The 2019 season has been a whirlwind for USC football. Numerous distractions have prevented the team from just lining up and playing football, as rumors about head coach Clay Helton’s job security have continued to swirl despite a few impressive victories by the Trojans.
Helton remains focused on the task at hand as he gears up to take on No. 9 Notre Dame Saturday in South Bend, Ind.
“I’m just focused on the 110 men out there,” Helton said after practice Tuesday. “When you think about them as your children, your sons, you concentrate your full attention on them.”
Injuries to quarterbacks sophomore JT Daniels and freshman Kedon Slovis forced the squad to play third-string redshirt junior quarterback Matt Fink, who was in the transfer portal at one point this summer.
The whole team has been banged up, playing without captain senior linebacker Jordan Iosefa and adjusting to short term injuries plaguing sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga, sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin, redshirt senior defensive lineman Christian Rector and redshirt freshman cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart — all key contributors — among others.
Helton announced after practice Tuesday that Slovis will be starting against the Irish and that Hufanga and Griffin are expected to play after missing the last contest against Washington.
Ready for the task
The Trojans face the biggest challenge they’ve had all season when they hit the road to take on Notre Dame — whose one loss came by a single score against an immensely talented Georgia team on the road.
Helton said he is fired up about the test his team will face this weekend. With aspirations of winning the Pac-12 South and reaching another Rose Bowl, a win would go a long way to strengthen its season resume.
“The opportunity to go to South Bend and play Notre Dame and to be a part of this historic rivalry is special to us as coaches, as players and as a University,” Helton said.
Notre Dame Stadium is sure to be a raucous environment. Pair that with the sub-45-degree forecasts and Notre Dame’s two-game win streak in the series, and the Trojans are heavy underdogs coming into the matchup.
Nearing full strength
However, the Trojans could not be more ready to make the trip to the Midwest and take the Jeweled Shillelagh back.
Slovis is back under center after suffering a concussion early in the game against Utah, and no stage is bigger than this one for the young freshman. After a shaky performance against BYU, Slovis never got a chance to redeem himself due to the injury. Now, he’s focusing on clearing his mind and resetting for the upcoming game.
“[I’m] just being disciplined and not letting the previous play affect me,” Slovis said. “If I make a mistake, [I’ve] got to come back and not do the same thing the next play.”
The bye week gave him the opportunity he needed to get back to practicing and preparing for the start.
“I think the biggest thing is just getting my legs back,” Slovis said. “At quarterback, it seems pretty easy — you’re just taking a three-step drop — but I think a big part of it is getting your feet in position to throw. When you’re not practicing for a week, I think you lose that a bit.”
Although he hasn’t seen game action in the last couple of weeks, Slovis said that his timing with his receivers and his confidence in the playmakers around him have not changed.
Along with Slovis’ return, Helton said the team will benefit from the timing of the bye week.
“After playing two physical games against Utah and Washington, and then another physical game at Notre Dame, I couldn’t imagine a better time,” Helton said. “I’m glad it’s not after this game. We needed it.”
The last time the Trojans played in South Bend, things got out of hand quickly, and Notre Dame cruised to a 49-14 victory. Senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said he remembers that game and wants to prevent the same thing from happening again. The Trojans have struggled on the road this year, so a win this week would be pivotal in changing that narrative.
“The refs combined with the crowd energy — things just get rolling against us and it’s just hard to break that cycle,” Pittman said. “As long as we play clean football, I think that we’ll be good … We have a good plan.”
The success of Pittman and fellow wide receivers sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown and redshirt junior Tyler Vaughns will be pivotal. The trio combined for 305 yards receiving and a touchdown in USC’s matchup with Notre Dame last season.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly called it “the best wide receiver corps [Notre Dame] will see all year.” Going up against a thin secondary, this will be the position to watch come Saturday.
Last season, the Trojans came up one score short of ruining the Irish’s chances of making the College Football Playoff. A win this week could do just the same for the Irish — and catapult USC into the second half of its season.