jr.

Another area where Notre Dame must be on its toes is in the return game. The Irish always seem to be on the verge of allowing a long kick return. USC boasts Adoree’ Jackson on both kickoffs and punts. The Irish cannot afford to allow the Trojan special teams to lead directly to a score or two.

USC has allowed just seven points in the first quarter this season, which could be a very significant 15 minutes this Saturday night. A slow start cost the Irish against Clemson. A fast start against USC – a 10-0 or 14-3 lead – would test the wherewithal of a Trojan program rife with reasons to be less than completely committed to the winning cause in light of the coaching upheaval.

There should be no doubt about Notre Dame’s commitment to the cause. This is a veteran, cohesive, unified football team taking on a talented but disjointed USC program. Notre Dame has more reasons to come out on top of this game than USC, particularly with a night game in Notre Dame Stadium as temperatures are expected to fall into the upper 30s.

Notre Dame maximizes the advantages it possesses over the Trojans at the present time and maintains a shot at a playoff spot heading into a much-valued bye week.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 6½; over-under 61 
Prediction: Notre Dame 31, USC 26
2015 Season Record: 4-2 straight up; 1-5 vs. points; 4-2 over-under Top Stories