Opponent outlook: Defeating Notre Dame may be necessary for USC coach Clay Helton

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

To remain as USC’s head football coach following this season, Clay Helton may need to beat Notre Dame, among other things.

A 5-7 finish for the Trojans last year pressured then-athletic director Lynn Swann. He released a statement — which defended Helton — the day after Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory at USC. With Swann resigning from his position last month, the heat is on Helton even more now.

Defeating the No. 9 Irish (4-1) in Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC) seems like a tall task for Helton. But the Trojans (3-2) could land a momentum-shifting victory.

USC lost JT Daniels for the season in its opener after the starting quarterback tore the ACL in his right knee. Quarterbacks Matt Fink and Kedon Slovis have taken his place. The Trojan defense ties for No. 84 and No. 93 in total defense and run defense, respectively.

USC may find the upper hand with its elite wide receiving corps. Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Michael Pittman Jr. combine for 90 receptions and 1,153 receiving yards through five games. The trio has accounted for nine of USC’s 10 receiving touchdowns.

Can the Trojans make it closer than expected like last season? We caught up with Adam Grosbard of the Orange County Register for more insight on the Trojans.

How would you describe Helton’s status at the moment? What would it take for him to be USC’s head coach next season?

Grosbard: The loss to BYU certainly put him on perilous ground. If USC is 4-1 with just a two-touchdown loss to Washington, that’s understandable, but the road loss to the Cougars is not tolerable for USC fans and alumni. He likely needs to win the Pac-12 to save his job at this point.

There’s going to be a new athletic director, one who will likely want his own coach in place. Helton needs to prove he can win big to justify USC keeping him. That probably means a Rose Bowl berth, which is a tall order but not impossible given how wide open the Pac-12 feels at this point in the season.

Brian Kelly said he expects Slovis to start but is preparing for Fink as well. Which quarterback are you expecting to play on Saturday, and what have you seen from both of them?

Grosbard: I think it’ll be Slovis. He returned to non-contact practices last week and should progress further this week. Both Slovis and Fink have shown their flashes and can make plays downfield as well as in the flat. But both have also been shaky in their lone road starts, each throwing three interceptions against BYU and Washington, respectively.

Fink is a little more capable of making plays with his feet, but Slovis has proven to be good at escaping the pocket and is the more accurate of the two. But with both you get inexperienced quarterbacks who have been thrown into the fire by the JT Daniels injury.

Where does the receiving trio of Vaughns, St. Brown and Pittman Jr. stack up nationally? How are teams defending them?

Grosbard: It’s a pretty elite group, especially when you consider USC is 26th in the FBS in passing yards when the starting quarterback only played one half. Pittman in particular has been excellent as a senior. USC doesn’t beat Utah in Week 4 without Pittman blowing up for 232 yards to help Fink navigate the Utes following Slovis’ concussion.

But you generally don’t have to worry about all three of them each week, as there tends to be a favorite receiver each game based off how teams defend them. The most successful defense against the USC passing game so far has been dropping 7-8 players into coverage each play, especially with two deep safeties to prevent any long balls.

Which players on USC’s defense need to step up?

Grosbard: USC is going to need safety Talanoa Hufanga to be back to his normal self. The sophomore missed USC’s loss to Washington with a concussion and AC sprain. USC withheld this loss pretty well, but Hufanga has been arguably USC’s most important defender all year with his instinctive plays and ability to blow things up for opposing offenses.

Outside of him, USC needs its ends — Drake Jackson and Christian Rector — and outside linebackers — Palaie Gaoteote and Hunter Echols — to do a better job on outside containment, an issue for USC all season. And a healthy cornerback Olaijah Griffin would be a big boost for the Trojans, too.

If USC pulls off the upset, what do you think would be the reason why? If Notre Dame wins, what do you think would be the reason why?

Grosbard: For USC to pull off an upset, it will need to run a perfect offensive game and win the turnover margin by two or three takeaways. That’s a tall order for a USC team that really struggles in the turnover margin department, but that’s what will need to happen for USC to win.

If Notre Dame wins, it likely means USC didn’t take care of the football and didn’t finish drives when it got inside the red zone. It also probably means that the Notre Dame offense kept up its machine-like execution inside the red zone.

Score prediction: Notre Dame 35, USC 21.

Grosbard: Notre Dame is the best team USC will face all season, and while the Trojans have shown a knack for showing up for big games (2-1 against top-25 teams), it will be a tall order to beat such a balanced Notre Dame team in South Bend. Notre Dame probably goes up big early, and USC makes it more respectable in the second half.

USC head coach Clay Helton yells at an official at Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 21, 2017.