The annual battle between the Fighting Irish and Southern Cal Trojans will be the last game on the Notre Dame football schedule before the bye, with the Irish having won the last three meetings. For USC, head coach Clay Helton enters the 2019 season with a tremendous burden of trying to shake off the school’s first losing season in nearly two decades.
Midway through last year, the Trojans had a 4-2 record, but then sandwiched their only other victory between five losses to end the year on a bitter note. One of the chief problems was a lack of consistency with Southern Cal’s offense, a reality that was expected, given the fact that the quarterback was a true freshman.
Southern Cal Offense: Revving Up the Trojan Engine
That true freshman was T.J. Daniels, who ended the year by throwing for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdown passes. Unfortunately, he also tossed 10 interceptions, though he was able to put a scare into the Irish by throwing for a season-high 349 yards and completing 37 of 51 attempts. He sat out one game last year due to injury, but freshman Jack Sears put together a solid performance and has the ability to put pressure on Daniels for playing time.
Southern Cal’s long legacy of featuring the running game figures to take a back seat this year, However, the Trojans return Vavae Malepeai, who averaged over five yards per carry last year. He’ll be joined by Stephen Carr, who gained nearly 400 yards last year. Also expected to contribute will be redshirt freshman Markese Stepp, though that will largely be in the area of blocking.
Having made an immediate impact last year by leading the team with 60 receptions, Amon-Ra St. Brown is hoping for a stellar encore. The good news here is that he’ll have deep threat Michael Pittman also available, while Tyler Vaughns should again be a consistent target. When it comes to tight end, Josh Falo had just 10 receptions, numbers that can’t help but see an increase in 2019.
At one tackle spot, Austin Jackson brings veteran experience to the left side, while grad transfer Drew Richmond arrives from Tennessee ready to stake his claim to the right tackle position. Inside, right guard Andrew Vorhees is also back, but a guessing game on the left side will have to be answered in training camp. At center, Brett nelson moves up to a starting role.
Southern Cal Defense: Strength Up Front
The defensive line has a number of talented returnees, led by end Christian Rector, who ended the year with 48 tackles, nine of those coming behind the line of scrimmage. The other end will likely be a tandem of Connor Murphy and a key player for the future, Drake Jackson. The tackle slot figures to be nailed down by Jy Tufele, while on the nose, Marlon Tuipulotu will be spelled by Brandon Pili, with both having the ability to get into enemy backfields.
At linebacker, John Houston moves inside after 67 stops in 2018, with a pair of sophomores in Hunter Echols and Palaie Gaoteote expected to also be a part of the starting lineup. Gaoteote has the challenge of replacing the team’s leading tackler, Cameron Smith, though one newcomer who may make his presence felt in this department will be Solomon Tuliaupupu.
The Trojan secondary sustained the biggest damage regarding departures, so it will take some time before this group gets in sync. At one corner, Greg Johnson has starting experience, while Olaijah Griffin is hoping to bounce back from shoulder issues. One of the safety berths has Talanoa Hufanga coming back after missing the final month last year with a broken collarbone. The other spot will have either C.J. Pollard or rangy Isaiah Pola-Mao, with Pollard a threat on safety blitzes.
Southern Cal Special Teams: New and Old Looks
Michael Brown will enter the year as the incumbent after having taken over following the ACL injury to Chase McGrath, Depending on McGrath’s rehabilitation, Brown could be challenged in this role. At punter, Ben Griffiths has plenty of Australian Rules Football experience, but is an unknown commodity at punter. Dominic Davis will handle kick return duties, while Tyler Vaughns looks to continue his success on punt returns from last year.
The Last Time Notre Dame Faced Southern Cal
In the final regular season game on the 2018 Notre Dame football schedule last year, the Irish needed a second half comeback to remain undefeated and clinch a playoff berth at the same time. Notre Dame fell behind early, 10-0, with Ian Book and Chris Finke teaming up for the first touchdown and Dexter Williams delivering the go-ahead score on a 52-yard run. By the time expired, the Irish had a 24-17 victory.