Game 6: ‘All the World’s Weight Is on My Back, and I Don’t Even Know Why’
The USC Trojans (3-2, 1-2 in the Pac-12) head to the autumnal Midwest to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (5-1), ranked No. 13 in the USA Today coaches’ poll and No. 14 by the Associated Press, on Saturday, October 17, at 4:30 p.m. PDT at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. The latest meeting in college football’s greatest intersectional rivalry will be televised nationally by NBC. This is the 87th meeting between the Trojans and Irish, with ND holding a 45-36-5 edge. In 2014, USC throttled Notre Dame, 49-14, in Los Angeles – notching its 10th win in the past 13 meetings. In the prior meeting under the Golden Dome, the Irish held off the Trojans, 14-10, in 2013.
As hard as it might be to believe for the emotionally drained Trojan fan base, when USC takes the field on Saturday night, it will only be nine days since Troy’s stunning 17-12 defeat by Washington at the Coliseum on Oct. 8. While Trojans were deeply frustrated by the Huskies’ defense – and Trojan fans’ baffled by USC’s apparent inability to solve it – the events that occurred in the days since the loss will have a much more lasting impact. Meanwhile, junior running back C.J. Prosise ran for 129 yards and three touchdowns, and redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer threw for 281 yards, in Notre Dame’s 41-24 home victory over Navy last Saturday.
The Trojans have featured a different head coach in each of the past three meetings with the Irish – a streak that will hit four, as interim head coach Clay Helton (1-0 at USC, after serving in the same role in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl win over Fresno State) takes over for Steve Sarkisian (12-6 at USC; 46-35 career collegiate head coaching record) after he was fired on Monday. Sarkisian was put on an indefinite leave of absence on Sunday, when USC athletic director Pat Haden said that he had arrived for work “not healthy.” Sarkisian is believed to have entered an addiction rehabilitation facility late Monday. Irish headman Brian Kelly (221-78-2 in 25 seasons as a collegiate head coach; 50-21 at Notre Dame) is in his sixth season in South Bend. Faced with a gruesome string of injuries prior to and early in the 2015 campaign, the Irish have weathered much of the storm, with a 24-22 loss at soggy Clemson on Oct. 3 as their only blemish thus far.
Notre Dame Offense
When Kelly pried away first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sanford – no, not the offensive coach who’s had stints at USC and seemingly everywhere else in recent decades, but his 33-year old son – from Boise State after the 2014 season, many were wondering what to expect from a young man with just a single year of experience as an OC at the major college level. But after leading an impressive Bronco attack a season ago, Sanford hasn’t missed a beat in South Bend. Despite the transfer of 2014 starting QB Everett Golson to Florida State – and then losing sophomore QB Malik Zaire during Notre Dame’s second game at Virginia – the Irish have rallied behind redshirt freshman Kizer. Notre Dame ranks No. 14 nationally in total offense (502.7 yards per game), 13th in rushing offense (238 yards per game), No. 15 in passing efficiency, and No. 19 in scoring (37.8 points per game). The sizeable Kizer (6’4”, 230 lbs.) is not yet the runner that Golson and Zaire are, but he’s effective enough (128 rushing yards, 3.1 yards per carry, three TDs) and has taken decent care of the ball – a big issue for ND in 2014. He’s completed 65.9 percent of his passes, with eight TD tosses and four interceptions.
Kizer is supported by a solid group of veteran receivers, led by Will Fuller. The speedy junior averages an eye-popping 19.7 yards per catch on a team-leading 29 grabs, including seven touchdowns. He’s in the national top 20 in several receiving categories. Steady senior Chris Brown has two TDs among his 24 catches (13.7 yards per), while former USC running back and converted slot receiver Amir Carlisle averages 10.1 yards on his 16 grabs. A pair of superstar sons – sophomore Torii Hunter Jr., son of Gold Glove outfielder Torii Hunter, and junior Corey Robinson, son of former NBA center David Robinson – is also in the mix. Hunter has 10 grabs and a score, while Robinson is – as you might imagine – a big target who has seven catches. The loss of 2014 tight end Ben Koyack to graduation has left ND less reliant on that position. A pair of freshmen – redshirt Alize Jones and true Nic Weishar have combined for nine grabs.
Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, Tarean Folston, saw his junior season come to an abrupt end, suffering a torn ACL after just three carries in the opener vs. Texas. However, converted slot back Prosise has been a revelation for the Irish, averaging 7.1 yards per carry (10th nationally) and scoring nine rushing TDs (11th nationally). Combining speed and surprising power, Prosise has failed to hit the 100-yard mark against only Texas (98) and Clemson (50). He’s also maintained those pass-catching skills – 13 receptions, 14.4 yards per, one TD. With Greg Bryant suspended for 2015, true freshman Josh Adams has earned 33 carries as a reserve, averaging 7.2 yards with three scores.
