Notre Dame Football Preview ’18: Life After Sam Darnold at USC

The final regular season game on the 2018 Notre Dame football schedule will be a trip to face the USC Trojans on November 24. The meeting will mark the 90th clash in this longstanding rivalry that dates back to 1926, when the iconic Knute Rockne roamed the Irish sidelines.

[Related: Read our complete series on all 12 of Notre Dame’s 2018 opponents to get ready for the 2018 Notre Dame football season!]

Trojans head coach Clay Helton still has plenty of talent at his disposal as he begins his third year, but a number of the team’s losses during his tenure have exposed holes in their lineup. Taking the next step is imperative to again contending for a national title.

USC Offense: Quarterback Question

With Sam Darnold no longer behind center, the job is up for grabs and may actually be won by a true freshman. That’s J.T. Daniels, who’s blessed with plenty of ability and arrived on campus in January. Whether or not he can get the job done remains to be seen, with either Matt Fink or Jake Sears the other two options.

The Trojans and running backs have a memorable legacy, with Stephen Carr someone who can lead the 2018 contingent-if he can stay healthy. He sat out spring ball because of hernia trouble, so if he’s not ready to go, the burden falls on the shoulders of Aca’Cedric Ware or Vanae Malepeai.

On the receiving front, replacing over 1,700 yards worth of receptions is necessary, with two wideouts currently standing out to make that effort. That would be Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns, with two tight ends also offering valuable targets. In the latter case, that would be the duo of Tyler Petite and Daniel Imatorbhebhe.

Traditionally, the Trojans have had quality gracing the offensive line, with the left side of the ball representing that category this year. The tackle slot is being manned by Toa Lobendahn, while guard is again the department of Chris Brown. Last year, some holes needed to be filled, which allowed for plenty of newcomers to get some playing time and providing invaluable on-the-job experience.

USC Defense: Run No More is the Hope

Last year, stopping the run was a problem for USC, which was due in part to key injuries. When it comes to the line, raw is the operative word since some of the marginal players in this department are the ones that are bringing experience. Two players that bear watching here are Marlon Tuipulotu at tackle and Jay Tufele on one of the end slots.

The welcome return of Porter Gustin at linebacker after missing the final 10 games because of injury should aid the run defense. Cameron Smith will be there to supplement Gustin after being one of the few standouts in this area in 2017. There may be room for true freshman Palaie Gaoteote IV, whose talent exceeds the difficulty in pronouncing his name.

In the secondary, the safety positions are the strength in this area, with Ajene Harris and Marvel Tell back for more this year. One corner is again being handled by Iman Marshall, though the other spot won’t have Jack Jones back after he became an academic casualty.

USC Special Teams: Learning Curve Matters

Sophomore Chase McGrath was adequate during his baptism last year, while Reid Budrovich comes back for one final year. Returning kicks for USC will again be Velus Jones, Jr., while Harris will again be the main punt return option. The team took a dip in quality last year, with the steep drop now looking to head upward.

The Last Time Notre Dame Played USC

An October matchup on last year’s Notre Dame football schedule last season was expected to be a tight affair, but the end result was anything but as the Irish routed the Trojans by a 49-14 score. The contest was decided in the first half, aided by three Southern Cal turnovers as Notre Dame scored 14 points in each of the first two quarters to take a 28-0 halftime lead. The Irish ground game was thriving, compiling 377 of the team’s 497 total yards on the night, while Brandon Wimbush threw for two scores, ran for two more and was joined by Josh Adams crossing the goal line three times.

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  1. Helton is a dreadful coach.

    His team underperformed its talent more than any other team with top 10 roster talent.

    While they know how to beat Stanford, they woefully underperformed in most of the rest of the season.

    As Notre Dame has with Fat Boy Fat Weis, the King of Greed and Robbing your alma mater, Davie, Kuharich, Faust and Brennan, USC can pick some woefully bad coaches. I’ll give you Larry Smith who had some modicum of competence, but
    Ted Tollner?
    Paul Hackett?
    Lame Kitten?

    My friend Murph said that Notre Dame’s biggest challenge is hubris, that insiders think that the institution coaches itself, and to channel JerryJOnesism, 500 guys could coach ND.

    USC? Similar hubris.

    Helton, not the X’s and O’s, is the limiting constraint.

    1. Duranko,
      I agree with your whole list (both universities), but I liked Brennan. That guy did more with less players on the roster than any of the others listed…by far. If Terry Brennan had the same number of scholarship players to work with as either Leahy or Ara, I think he would have been a great coach. Of course I never saw a Brennan team play, I was too young. My first memory of Notre Dame football was Kuharich, when we first moved to South Bend from Illinois. I do clearly remember some USC coaches that you named above snatching defeat at our hands from what looked like certain victory for the Trojans. As for Helton, I think he may have gotten the job partly to reward him for being loyal and being there when Southern Cal really needed him. Nonetheless, I suspect he needs to have a good year this year if he wants to stick around.

      BGC ’77 ’82

      1. BGC, I am fond of Brennan, and felt he was more VICTIM than perpetrator.

        Similarly with Faust.
        Early in my business career I would look at an incompetent employee and ask WHY?

        Later I learned to look at the person who HIRED and SUPERVISED the bad hire. As Dukakis said, the fish rots from the head.

  2. BGC,
    JT Daniels passed up his senior year, like Josh Booty the all world QB out of Louisiana. Booty was a bust at SoCal. Daniels in high school was protected on the blind side by Tommy Brown who ‘ Bama snagged right quick. In High School Daniels never wore rib protector, knee braces. He was in essence playing 7 on 7, lofting balls to future NFL’rs Amon Ra St. Brown and Bru McCoy. It will be a totally new experience at this level. I would be surprised to see Him make it to that November date. Darnold didn’t have all the football brains in the world but was very durable. To early to call this game. I especially love seeing SoCal kids come back home ( Huarte, Snow, Beuerlein, E. St. Brown, Wood,) to take out the Trojans.

  3. Great job Frank, giving brief early on strengths, weaknesses, players on Trojans. Way back as a kid out that way in local Archdiocesan paper was a sports writer Charles “ Chuck” Johnson. He was a super proud Notre Dame fan and even donned a Notre Dame cap during football season at head of his column. I really learned how to read, reading His column every week. Before the “ Holy War” showdown between the Irish and Trojans Johnson would always have inside information. He would write “ my South Bend spy tells me”. I live for this game, saw it live many times at Coliseum. This years game will be a real humdinger for sure.

    1. GK, I’ve never been to the Coliseum…hope to go someday. If USC starts a true freshman QB in September he will have 11 games of experience before he sees us, assuming he is “still the guy” at the end of November. He won’t really be a “freshman” in the “football sense” by then. The 12 game schedule everyone plays now changes a lot of things from the way they were when we were kids.

      BGC ’77 ’82

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