Vorel: Why Saturday's game against USC still matters for Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Saturday’s game shouldn’t matter.

Not to Notre Dame, a 4-7 football team. Not to a program poised to sit out bowl season for the first time since 2009. Not to much of its fan base, which will approach the 3:30 p.m. kickoff with a collective exasperated sigh.

If this game was branded with a slogan — from the South Bend side, at least — it might be, “Let’s get this over with.”

But alas, the players will tell you different. They’ll say that every game against USC, perhaps Notre Dame’s most storied rival, is a big game. They’ll tell you they want to keep the jeweled shillelagh in South Bend for another year. They'll tell you this is their bowl game. They’ll tell you they want to win for the seniors, the fans and the university. They’ll tell you that it matters.

And for some of them, it does.

This game matters to Daelin Hayes, a longtime USC commit who flipped his pledge to Notre Dame last December. The Rivals five-star recruit and freshman defensive end will want to show his former-future team that he made the right decision, sure. He’ll want to prove he’s capable of more than the 11 tackles he’s made this season in limited time.

But he’s also a key cog in Notre Dame’s future. For Hayes, for cornerbacks Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr., for safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott, for wide receivers Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool, this isn’t the somber funeral for a desperately forgettable season.

It’s the beginning of whatever comes next.

This game matters to DeShone Kizer, whose NFL resume could use a few more special effects. Kizer said last weekend that he doesn’t know if the USC game will be his last, but he’s entertaining that possibility.

Better believe NFL executives are entertaining it, too.

Consider, though, that in 11 games this season, Notre Dame’s 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior has passed for 2,705 yards and 24 touchdowns with eight interceptions, but has completed just 59.3 percent of his passes, nearly four percentage points lower than last season.

USC redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, by comparison, has also thrown 24 touchdown passes with eight interceptions, but has completed 68.3 percent of his passes. Moreover, he’s done it in his first season as USC’s starter, while playing only sparingly in his team’s first three games.

Kizer’s potential is undeniable, but he remains a work in progress. Saturday represents — maybe … probably? — his last opportunity for progress on a collegiate stage.

This game matters to Greg Hudson, who is neck-deep in a job interview of his own. In the seven games since he was named Notre Dame’s interim defensive coordinator, the Irish have allowed an average of 22.1 points per game (which would rank 28th nationally if stretched across the season) and 331.1 yards per game (17th). They have won three of those seven games and shown marginal improvement in most defensive categories. But is it enough?

To have the word “interim” upgraded to “permanent” … no, it probably isn’t. Realistically, had Hudson — a former Irish linebacker, who was not retained as Purdue’s defensive coordinator following the 2015 season — orchestrated a dramatic defensive turnaround, highlighted by a streak of shutouts, it still would have been difficult to secure the permanent gig. The fan base wants a splash hire. Recruits are more easily sold on a splash hire. Hudson may be substance, but he doesn’t register much of a splash.

Still, that doesn’t mean he can’t earn a job on Notre Dame’s coaching staff, or another opportunity elsewhere. Saturday represents Hudson’s most formidable challenge yet, and he’s coaching both for his present and his future.

This game matters to USC (8-3), but you already know that. The No. 12 Trojans are winners of seven straight games and remain in contention for a Pac-12 Championship. It’s Senior Day in Los Angeles. Their incentive for winning is obvious, beyond the rivalry aspect.

This game matters to Brian Kelly, who athletic director Jack Swarbrick assured will be the team’s head coach — for the opener, at the very least — in 2017.

Nothing Notre Dame does Saturday can negate its seven previous losses. It can’t erase the decision to retain defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder last offseason, or play two quarterbacks against Texas, or throw 26 times in a relentless, swirling downpour at NC State. A win, even on the road at USC, can’t prevent Kelly’s second losing season in 26 years as a collegiate head coach.

It can help ensure, however, that he’s at Notre Dame for his 27th.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly reacts to a call during the first half, Saturday, November 19, 2016 in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