Notre Dame had been there. USC took it a step further.
Both programs have felt the full force of Alabama, the Irish falling in the BCS National Championship Game four years ago and the Trojans opening this fall with a 52-6 humiliation that put Clay Helton under incredible pressure.
When losses to Stanford and Utah followed, it appeared Helton might be one-and-done in Los Angeles. Now he enters this weekend on a seven-game win streak with an outside shot at a conference title. Irish Illustrated caught up with Ryan Abraham of USCFootball.com to get some insight into this remarkable turnaround.
Pete Sampson: I think most Notre Dame fans saw USC open against Alabama. So how in the world has USC gone from that disaster to winning six straight? You’ve been doing this a while and have sort of seen everything out there in the last 20 years.
Ryan Abraham: You said I’ve seen it all, I don’t know. There’s something new every year and this is certainly something new that I haven’t seen before. I was in the same boat as you after Alabama. And then USC was 1-3 and literally Clay Helton was 1-5 as the permanent head coach. He had been named the head coach after USC beat UCLA last year, doing it bizarrely right before the Pac-12 championship game, which made no sense. Helton comes out and he loses the Pac-12 championship game to Stanford, loses to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl, gets pumped by Alabama and then loses to Stanford and Utah. So his first six games, he’s 1-5, had not beat a Power 5 team yet and the expectation was he was the interim coach, he’s gonna be out after this year, there’s a new athletic director in Lynn Swann, he’s gonna have to make a move. We heard there was a lot of that mysterious booster pressure that you always hear about. But Helton has turned it around. Remember, Lynn Swann has never done this before, he’s never been an athletic director. So he’s kind of learning on the job, sitting back and figuring out what’s going on. I don’t think he wanted to make a move and now he certainly doesn’t have to. USC football is just on a completely different path now.
I think Sam Darnold taking over as the starting quarterback has been the biggest factor. But really the defense is playing better, the offensive line, which is really experienced, has turned it around. I think the coaches, a lot of rookie coaches, have learned on the job and they’re doing better. I think it’s been a full team turnaround, but the catalyst has been Sam Darnold.
PS: Explain what Darnold brings to that position that’s so unique, because watching him he looks like your classic USC quarterback in so many ways. For a red-shirt freshman, that’s saying a lot.
RA: I think it’s been a surprise that he could be as mature as he has been. We talked to a lot of the defensive coaches last year who saw him running the scout team and they’re like, ‘Man, this kid is really good.’ I think the biggest surprise would be if he’s really this good, how was he not named the starter at the beginning of the season? Once they switched from Max Browne, it’s been amazing.
We go out and we get to watch quarterbacks all the time in 7-on-7, practices, off-season stuff. A lot of what Darnold does, you can’t really practice it. He’s great at getting away from the pressure. If a defensive lineman touches him in practice, the play’s over. It’s not over in the real game. He’s great at getting touched, getting away from a pass rush. Not only that, he can do more than turn a three-yard sack into a five-yard gain. He can turn a three-yard sack into a 25-yard completion down the field. The stuff that you see in games that he does well, it just doesn’t even exist in practice because the played ended. They blow the whistle and they don’t allow it to happen. He’s one of those guys that’s just sort of a gamer, but it’s also just the fact his athletic ability sets him apart from a lot of the other traditional USC quarterbacks. He can take off and run, but it’s more about his movement in the pocket and being able to fight off a pass rush and still have the vision to get the ball down the field, that’s been the biggest surprise.
PS: When the season started that offensive line was cast as the real strength of the team, but following USC from afar it seems like that group hasn’t met expectations. What’s happened there?
RA: They’re still having problems. I think at the beginning of the year there were a lot of mental lapses and they’d get beat that way more than getting beat physically. You’d have a lot of problems pre-snap and it just sort of snowballed. It was tough for a quarterback like Max Browne to succeed in that situation. Even when Sam Darnold took over a lot of that stuff was still happening, he was just better at making a play out of it. Even now you’ll see some plays break down, there will be some short-yardage situations where they get beat mentally, they don’t get lined up and they don’t block a play right. But if it’s a passing play, Sam Darnold can make something out of it. He’s helped make the offensive line look better.
This line really was a head scratcher at the beginning of the year because there’s so much experience, and not just in the starting lineup. You had eight or nine guys who had starting experience. But it was a new offensive line coach and they’ve basically had five line coaches in five years. Not great for stability. When Neil Callaway came in as the new guy with experience in the SEC, you felt this was gonna be a more physical, dominating offensive line. It hasn’t really been that, but they’ve certainly gotten better during the year and having Sam Darnold back there helps.
PS: You’re on Round 2 with Clancy Pendergast as USC’s defensive coordinator. Is it any different from the first go-round? More aggressive style of play?