Notre Dame’s offensive line features three veteran leaders who have 85 starts among them: junior LT Ronnie Stanley; senior center Nick Martin (who played at guard in 2014); and junior RG Steve Elmer. They’ve been joined in 2015 by up-and-coming sophomore RT Mike McGlinchey and a pair of redshirt freshmen — Quenton Nelson, who started the first five, and Alex Bars, who started against Navy — at left guard.
Notre Dame Defense
Second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder saw his 2014 unit decimated by injuries and had to wonder about his karma after starting nose tackle Jarron Jones – who missed last season’s USC game with a foot injury – was lost for 2015 to a torn MCL in fall camp, and safety Drue Tranquill was lost in week three to a torn ACL suffered while celebrating a pass break-up against Georgia Tech. However, this is a very experienced group, with key playmakers in the front seven (mainly a 4-3 look). ND is middle of the road in the national rankings – in the top 50 in total defense, scoring defense, pass defense, and tackles for loss, but struggling against the run (No. 84, allowing more than 180 yards per game) and in pressuring the quarterback (just 10 sacks, ranking 85th nationally). ND has faced a pair of triple-option teams (Georgia Tech and Navy), perhaps skewing their rushing defense numbers. And, most assuredly, they have yet to face a passing offense that remotely resembles the talent of USC’s.
Senior Sheldon Day and junior Isaac Rochell are the heart and soul of the Irish defensive line. Rochell leads the front four with 29 stops (four for loss), while Day has a team-leading eight tackles for loss among his 21 tackles. He’s tied for the team lead in sacks (two) with senior defensive end Romeo Okwara (13 tackles). True freshman Jerry Tillery has split time at the other interior spot with sophomore Daniel Cage. They’ve combined for 19 stops (three for loss), but Tillery suffered an elbow injury against Navy. If he’s available, his effectiveness could be limited. Sophomore Andrew Trumbetti has seen limited time as a reserve end.
The Irish are deeper at linebacker, where junior Jaylon Smith, a Butkus Award finalist in 2014, is the defense’s unquestioned physical leader. Athletic and fearless, Smith leads ND with 42 tackles, including 5.5 for loss. Senior middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, the team’s defensive MVP a season ago, is a former walk-on. Though he began the season with a broken thumb, he missed no time. Schmidt has 37 tackles and is tied for the team lead with two sacks. Junior James Onwualu starts opposite Smith and has 22 tackles. The Irish are truly two-deep at each spot, with sophomore Greer Martini and freshman Te’von Coney capable outside, and sophomore Nyles Morgan and senior Jarrett Grace available in the middle.
Notre Dame’s secondary also boasts plenty of experience, but the loss of Tranquill could hurt its versatility in response to USC’s passing attack. Junior cornerbacks Kei’Varae Russell (who was suspended for the 2014 season) and Cole Luke (who replaced him a season ago) have played well. Russell has 32 stops, including a sack, while Luke has a team-leading two interceptions and 14 stops. Reserves Devin Butler (a junior) and Nick Coleman (a freshman) have seen some duty. Inconsistency was a problem coming into 2015 for the safety duo of junior Max Redfield and senior Elijah Shumate. They’ve performed better so far this season, combining for 55 stops. Senior Matthias Farley (17 tackles) can spot at safety or in the nickel.
Notre Dame Special Teams
Kyle Brindza, who seemed to be at Notre Dame since the late 1990s, finally graduated, leaving the kicking duties to a pair of freshmen. True frosh Justin Yoon handles PATs and field goals. He’s got a big leg, with a long FG of 52, and he’s made seven-of-nine opportunities (he’s 24-of-26 on PATs). Redshirt freshman Tyler Newsome handles punts and kickoffs. He’s averaging 44.3 yards on 27 punts (with 12 downed inside the 20), but has been average on kickoffs (just 10 touchbacks in 41 tries). Freshman wideout C.J. Sanders is averaging nine yards per punt return, including a 50-yard TD against Massachusetts. He splits time on kickoff returns with Carlisle, but has been the more dangerous of the two.
USC Outlook and the Pick
I’ve spent the week bouncing back and forth on what to write about the Trojans heading into Saturday’s rivalry showdown. Do I keep it simple and talk football here? Or should I address the bigger issues that have come up in the past week, before delving into some brief thoughts on Saturday’s outcome? This, of all weeks, should be the time where every Trojan – from the head coach to the star player to the freshman econ major to your grandfather who attended SC on the GI Bill – is focused on football. USC vs. Notre Dame: there is no more important game on the Trojans’ schedule – ever.
