Opponent Outlook: Surging USC will be big test for struggling Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Slow starts, especially one that includes a 52-6 loss to Alabama, can be overcome through the course of a season.

That's what makes college football such a great game.

Southern Cal, which had a clunker against the Crimson Tide in the season opener, has stayed on course and has put together a pretty good season (8-3).

The Trojans head into Saturday's rivalry renewal with Notre Dame (4-7) as 17-point favorites.

Zach Helfand, USC football beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, takes a look at some of the areas that have gone into making this season a success.

 • Why did the program not implode when the Trojans were 1-3?

(First-year head coach) Clay Helton's demeanor helped a lot here. He has a very steady personality, and players almost never see him get overly emotional one way or the other. I don't think I've ever seen him truly scream during practice. So this can cut both ways. Early in the season, USC probably could've been more fired up. Against Stanford, for instance, when USC was the better team but didn't know it yet. Instead, the Trojans came out tight and played conservatively. But Helton's personality was a boon after that 1-3 start. He was calm. He didn't panic. He was the same person each day. After all the turmoil at USC over the past few years, players responded to that. They picked up on Helton and emulated his behavior.

• How difficult was it to switch starting quarterbacks four weeks into the season (from Max Browne to Sam Darnold)? What are Darnold's top attributes?

The quarterback switch was difficult for Helton from a personal standpoint. Max Browne had waited three years for this opportunity. Helton thinks he has been an excellent teammate and leader — Browne is still a team captain and hasn't voiced any complaints even now. Plus, Helton's decision was heavily criticized at the time. On the field, though, there was no friction. The switch was pretty seamless. Across almost every metric, from pass efficiency to third-down conversions to sacks allowed to rushing yards, Darnold has ushered in significant increases and did so almost immediately. Darnold (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) has a strong arm, a big, sturdy frame and solid running ability. His best attribute, in my opinion, is his decisiveness. The lag time from his sensing an opening to his releasing the ball is almost non-existent. It's the reason why he can spread the ball around to so many targets (11 different players caught passes from him last weekend against UCLA, a 36-14 USC win) and why he can extend plays. He has a good sense of when to stay in the pocket and when to extend plays, and he also has a very good natural sense of where his receivers are on the field at any given moment.

• How have Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis made the run game work (averaging 207 yards a game)?

A lot of the credit here goes to the offensive line, which is very talented, but which looked lost in the season-opener against Alabama, even taking into account Alabama's talent on the defensive line. Since then, the unit has gotten much tighter and missed assignments are much rarer. Justin Davis was the starter at the beginning of the season and was very impressive. In a three-game stretch, up to when he sprained his ankle, he was averaging more than nine yards per carry. Ronald Jones II never got going until Davis got hurt. Up to that point, he was averaging just about 35 yards per game. Since then, he's averaging 137. Jones lacked patience earlier in the season and wasn't seeing the field well. But getting more carries and staying in the game for multiple series in a row has helped him find a rhythm.

What's the biggest problem Notre Dame will cause for USC?

By default, I'd have to say Notre Dame's passing game. That's not to say there's a huge advantage here. Notre Dame does, however, average eight yards per pass, which isn't elite but it is even better than the USC offense's 7.7. USC's pass defense has been solid, at 6.6 yards per attempt allowed. There's a reason DeShone Kizer is an NFL Draft prospect, and Equanimeous St. Brown could have some success against Adoree' Jackson, who is an excellent cornerback but has shown a few vulnerabilities in the last two weeks. Really, though, the biggest problem Notre Dame could cause for USC is being more prepared. If USC shows ready to play, it should be the better team. But there is a chance USC is distracted by the Colorado game later Saturday afternoon, which will determine whether USC goes to the Pac-12 title game. In a rivalry, that could be costly.

What has been Clay Helton's greatest impact in his first full season as head coach?

Stability. Since Pete Carroll left, USC has typically been rocked by numerous coach-related incidents or distractions. To name a few, Lane Kiffin's jersey-number switching or football deflating and Steve Sarkisian's alcohol-related behavior. That had taken a toll on the team. USC has had issues this season, some of them very serious. But Helton hasn't been the cause of any of them. "Don't be a distraction" sounds like a prerequisite for most coaches, but for USC at the moment, it's a big step in the right direction.

Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold passes during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

WHO: Notre Dame (4-7) vs. No. 12 USC (8-3)

KICKOFF: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EST

WHERE: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

TV: ABC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: USC by 17