It’s safe to say this game is not what it used to be.
The USC-Notre Dame clash at the Coliseum on Saturday night pits two struggling teams from very proud football schools against each other in a game with little consequence for the postseason. For the first time since 2001, both teams enter the game unranked.
USC (7-4) is coming off another loss in the state of Oregon after a 36-7 drubbing by Oregon State last week. The Trojans were held scoreless in the first half and held to the fewest points in a game since 2001.
To make matters worse, sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley, who is ninth in the nation with 25 touchdown passes, went down with a high-ankle sprain just before halftime. Even though the X-rays came back negative, his availability for this week’s game is in doubt.
That leaves senior backup quarterback Mitch Mustain to make his first start for the Trojans and lead the USC offense against a Notre Dame team that is coming off its two strongest performances of the year.
The Fighting Irish (6-5) are struggling to maintain a winning record in coach Brian Kelly’s first year at the helm, and it seems like he’s got the team heading in the right direction as Notre Dame enters its final game of the regular season.
The Fighting Irish have held their last two opponents, then-No. 15 Utah and bowl-eligible Army, to just three points each and are looking to pounce on a sputtering Trojan offense.
The USC running game, which looked to be one of the best and deepest in the country earlier this season, is jogging in place. USC gained just 120 yards on the ground against Oregon State and its leading rusher, senior CJ Gable, hasn’t had a carry since USC’s 48-14 blowout of Cal and its other three running backs all have issues. Senior Allen Bradford has fumbling issues, redshirt junior Marc Tyler is running on an ankle he keeps hurting and might miss another week of practice this week, and freshman Dillon Baxter didn’t travel to Oregon State because of accepting a ride in a golf cart with an NFL agent.
This game is the last game many USC seniors will play at home. Bradford, Gable, fullback Stanley Havili, wide receivers Ronald Johnson and David Ausberry, center Kristofer O’Dowd, cornerback Shareece Wright, linebacker Malcolm Smith and kicker Joe Houston will all be making their final appearances at the Coliseum as Trojans.
Even with no bowl positioning on the line, the players will still be anxious to beat their team’s longtime rival.
“It’s Notre Dame,” sophomore offensive tackle Matt Kalil said. “That right there is enough motivation … We’re looking to go play our butts off and bust out these last two wins and finish the season on a good note.”