Yet, the truth is that something more important than football is going on. A man’s life has reached its lowest point, and that man just so happened to be the second-year head coach of the USC football team. Sarkisian’s struggles with substance abuse are no laughing matter. Yes, as a one-off, his “misstep” at Salute to Troy in August seemed just that – a misstep, and perfectly open to some sarcastic comedy. Now, as we see the full reality of the situation – a man struggling with internal demons, perhaps both mental and physical addictions, and facing the dissolution of his family – those jokes must end. I’ve seen, personally, the emotional roller coaster of divorce. And, I’ve seen up close – in my family and with close friends – the painful wages paid by those who have battled the bottle.
Sarkisian tweeted his first comments yesterday since his firing on Monday and the outpouring of love and support he mentioned was even clearer in the response to his comments. Coach, we’re all pulling for you here. Get yourself better. You’ve got friends and family everywhere – many of those you don’t know.
From the perspective of the USC football program, though, this is another in a series of self-inflicted injuries in the years since the NCAA handed down its harsh punishments in the Reggie Bush case. (Wait, am I allowed to type “Reggie Bush”?) While those punishments are now widely regarded as mostly embarrassing to the NCAA, the hirings of Sarkisian and, previously, Lane Kiffin (by Mike Garrett) have become a complete embarrassment to the university and the entire Trojan Family.
I know I am in the distinct minority of Trojan fans today when I say, “I like Pat Haden.” I really do – to me there’s no question of his love for the university; no question about his desire to make the right choices for our signature programs; and no question about how he interacts with the alumni and non-alumni fan base of USC’s athletic teams. But it’s clear there are plenty of questions, now, in the hiring process he led two years ago that ended up with Sarkisian at the helm. Beyond the stories that keep floating out in the news media in recent days about expense reports and booster events, where it’s becoming clear the Trojan brain trust didn’t look deeply enough into Sarkisian’s record at Washington, it seems – more troublingly – that USC locked on to Sarkisian early in the process. This is unacceptable when considering the fact that this job is – undoubtedly – one of the 10 best head-coaching opportunities in all of college football.
Haden and the athletic department are also taking a lot of heat from the sports-writing community for how they’ve handled things since the Salute to Troy debacle. That’s fair – to a point. It’s pretty difficult to listen to or read sports journalists and think, “Hey, these guys are the arbiters of morality we need.” Could or should Haden have taken a harder line immediately following Salute to Troy? That’s a matter of opinion, and it’s honestly one that has solid backing on either side of the argument. The problem for Haden and the USC athletic department is that the eventual failure of the choice they made in August now becomes another embarrassment to toss on top of a growing record of error and failure. If Haden’s administration hasn’t already reached a point of no return for nearly every member of the Trojan Family, it’s certainly teetering on the brink.
There are plenty of folks out there today playing the guessing game on USC’s next head coach and just who will be in charge of selecting that person. Let’s talk about the current head coach, Helton, and the game USC plays on Saturday. This is a solid Notre Dame football team. As Helton said this morning after the Trojans’ final workout before traveling east, what the Irish offensive staff has accomplished with Kizer after losing Golson and Zaire is nothing short of astounding.
Can an emotionally battered USC team that’s facing plenty injuries of its own – center Max Tuerk is out for the season with a torn ACL, while defensive lineman Claude Pelon and receivers Steven Mitchell and Isaac Whitney have been ruled out against the Irish – put up a fight against the Notre Dame’s physical running offense and attacking defense?
Helton says his focus is on line play this week – as well it should be. USC must slow Prosise and force Kizer out of his comfort zone. On the other side, Helton mentioned Arizona State when discussing the Irish defense. That’s another solid insight – the Irish will attack Cody Kessler from all angles and will sell out to slow USC’s rushing attack. The Trojans need a big bounce-back game from Kessler, and might want to investigate the talents of Ronald Jones and Dominic Davis more deeply in this one. USC still has a speed edge on the Irish secondary – not as pronounced as it was in the Carroll Era – and needs to put it to use.
How does it shake out? Emotions are a tough thing to predict from a bunch of 18-to-22-year-olds. I know USC will bring a big emotional edge early in this game – but will those emotions lack the depth to survive four quarters? The answer to that question will likely tell the story. If USC brings its best game, physically and emotionally, this one will be very competitive – and the Trojans are wholly capable of posting an impressive victory. If the Trojans go flat after an early flurry – a possibility at least partly due to Notre Dame’s documented first-quarter strength under Kelly – it’s the Irish who could run away with it.
This one’s painful to write, and I’ll be rooting against it with every fiber of my being, but …
Notre Dame 34, USC 20
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)