Opponent outlook: What went wrong for USC, coach Clay Helton?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame’s clash with Southern Cal last season got ugly.

The Irish dominated in a 49-14 college football romp, and that was against a Trojan squad that finished with 11 wins. USC also had quarterback Sam Darnold, who the New York Jets drafted third overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Saturday’s contest between the No. 3 Irish (11-0) and Trojans (5-6) in the LA Memorial Coliseum could look even worse than 2017. Notre Dame shut out one of the nation’s top offenses in No. 12 Syracuse over the weekend, cruising to a 36-3 victory. Meanwhile, USC fell to UCLA (3-8) before 57,116 fans — the lowest attendance for the rivalry game since 1950.

USC compares to a previous ND opponent, Florida State, in that its loaded roster has underachieved. In his third year at the helm, Clay Helton could be coaching his final game for the Trojans.

As a five-star recruit, quarterback JT Daniels has not lived up to his billing yet. However, Daniels will not turn 19 until February, and he has not received much help. The Trojans own the No. 101 rushing offense. Daniels will face the nation’s second-best pass efficiency defense this weekend.

How will USC — losers of four of its last five games — look with Helton’s job and a bowl game on the line? We caught up with Dan Weber of USCFootball.com for more insight on the Trojans.

It looks like coach Clay Helton could be gone after the season. What went wrong after back-to-back 10-win-plus seasons?

Weber: “Notre Dame fans got an early inkling of what was starting to go wrong last year when USC showed up in South Bend completely unprepared to play and seemingly unaware of the importance of the USC-Notre Dame series, something Brian Kelly had used his two weeks preparation to get the Irish ready. As became quickly clear, Sam Darnold tried to do way too much — as he often did against USC’s top opponents. He couldn’t trust the offense and turned the ball over, taking USC out in the early minutes.

“It happened again in a Pac-12 championship season later when a physical Ohio State defense smoked USC in the Cotton Bowl. It’s continued this year with good teams (Texas, Utah) manhandling USC. Even worse have been losses to the likes of Arizona State, Cal and UCLA, as USC has become soft, undisciplined and without solid offensive and defensive schemes. Not a pretty picture for USC fans who have chosen to stay home with attendance the worst since 2000.”

Where does USC go from here and do you think it might take some time to right the ship?

Weber: “Clay Helton is using the Notre Dame example, going from 4-8 two years ago to an unbeaten No. 3 and a possible College Football Playoff participant, as the way for the Trojans to get back on track. But Helton doesn’t have the track record of Kelly and might find it difficult to rework his entire staff. The problem starts at the top with a roster ranked No. 4 in the nation by 247’s composite rankings behind only Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. This staff can recruit ‘em but can’t develop ‘em.

Daniels entered USC with a lot of hype. What have you seen from him this year and what do you think his outlook is?

Weber: “He’s getting blamed for things no quarterback — much less an 18-year-old who could still be in high school — should be blamed for. If USC could run the ball, he would have had much better success throwing it. But USC can’t. So he’s had to make a great many perfect throws into coverage and under pressure with an offensive line that hasn’t always done a great job protecting him.

But he did throw for 337 yards and two TDs against UCLA and all he got was criticism for two interceptions — one on a deep ball when USC took a shot 50 yards downfield, and the other when trying to throw the ball away and it slipped out of his hands. He’s being criticized because he’s not a Sam Darnold scrambler, but he has 10 interceptions. Last year, Sam had 13.

The Trojans seemed to have a decent run defense, but they allowed 289 rushing yards and two touchdowns to UCLA’s Joshua Kelley. What broke down for them? Who will be some defensive players to watch on Saturday?

Weber: “The key words there are “seemed” and “decent.” Some games they show up ready to play, others not so much. And they have lost so many players on defense starting with four top safeties including freshman Talanoa Hufanga, their best tackler, and one of the nation’s leading sackers, Porter Gustin.

“They have a tendency now to show up and play tough for a while, then break down and give up a long score. But against UCLA, they just got pounded by a two-win team. MLB Cameron Smith is the senior leader with Iman Marshall the top corner and Christian Rector the DE to watch.

Let’s say Helton has a job-saving win on Saturday. What would a Trojan upset take against a balanced Irish squad?

Weber: “Not sure a win over Notre Dame would be a job-saver. The damage from the six losses — not to mention all the problems in preparation — may be unsalvageable. What it would take is a no-turnover game where the offensive line protects Daniels, USC doesn’t take any plays off on defense or special teams and for the first time this season, matches the other team’s physicality with its own. Hard to imagine that happening against Notre Dame. USC would need lots of help from Notre Dame and we’re guessing, with so much on the line, that’s not happening.”

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (11-0) vs. USC (5-6)

WHEN: Saturday, 8 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: LA Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles

TV: ABC

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

LINE: Notre Dame by BLANK