The final date on the regular season Notre Dame football schedule will have the Irish heading West to play the USC Trojans. Last season, USC finished 8-6, having problems in games against ranked teams. Of course, many of the issues that have plagued this program over the past few years have been the off-the-field variety.
[Related: Read up on all 12 of Notre Dame’s 2016 opponents with our previews]
Clay Helton has officially taken over as head coach after serving in an interim capacity for the last 10 games after the dismissal of Steve Sarkisian. Helton is taking a back-to-basics approach, though his offensive philosophies will remain the same as when he began with the Trojans in 2010.
USC Offense: Who Will Call the Signals?
Max Browne is the favorite to start at quarterback, though he faces a stiff test from Sam Darnold, who was actually more impressive during the spring. Browne’s strong arm will be handing off to a pair of solid running backs in Justin Davis and Ronald Jones, the latest models to roll off Tailback U.’s line.
Browne’s favorite receiver and a definite threat to the Irish defense will be JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had a breakout year in 2015 and could vault into elite NFL Draft status with another strong campaign.
Having other outlets will help alleviate the pressure on Smith-Schuster, with a mix of serviceable depth and solid newcomers making up the wide receiving contingent. At tight end, the potential contributions of transfer Daniel Imatorbhebje and two others are likely worth defending against.
Up front, the key man Notre Dame needs to focus on is Zach Banner, though Trojan coaches are still waiting for the three other returning starters to live up to their promise. The embarrassing specter of 38 sacks last season may help the Notre Dame defensive line if the problem isn’t addressed.
USC: Delivering on the Goods
The fact that USC is returning 14 starters this season should be cause for excitement in Los Angeles, but that one newcomer on offense is at quarterback, keeping any true projections in the balance. Throw in absences in all but one of the front seven spots on defense and the mystery deepens about this last stop on the Notre Dame football schedule.
USC Defense: A Quick Infusion of Skill Needed
Both the Southern Cal defensive line and linebacking unit took a hit during the offseason, which means over the course of 2016, the Trojans need to get the returning talent integrated into the lineup. If not, the Irish offense may have a field day.
Two important player trajectories to watch up front in 2016 for USC are Rasheem Green and Noah Jefferson. For the Trojans to stop offenses, these players have to deliver, especially with the absence of tackle Kenny Bigelow, who blew out his knee during the spring.
At linebacker, Cameron Smith is back after missing the last five games due to injury. However, Smith brought down 78 ball carriers last season and will likely benefit from having Porter Gustin by his side.
Potential is the key word in the secondary, since talent abounds within the group. This matchup to close out the Notre Dame football schedule means that the Irish will contend with two impressive cornerbacks in Adoree Jackson and Iman Marshall. Jackson could also see time among the wideouts.
USC Special Teams: Concerns at Kicking
The versatility of Jackson will also be on display when it comes to returns. However, both the kicking and punting game will see new players in place, with Matt Boermeester in the former role and Chris Tilbey in the latter capacity.
The Last Time Notre Dame Played USC
When USC came into South Bend a year ago, the Trojans had just fired Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton was preparing for his first game as the head coach of the Trojans. Helton and USC got off to a quick start with a touchdown on the first drive of the game to take a 7-0. The lead would be short lived.
On Notre Dame’s first offensive play of the game, Deshone Kizer dropped back to pass off of a play-acton fake and fired a bomb downfield to Will Fuller. The speedster wide receiver got behind USC’s Adoree Jackson and burned the USC corner for a 75 yard touchdown.
For a while it looked like Notre Dame was headed for a blowout of USC, but an ill-timed fumble by Torii Hunter Jr turned the game around. Up 24-10 after a 21 point first quarter explosion, Hunter was headed to the end-zone to make it 31-10 before losing control of the ball. USC recovered and rattled off 14 straight points to tie the game at the half.
USC took its first lead of the game in the third quarter before Notre Dame scored 17 unanswered points for a 41-31 victory. Keivarae Russell sealed the victory with an acrobatic, diving interception.