- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
A fired coach. A .500 record. A trio of humbling losses at home. It’s safe to say the first half of USC’s season didn’t exactly go as planned.
The same could be said for Notre Dame, albeit with much less catastrophic results. The 13th-ranked Irish are 5-1, with their loss coming against No. 2 Cincinnati. But the first half of its own season was hardly a smooth ride, with three wins of three points or fewer.
A bye last week offered both bitter rivals a much-needed reset. But as USC embarks on the second half of its season with a trip to South Bend, Ind., it’s not going to get any easier. The Trojans enter the game as seven-point underdogs, in desperate need of a bounce-back performance.
Could we see a different team emerge after the bye week? It’s possible. But it’s been a decade since USC won at Notre Dame. A difficult task lies ahead as USC kicks off against its rival at 4:30 p.m. on NBC.
Slovis the starter
Dynamic freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart is nearing a return after missing a month following minor knee surgery, but he has yet to be cleared for contact, meaning there won’t be a quarterback competition just yet at USC.
Kedon Slovis will have at least one more Saturday to prove he deserves to remain USC’s quarterback until the end of the season. The last time the Trojans were in South Bend, Slovis nearly orchestrated a furious second-half comeback. From there, his freshman season started to take off.
Could this Saturday offer a similar launch point for the rest of Slovis’ season? Perhaps. With Dart’s return looming, there’s no better time for Slovis to prove himself than in a marquee rivalry game on the road.
“Kedon has been really sharp,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “The ball is jumping out of his hand.”
Notre Dame’s quarterback situation is somehow even less certain. In recent weeks, for a variety of reasons, the Irish have used three different passers.
Senior Jack Coan opened the season as the starter, but he was replaced by redshirt freshman Drew Pyne in Notre Dame’s victory over Wisconsin. Both, however, have recently ceded time to true freshman Tyler Buchner, who’s more of a rushing threat. Buchner had 67 yards rushing and a touchdown to go with 113 yards and a passing touchdown in the Irish’s most recent win over Virginia Tech.
Coan has been the primary quarterback for most of the season, but might that change coming out of the bye? It’s unclear.
“I think Coach [Brian] Kelly would probably like to put his hand on one of them and say, hey, this is the guy that we're going to go with,” USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said, “but we've prepared for all three of them. Expecting to see different things out of them."
Grounded ground game
In its run to the College Football Playoff last season, Notre Dame relied heavily on a rushing attack that ranked among the best in the nation. Only six teams ran the ball more in 2020.
But after being forced to retool its offensive line ahead of 2021, that success hasn’t translated in the slightest a year after its playoff run. In fact, Notre Dame has been worse than USC running the ball this season.
The Irish still deploy the same stellar running back in sophomore Kyren Williams, but after averaging 5.3 yards per carry as a freshman, he’s had trouble finding room to run. Williams is averaging just 3.85 yards per carry this season, and the rest of the backfield has been even worse — the Irish rank 123rd in the nation in that category.
A struggling USC rush defense could be the salve Notre Dame needs. Aside from its win over Colorado, in which USC allowed just over two yards per carry, the Trojans allowed Oregon State and Utah to average nearly six yards per carry with five total touchdowns on the ground. Neither has a running back as talented as Williams.
“They lost a whole bunch of experienced offensive linemen,” Orlando said. “Everybody knows that. But their skill guys are all guys who were in the playoff. They know what it takes. They’re dynamic guys, and they’re all really, really good athletes, their running backs especially.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.