Which USC team will Notre Dame face on Saturday?
SOUTH BEND — Through the blame game, through the speculation about USC athletic director Pat Haden’s own future, through the relentless stream of biting details about deposed coach Steve Sarkisian that seemingly have no end, there’s only one thing that matters to Brian Kelly.
What kind of USC team shows up Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium?
Curiously, the Trojan squad that faces the 14th-ranked Irish (5-1) is the sixth unranked USC team that Kelly has faced in his six seasons as the Notre Dame head football coach, though the 2011 Southern Cal team, for instance, evolved into something much more than that after their meeting.
Clay Helton on Saturday night will become the fourth different head coach, interim or otherwise, in the past four seasons to oppose Kelly in the clash of arch-rivals. It will be the second time in three years that the opposing head coach wears the interim tag in the matchup.
Taking Sarkisian’s Monday firing out of the equation, history is not on USC’s side. Helton’s 3-2 Trojans are the 19th Southern Cal squad to come to South Bend with two or more losses. Of the previous 18, only two went home with a victory (1971, 1997).
“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we're going to have to play extremely well.”
The unanswered (and presumably unasked) question regarding the post-Sarkisian Trojans is whether cookies are being served at USC’s training table.
In 2013, when interim coach Ed Orgeron brought a 4-2 USC team to Notre Dame Stadium less than two weeks after Lane Kiffin was deposed, one of the reasons given for optimism that life after Kiffin would be better was the reintroduction of cookies as an option for the Trojan players at mealtime.
USC then went out and scored 10 points in a 14-10 loss to the Irish and haven’t scored so few points in a game in the 25 games that have followed.
A better reason for Trojan optimism for a positive bounce this time after the USC coach was let go? The apparent perception by the players that the coaching change could be for the better,
“I have been able to talk to several parents of players and people close to the team,” Michael Lev, the USC beat writer for the Orange County Register, said in an interview on Monday’s Weekday SportsBeat show on WSBT radio.
“I would say the emotions range from relief to maybe even in a weird way a little sense of excitement that they kind of get to start over. A lot of these guys had been through this thing before. … They are kind of used to rallying together, blocking out the noise.”
The latest noise Tuesday was highlighted by USC president Max Nikias backing Haden, who both hired and fired Sarkisian.
“As president of USC, I am very, very fortunate to have Pat Haden as our athletic director — as is the entire Trojan Family,” Nikias said in a prepared statement. “He is a man of true character and integrity. He cares deeply for our student-athletes, and he always makes their well-being his highest priority.
“Pat Haden has been doing an outstanding job in leading Trojan athletics in the past five years, and I want to take this opportunity to reiterate my unwavering support for him. I look forward to working with Pat Haden as our USC AD for many years to come.”
Haden himself met with the media on Tuesday.
The most intriguing points from that face-to-face event were Haden’s detailing the use of a national search firm to thoroughly vet Sarkisian when USC hired him away from Washington and that no one raised any red flags; and that, per Lev, when Haden tried to get a hold of Sarkisian to deliver the news of his firing in person, he couldn’t find him.
The two still haven’t spoken, at last report.
Helton, meanwhile, announced some responsibility changes among his staff members.
“I think going on the road will actually be helpful for (the USC players) to kind of get away from all of this and just be together,” Lev said. “I think if anybody can handle it and play decently the rest of the season, I think it’s this team.”
The Trojans certainly have been good on offense most of the year, with the exception of Thursday night’s 17-12 home loss to Washington.
USC is the top-rated scoring offense (13th nationally at 39.8 points per game) that the Irish have faced or will face this season. And the Trojans usually score fast.
The average time of USC’s 29 offensive scoring drives this season is 2:07, with the average length of those drives being 65 yards.
There are a lot of familiar faces on that offense from last season’s 49-14 USC drubbing of the Irish, though USC standout center Max Tuerk suffered a season-ending knee injury in Thursday’s loss to Washington.
USC’s 49 points and 35-point victory margin were its second-most ever in the 86-game series. Kessler, the same quarterback the night USC scored 10 points in 2013, threw for 372 yards and six touchdowns last November — the most ever allowed by an Irish defense, while completing 80 percent of his passes, including 16 in succession at one juncture.
“Well, they knew that's not Notre Dame football,” Kelly said of his players, “and you don't play that kind of football here at Notre Dame and use it as an excuse. You build your program and you don't expect those days to occur. “
As to how USC will build its program with the next coach, whoever it turns out to be gets to coach their first game against Alabama — Sept. 3 in Arlington, Texas.
“They have to break away from the Pete Carroll coaching tree,” Lev said. “They have to find an established, successful head coach at the highest level.
“No matter who the coach is or what the circumstances are, USC always gets top-shelf talent. Other than maybe UCLA right now, there’s no coach in the league that wouldn’t trade rosters with USC.”