The USC football team will attempt to avoid losses to both of its biggest rivals for the third consecutive season on Saturday afternoon, when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish visit Los Angeles. The Trojans (7-4, 6-3 Pac-12) were thoroughly outmatched in a 38-20 loss to No. 9 UCLA last week, eliminating head coach Steve Sarkisian’s team from Pac-12 title contention. For his part, Sarkisian is attempting to put the loss in perspective.
“For a variety of reasons we didn’t put our best foot forward,” the first-year coach said. “We didn’t play a brand of football that we’re capable of. At the end of the day, when you lose and you’re a competitor it hurts. The challenge is getting up off the mat, getting back on the horse and continuing to fight. I believe that we’ll do just that.”
The Fighting Irish (7-4) were in the hunt for an NCAA playoff berth less than three weeks ago, but consecutive losses to Arizona State, Northwestern and Louisville derailed their national title dreams. Still, the team is talented and dangerous, with a dramatic four-point loss to top-ranked Florida State on its resume.
Leading the way for Notre Dame is quarterback Everett Golson, who missed last season with academic issues after helping the Irish to a BCS National Championship Game appearance in 2013. This year, he ranks eighth in the nation in passing yards (3,280) and is tied for seventh in touchdown passes (29). Wide receiver William Fuller has emerged as Golson’s favorite target, hauling in 66 receptions for 962 yards and 14 touchdowns. That last mark places him among the nation’s elite, second only to Colorado State’s Rashard Higgins (15). Six-foot-4 wide receiver Corey Robinson — son of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson — is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, racking up 505 yards on 37 catches. Sarkisian has been impressed with Notre Dame’s aerial attack.
“Everett [Golson] is a really talented guy,” Sarkisian said. “He’s very athletic, he gets out of the pocket and makes plays down the field. He’s got some really good wideouts to throw the ball to, big physical guys.”
Fortunately for the Trojans, Notre Dame’s success through the air hides an inability to take care of the football. Thirteen interceptions — including six from Golson during the team’s three-game skid alone — and 11 lost fumbles give the Irish a turnover margin of minus-two, a number that would rank ninth in the Pac-12. Though the USC secondary gave up 326 yards and three touchdowns to the Bruins’ Brett Hundley last week and has been inconsistent throughout the year, its biggest strength lies in takeaways. Of the Trojans’ 12 interceptions, half belong to dedicated defensive backs, with another two coming from sophomore linebacker-safety hybrid Su’a Cravens. Though that may be an impressive stat, Sarkisian feels that the key to forcing interceptions lies in the front seven.
“You got to get pressure on [Golson],” Sarkisian said. “We need to try to get into his face. We can’t let him sit in the pocket and see clearly. We need to make it as difficult as possible on him.”
On the defensive end, Notre Dame is performing better than recent scorelines would indicate. The Irish did not allow a single 100-yard rushing performance through their first five games, and have given up 300 yards passing just once all season. The team’s most lopsided loss — a 55-31 defeat against Arizona State on Nov. 8 that remained competitive deep into the fourth quarter — was decided by the Sun Devils’ second pick six of the game. The Irish are also playing without their defensive anchor, linebacker Joe Schmidt, who injured his ankle against Navy on Nov. 1 and will miss the rest of the season. Sarkisian admires the unit’s talent and resilience.
“They’re good up front,” Sarkisian said. “I know they’ve been battling a few injuries here as of late. They’re very aggressive and like to attack the run game and attack the quarterback. It’ll be a great challenge for us.”
For USC redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler, the Notre Dame defense will serve as a roadblock to rebounding from a devastating loss.
“We’re excited,” Kessler said. “It’s going to be a fun game. [Losing to UCLA] hurts, obviously you never want to lose to your rival. Guys have to realize it’s been a long year, and hopefully we can end it on a good note and go to a good bowl game after that.”
Saturday also marks Senior Day for the Trojans, who will honor 12 players in a pregame ceremony. Key contributors from the senior class include safety Gerald Bowman, kicker Andre Heidari, linebacker Hayes Pullard, defensive back Josh Shaw, linebacker J.R. Tavai, tight end Randall Telfer and offensive lineman Aundrey Walker. Kessler expressed his appreciation for the leadership that this group provides.
“We’re not playing for ourselves [this] week,” Kessler said. “We’re playing for guys like Randall Telfer and Hayes Pullard. Guys who stayed through these sanctions and have been leaders the whole time. They’ve worked so hard and kept this team together.”
Notre Dame leads the all-time series 45-34, and has held onto the Jeweled Shillelagh for the past two seasons. Last year, the Irish secured an ugly 14-10 victory in South Bend, Indiana, after two missed field goals from Heidari. The famed rivalry has spawned many memorable moments, including 1988’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown and the “Bush Push” in 2005. Sarkisian, who last faced the Irish in 2009 as the head coach at Washington, focused on the unique nature of the series.
“It’s a great rivalry,” Sarkisian said. “It’s one that I’ve always appreciated being a part of. It’s so unique because of the proximity of the two schools, not being very close, but the rivalry is so intense. I love to be a part of it.”
This year’s showdown kicks off Saturday at 12:30 p.m. PT on FOX.
USC redshirt junior tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen still has a chance to lead the Pac-12 in rushing. Allen is 21 yards behind UCLA’s Paul Perkins, with one game remaining in the regular season. Perkins might have the upper hand, however, as the Bruins control their own destiny in the Pac-12 South. A conference championship game berth would give Perkins and the Bruins 14 games instead of 13.
Tavai returned from a knee injury last Saturday, but only played 16 snaps against the Bruins.
Shaw saw action on defense and special teams against UCLA after coming back from his 10-game suspension. He is not listed as a starter on the team’s depth chart this week, however.
Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith is one of five finalists for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best linebacker. Smith switched his jersey number from 9 to 38 in honor of Schmidt last week.
Golson has one career start against the Trojans, as a sophomore in 2012. The Irish won that game 22-13 in Los Angeles on their way to the national title game.
This is only the 12th time in 86 all-time meetings that both the Trojans and the Irish are unranked.