In the days leading up to Ed Orgeron’s debut as USC’s interim head coach, the focus was on the team’s newfound sense of fun and enthusiasm. The focus of this week’s matchup against Notre Dame, however, took a more businesslike approach.
“Obviously, the first week was a little different, when everyone was all fired up,” Orgeron said. “But we’re still fired up, and we’re still practicing well. It was new for them the first week, but I know they’re gonna be really fired up come Saturday, no question.”
The Trojans head into South Bend, Ind. fresh off of their first Pac-12 victory of the season. USC led Arizona comfortably for most of the game, but surrendered two late touchdowns that made the final score 38-31. Orgeron knows that for his team to perform better against Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, the secondary needs to improve.
“Protect against the deep ball,” Orgeron said when asked what the key was for the defense to succeed. “We can’t let guys get behind us. We’ve worked hard on it, but we’ve still got some improvement to go. But it’s all about the pass rush. If we play good, solid football, we’re gonna be fine.”
USC should welcome back key players in both the secondary and pass rush on Saturday, as redshirt junior cornerback Anthony Brown and senior linebacker Morgan Breslin are both expected to play. Brown started for the Trojans in their opener against Hawai’i but left with a knee injury, and Breslin missed last week’s game against Arizona due to a hip injury. Despite missing two games this season, Breslin is tied for the team lead with four sacks.
Rees’ career at Notre Dame has yielded up-and-down results. He took over as the team’s starter midway through his freshman season and led the Irish to a 4-1 finish, including a 20-16 win over USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He started his entire sophomore season, as Notre Dame went 8-5, but was benched in favor of Everett Golson during Notre Dame’s run to the BCS National Championship game last season.
This season, with Golson suspended, Rees has thrown for nearly 1,500 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has struggled of late, though, completing just 42 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and four interceptions in Notre Dame’s last three games.
On offense, the Trojans will likely be without their most productive weapon in redshirt sophomore running back Tre Madden. Madden injured his hamstring against Arizona, and Orgeron said he was doubtful that Madden would participate in Saturday’s game.
If there ever were a position that USC could afford an injury, it would be at running back. The Trojans gave snaps to five of their scholarship running backs against Arizona, and they combined for over 200 yards and three touchdowns.
“There’s always gonna be room for improvement with us,” senior running back Silas Redd said. “We’re never satisfied, and we come out here with that mentality everyday.”
With a running game that appears to be playing to its full potential, the passing game for the Trojans is also starting to find its stride, and could receive a huge boost in the return of junior wide receiver Marqise Lee. Orgeron said that he expects Lee to play on Saturday, though was unsure to what extent his star wideout would be used.
The maturation of redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler has also contributed to the improved offensive play. Since being named the full-time starter, Kessler has thrown seven touchdowns and just two interceptions, and in his last two games has averaged just under 300 yards per game. This has led a belief in Kessler that he finally is in control of this team.
“I’ve felt like that [since] the Boston College game,” Kessler said. “I’m 100 percent in control and 100 percent confident. I feel like this is my team. Marcus Allen came in and told me, ‘This is your team, you’re the quarterback. You have to play for these guys, and they’re gonna play for you.’ I feel like I’ve done that.”
USC has won nine of the last 11 meetings with Notre Dame, and has not lost in South Bend since 2001. In each of Notre Dame’s last two victories, the Trojans were forced to play their backup at quarterback — Mitch Mustain in 2010 and redshirt sophomore quarterback Max Wittek last season. USC has not lost a nonconference road game since 2002.
Saturday’s game is scheduled to kickoff at 7:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast nationally on NBC.
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