RA: I think he was pretty aggressive, even the first time around. I think that style of play fits the kind of athletes USC has on defense. We saw Justin Wilcox here the last couple years under Steve Sarkisian and it was more of a read-and-react defense. I don’t think it fit all that well. Now, he’s moved on to Wisconsin and is doing great things. It’s not like he’s a bad defensive coordinator. But his scheme just didn’t seem to fit. Under Clancy Pendergast, they’re blitzing a lot more, they’re playing more man-to-man coverage on the outside. It just seems to fit these athletes and they seem to enjoy playing that style. It’s a very good defense if you like advanced metrics in efficiency, but they do have trouble giving up explosive plays. We saw that against UCLA. They’re susceptible to those, they’re susceptible to counters, to misdirection plays because they can over-pursue. But I think they’re able to force so many negative plays that it puts opposing offenses in a lot of long yardage situations. I think to have that over and over again, to be able to pick up 3rd-and-10, 3rd-and-8, 3rd-and-12, that’s not easy for a college offense. If you’re able to force those negative pays early in the downs, you’re able to have a lot of success. They’ve really been able to do that. We’ve seen them give up some big plays, but it’s still been much more efficient.
PS: Wanted to ask you a little more about matchups with USC’s defense. Obviously, Notre Dame is a pass-first offense. It seems like USC is outstanding at cornerback, but how good are the Trojans in the middle of the field? Is there room to attack the defense if you can get the linebackers and safeties into coverage situations?
RA: Match-up wise I think it will be interesting because you see Notre Dame throwing the ball quite a bit. And in the middle of the field USC can be susceptible to some of that stuff. But really there are big plays to be had. They’re putting guys out there on an island. Adoree Jackson gave up two touchdowns to UCLA and gave up the only touchdown at Washington. He’s their best corner and he’s given up the only three touchdowns USC has allowed in the past two games.
How USC likes to play is to go nickel as their base defense. They have a true base defense but they almost never use it. It’s almost always nickel with two down linemen and then two outside linebackers rushing the passer with guys mixing up blitzes from different parts of the field. They’ve used that a lot. If you’re Stanford or Alabama, if you’re a power running team, that forces USC to play a defense that it’s not as comfortable with. They’re a lot more comfortable in nickel. Even at Utah, the Utes ran the ball for 12 straight plays and USC was in nickel the entire time. I think they’ll keep that extra safety in there and I think safeties Chris Hawkins and Leon McQuay have been playing really well, batting balls down, making big plays. USC will probably be in nickel a lot this weekend to combat DeShone Kizer and that offense.
PS: The other matchup that I want to see is how USC pushes the ball vertically against Notre Dame’s young secondary. The safety position is a weak spot athletically for this defense, but will the Trojans try to go deep? Is that their approach?
RA: It’s kind of like what we talked about on the defensive side, the USC offense is very efficient in its numbers but the explosive play volume isn’t great. They do a really good job of plays in the 10+ yard range, so there’s good intermediate stuff over the middle. You’re seeing, 10-yard gains, 15-yard gains or 20-yard gains that really aren’t the huge hitters all the way down the field. But they are pushing it beyond the sticks more, which we didn’t see a lot from the last couple of years. A lot less dump offs, a lot less bubble screens.
Sam Darnold, to his credit, looks for guys down the field a little bit more. And some of the success on the intermediate routes come four seconds after the ball is snapped, Darnold is running for his life, he’s rolling out, he’s finding guys down the field who are coming back for the ball. It’s an efficient offense, but they’re not getting the huge explosive plays. You’ll see that with Ronald Jones in the ground game sometimes, but the passing game is more about attacking the middle of the field.
PS: Outside of Sam Darnold, Adoree Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who are the guys really worth watching this weekend that might get USC over the top?
RA: On offense it’s a couple receivers. Darreus Rogers, he doesn’t put up gaudy numbers, but he’s a third down kind of guy. USC has been pretty efficient on third down, specially against Washington and UCLA. Darreus Rogers has been a big reason why. In the slot, I liked Steve Mitchell a lot before he went down with a knee injury, but Deontay Burnett stepped up and he’s been great in that role. Good possession receiver with some moves and he’s quick. Daniel Imatorbhebhe has really emerged at tight end lately. He’s a transfer from Florida, actually went there for spring ball, then sat out here last season. He’s catching balls down he field, has been a real difference maker. Having the tight end in a college offense, that makes a world of difference.
On defense, USC has a transfer from Utah at defensive tackle in Stevie Tu’ikolovatu who’s 25-years old, he’s married, did his mission. They really needed a veteran leader there because USC has a rookie defensive line coach in Kenechi Udeze, who was great as a player and Notre Dame fans might remember him from the Pete Carroll era. But it’s his first time coaching, so having a guy like Tu’ikolovatu come in and be a veteran leader has been great. He’s on the field a lot. Him and Rasheem Green are basically the only two guys with their hands on the ground. He’s a space eater but can make a bunch of plays too.
PS: That’s amazing. It’s hard to find grad transfers at all, never mind defensive linemen who can come in and make that kind of a difference.
RA: He wasn’t even really the starter at Utah, but they rotated a lot of guys. He made a difference, but they have a lot of guys there and some great defensive linemen. The fact that he came to USC and not only started but also played the whole time is kind of crazy.