• John Skinner

Inside dirt heading into Notre Dame

Tainted perception- If SC’s head coach was not named Clay Helton and someone stated before the season that SC would lose JT Daniels for the season in the first game and would be replaced by unheralded true freshman Kedon Slovis, who also gets hurt and be replaced by career back-up Matt Fink, while also losing top defender Talanoa Hufanga heading into a road game at Washington, most Trojan fans would be applauding the effort of the team and the coaching staff with a 3-2 record with two wins over top 25 teams and the losses coming in winnable games both in tough road environments. As the Athletic’s Bruce Feldman wrote, “it’s doubtful more than a handful of teams in the country would have much of a chance at beating Utah and Washington in successive weeks relying on a guy who was the third-string quarterback at the start of the season.” Matt Fink had a 33.7 pro-football focus grade (very poor score) in the Washington game.

Trojan defense and young secondary step up at Washington- Despite missing two key defensive starters in Hufanga and Olaijah Griffin, the SC defense held pro prospect Jason Eason to 180 yards passing and no touchdowns. True freshman Chris Steele recovered a fumble and they did a solid job against the run, except for Salvon Ahmed’s 89 yard rushing TD. The defensive backfield is steadily improving and not the liability many thought it would be. The defense showed grit against two of the Pac-12’s toughest programs, an improvement over last year and a sign the team is responding to new secondary coach Greg Burns and defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a.

Discipline was the focus of camp but still evading the Trojans on the field- Despite the coaching and strength staffs putting a heavy emphasis on discipline throughout the off-season, the Trojans continue to shoot themselves in the foot. The penalties were aplenty at BYU and against Utah and though they only committed 8 penalties for 80 yards against Washington, it was the timing of those penalties that was critical. For example, following Chris Steele’s fumble recovery near mid-field at the end of the first half, Talanoa Hufanga got an unsportsmanlike penalty (cheap call) for jumping on the field to celebrate with teammates and he wasn’t even dressed for the game. Two plays later WR Amon-Ra St. Brown was called for offensive pass interference, negating a positive play by Tyler Vaughns. The penalties killed a potential drive and big momentum swing in the Trojans favor. The combination of untimely penalty issues with the Trojans negative turnover margin is the ultimate recipe for underachievement, especially on the road.

Cutting road-trips short- The Trojans will arrive in South Bend on Friday night, as opposed to leaving on Thursday for the cross-country trip. In fact, the decision was made in the 2017 that SC would only travel the day before all games regardless of location. We have heard from some it was budgetary decision to cut back on expenses and some coaches and former players have stated leaving two-days before a game is over-rated and walk-thrus at the visiting stadium are not necessary. Plus, from an administrative standpoint, the players do not miss an extra day of classes.

On the flip side, during the Pete Carroll era, the extra day and walk-thru were seen as a bonding period for the team with a “pro-football” type focus given to the opponent during the extra period. Clay Helton’s non-conference road record since 2017 is 0-3.

This is “The Rivalry”- Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly stated the following to the media on Thursday- “I’m the caretaker of this program,” Kelly said Thursday. “I believe this is THE rivalry game. There are other teams we have great respect for, but I believe this is that game.”

Turnovers separating USC and ND- The #9 ranked Irish are tied for second nationally in turnover margin (+2) while the Trojans are #122 (-1.4), including three interceptions in each of its two road losses. In the Trojans 24-17 loss to the Fighting Irish last year, SC fumbled on two of their first five possessions, both happening on the Notre Dame side of the field.

Notre Dame hasn’t seen receivers like the Trojans- Though Notre Dame valiantly battled one of the top teams in the country at Georgia, they have yet to see a team with the talent the Trojans possess in the passing game. If Slovis is able to get into a rhythm, Notre Dame will have a tough time matching up with SC’s receivers. Notre Dame’s secondary will be missing Shaun Crawford who is out with an elbow injury and his replacement, TaRiq Bracy, was torched last year by Michael Pittman.

Hufanga and Griffin ready to go- Safety Talanoa Hufanga will start vs. Notre Dame despite practicing in a non-contact jersey this week to protect an AC sprain in his shoulder. He missed the Washington game with a concussion and still ranks second on the team in tackles for the season. Starting CB Olaijah Griffin is also expected back.

Stepp’s opportunities continue to increase but…- Those clamoring for more of RB Markese Stepp will see him more often but fans do need to realize his pass blocking is a weakness and he has had issues reading the right running lane. He missed a hole on the goal line against Washington in which he would have scored a touchdown prior to Fink’s costly goal-line interception.

Trojans should be able to run the ball in South Bend- Notre Dame ranks 61st nationally in rushing defense and those numbers are helped by facing below average rushing attacks of Virginia and Bowling Green. Georgia, Louisville and New Mexico averaged close to 5 yards a carry against the Irish and the Trojans definitely have more offensive talent the Louisville and New Mexico. Look for the Trojans to continue to run to the left side behind junior tackle Austin Jackson and sophomore guard Alijah Vera-Tucker who are putting together the best individual performances the program has seen in years when it comes to the offensive line.

Red-zone battle- Notre Dame is tied for first in the country in red-zone offense, scoring on 100 percent of their trips inside the 20 and scoring touchdowns on 85 percent of them. However, the Trojans defense is one of the top defenses in the red zone, the Trojans are much improved in red zone defense, allowing TDs only 38 percent of the time — tied for eighth-best in the country. Last season, it was 64 percent and they ranked 81st.

Betting preview- The spread opened up with Notre Dame as a -10.5 point favorite with the over/under set at 59. Notre Dame is 4-1 against the spread “ATS” while the Trojans are 2-3 ATS and 0-2 ATS in both road games and 1-4 ATS in their last five on the road. Notre Dame is 5-0 ATS in their last five home games and the total has gone UNDER in six of their last Eight. However, the total has gone OVER in four of their last five against Pac-12 opponents. Fox radio personality Colin Cowherd, who has done well as of late with his college picks states Notre Dame will “roll” and cover while ESPN game-day pick specialist Steve “Bear” Coughlin, feels the Trojans will keep it close and cover the spread, if not pull out the victory if they can limit turnovers.

Extensive Game Preview- For an in-depth preview of the game, check out Tom Haire’s article via uscfootball.com

SC hoops vs. Villanova Oct. 18th Galen Center!- Check out the Trojans scrimmage vs. elite basketball powerhouse Villanova next Friday evening at 8pm. The Trojans will be competitive and this should be the start of something special provided potential issues with the NCAA don’t get in the way. The chemistry issues that kept the Trojans from reaching their potential last season are gone and the top 10 nationally rated recruiting class is full of talent and “winners”. More on hoops in the next few weeks but this is a team that already has some national basketball writers expecting big things over the next few seasons…

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-bits

- The Trojans have beaten the Irish the last five times they have faced them coming off a bye week.

-Junior guard Andrew Voorhees will undergo surgery on his foot and redshirt. He played 43 snaps against Fresno State and just 14 snaps in the win against Stanford.

-USC has not defeated the Irish in South Bend since 2011.

-WR Drake London is a tremendous athlete (you will also see it on the basketball court) but it seems the QB’s are possibly forcing him the ball. 2 of Kedon Slovis’ interceptions at BYU were targeting London as well as 2 of Matt Fink’s interceptions at Washington.

- Among the consensus top-20 in-state prospects, zero are committed to USC. A total of four are committed to Washington and Oregon. Three of the top five are committed to SEC schools.