Opponent outlook: USC can stop free-fall with win at Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

College football's "Team Turmoil," Southern Cal, is at it again.

A few days after a loss to Washington, as the Trojans were set to begin preparations for Saturday's visit to Notre Dame, an implosion happened.

USC athletic director Pat Haden deemed head coach Steve Sarkisian in no condition to lead Sunday's practice. No details were given. At first, Sarkisian was put on leave. Then, he was dismissed.

Gary Klein, USC beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, gives Notre Dame fans some insight as to what to expect on Saturday.

ND Insider: How will Steve Sarkisian's absence impact the Trojans?

Gary Klein: USC heads to South Bend under interim coach Clay Helton, who also served as the Trojans' interim coach at the end of the 2013 season and guided them to a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State.

Helton is the second interim coach in two years to lead the Trojans against the Fighting Irish. In 2013, after Lane Kiffin was fired, Ed Orgeron oversaw the program when Notre Dame defeated USC, 14-10, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Veteran Trojan players have been through this kind of tumult throughout their careers. They no doubt will adopt an everything-is-against-us attitude.

It remains to be seen whether that is enough to defeat the Irish on the road for the first time since 2011.

NDI: What areas have been the biggest disappointments?

Klein: The offense, equipped with fifth-year senior quarterback Cody Kessler and the usual array of playmakers, was ineffective in the second half of its losses. Third downs also have been an issue: The Trojans converted only one of 13 against Washington, four of 10 against Stanford.

USC has failed to generate a consistent pass rush.

NDI: What has quarterback Cody Kessler's development been like this season?

Klein: After a record-setting 2014 season, when he passed for 39 touchdowns, with only five interceptions, Kessler's 2015 statistics remain impressive.

He is completing 70 percent of his passes, with 15 touchdowns and three interceptions.

But Kessler had passes intercepted during the first series of the last two games. He had two passes intercepted against Washington — his first two-interception game time since 2013 — and two potential interceptions were dropped.

Kessler engineered a game-winning drive against Stanford in 2013, but the knock against him by some is that he does not take enough chances throwing downfield and has not played well enough in the biggest games.

NDI: How can the Trojans avoid a free-fall?

Klein: A victory over Notre Dame would be a good start.

USC rallied around the embattled Sarkisian at Arizona State and earned a tough victory. The Irish at Notre Dame Stadium will be tougher.

Players have said they fully support Helton.

They better with games against No. 4 Utah and No. 23 California coming up next.

NDI: Where will USC have an advantage in their matchups with Notre Dame?

Klein: Kessler's experience should ostensibly give USC an advantage, but he will probably be under pressure because senior center Max Tuerk suffered a season-ending knee injury against Washington.

USC's receiving corps — featuring JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steven Mitchell Jr., Darreus Rogers and Adoree' Jackson — is full of game-breakers.

The tailbacks, including senior Tre Madden, junior Justin Davis and freshman Ronald Jones II, have been productive — and sometimes spectacular — when relied upon.

Southern California interim head coach Clay Helton conducts an NCAA college football practice in Los Angeles Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015. The Trojans offensive coordinator, Helton is taking over for head coach Steve Sarkisian, who was fired Monday. (AP Photo/Richard Hartog)