Opponent Outlook: Sizing up QB Sam Darnold and the USC defense

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

USC has only one football loss this season, but it hasn't been easy for the Trojans.

Texas took USC to overtime last month, and the Trojans (6-1) needed 21 points in the second half Saturday for a 28-27 comeback victory over Utah.

No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) has taken a much different path this season with all five victories coming by at least 20 points. Yet both teams will head into the weekend needing a victory to propel them into serious contention for the College Football Playoff. The stakes haven't been this high for the annual rivalry in years.

What kind of challenge will No. 11 USC present the Irish on Saturday? We caught up with Zach Helfand of the Los Angeles Times to take a closer look at the Trojans.

• By most accounts, Sam Darnold hasn't lived up to the lofty expectations thrust upon him in the offseason as arguably the best NFL quarterback prospect in college football. Is that criticism fair? And where has he struggled to reach that potential?

Helfand: “The expectations were probably a bit high, since the lasting impression most casual college football fans had of Darnold was the Rose Bowl, which was his best game: 453 yards and five touchdowns. But Darnold's worst games last year were also very good. His performance against Notre Dame (205 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) was probably one of his worst.

“This year, his biggest problem has been turnovers. He has nine interceptions, same number as a year ago. He had three fumbles against Utah in the first half. It hasn't helped that his line and receivers are worse than a year ago.

“His greatest skill is his creativity, and he hasn't moved quite as well in the pocket. When he does, like in the second half against Utah, he's still maybe the best quarterback in the country.”

• USC has played in a few close games, but only Washington State has been able to beat the Trojans. What were the Cougars able to do in defeating USC that could be repeatable for Notre Dame and future opponents?

Helfand: “Washington State stopped the run consistently (minus one 86-yard run), mixed up pressures really well and made USC one-dimensional. USC had a hard time picking up blitzes and had to simplify the offense. USC didn't complete a pass to a tight end or a running back all game, and Washington State got to Darnold often with pressure.”

• How would you grade the job Clay Helton has done as head coach for the Trojans? And would a win at Notre Dame on Saturday change that in any way?

Helfand: “Year one was great in some respects. The turnaround from 1-3 to 10-3 and Rose Bowl winners was a credit to Helton's steadiness and the esteem his players hold him in. But he made one big mistake. Not starting Darnold from the beginning probably cost USC one and maybe two games.

“This season has been more disappointing. USC has been sloppy, with lots of turnovers, penalties and mental mistakes. The offense has weapons but has been disjointed. But the record is still 6-1 against a fairly tough early season schedule.

“A win over Notre Dame means USC is set up very well to cruise into the Pac-12 title game with one loss. So this game is very important for how Helton's second season is viewed.”

• USC running back Ronald Jones II has continued to play through an ankle injury. How much has that hindered his effectiveness? And what would running back Stephen Carr (foot) returning to the lineup mean for USC if he can get healthy by Saturday?

Helfand: “Jones looked just fine against Utah, the healthiest he's looked in weeks. I don't know if USC considers him at 100 percent, but I don't know if anyone will notice the difference against Notre Dame. Carr can be even more explosive than Jones, and he's a really effective option in the passing game.”

• Notre Dame's strength offensively is running the ball behind a sturdy offensive line. Will the Trojans be able to counter the run-heavy attack?

Helfand: “I think this could be a problem for USC. Tackling was an issue in the first half against Utah, and the rushing defense has been just average this season. There have been times when it looks great, like when it allowed 37 rushing yards to Utah in the second half on Saturday. Other times, it has looked very vulnerable, like that same game, when Zack Moss alone had 113 yards in the first half.”

tjames@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @TJamesNDI

USC head coach Clay Helton talks to his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

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

LINE: Notre Dame by 3 1/2