Darnold, Jones II highlight newest crop of USC stars
Marek Mazurek | Friday, October 20, 2017
The last time a ranked USC team faced a ranked Notre Dame team was eight years ago in 2009.
Jimmy Clausen quarterbacked a No. 25 Irish squad into The Coliseum against a No. 6 Trojans team coached by Pete Carroll.
USC won that game 34-27. And over the next decade the two teams couldn’t find a way to come together when both had a number in front of their names.
The late 2000s saw Notre Dame fire Charlie Weis and rebuild under Brian Kelly while the mid-2010s saw USC wade through the aftermath of a pay-for-play scandal and NCAA penalties.
This Saturday, for the first time in eight years, the No. 11 Trojans (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12) and the No. 13 Irish (5-1) will meet with national implications on the line for both teams.
“We want to make sure that our players know that you get great opportunities like this at Notre Dame to play on a great stage like this against a rival in USC, against a very, very good football team,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday about the magnitude of Saturday’s matchup.
“The great players that have played in this game across the decades. I think that’s what stands out when people talk about Notre Dame, USC; it resonates. It’s got brand power. It sits up there with the great rivalries of college football.”
In fact, Saturday’s matchup marks the most meaningful game between the long-time rivals since 2005’s nail-biter, which concluded in the infamous “Bush-push.”
“It’s going to be a great challenge, a great environment from a history standpoint, a legacy standpoint, but actually within this season too,” Trojans head coach Clay Helton said Tuesday. “It’s nice to see both teams in the national spotlight this week and highly ranked.”
This year’s game, however, will feature a new cast of stars. Instead of Matt Leinart or Matt Barkley, USC redshirt-sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold takes the spotlight, surrounded by NFL draft talk.
“I think everybody nationally knows about Sam Darnold and what he can do, Heisman trophy candidate,” Brian Kelly said. “Great supporting cast: Ronald Jones, etc. Very, very capable in many areas; the ability to throw it. They are going to be a challenge as it relates to their passing game, and they are very good at running the football, as well.”
Darnold comes into the matchup against Notre Dame with a 62.7 percent completion percentage and over 2,000 yards passing on the year.
“I think in the last two games; I’ve focused here on the passing game,” Helton. “[Darnold’s] a kid that’s thrown six touchdowns and one interception in the last two games, in both still completing over 300 yards with the ball. I’ve seen him progress through this season especially in the passing game, I’m proud of him.”
Darnold will likely be the most talented quarterback the Irish face this year, but Helton said what makes Darnold special is his game knowledge and situational awareness.
“The most proud play I had from him the other night [was] where he pulled the ball down, made the linebacker miss, got the first down and got down,” Helton said. “Him being able to do all that together is a sign of his progression.”
While Darnold has put up impressive numbers, he has been prone to interceptions, throwing nine on the year.
To compliment an NFL-caliber quarterback, USC also sports an NFL-caliber running back in its backfield in Ronald Jones II. Jones has racked up 640 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns this season, but there have been concerns about his ankle entering game week.
Jones II will likely play at less than 100 percent, but Kelly said the star back can still pose problems for Notre Dame’s defense.
“Well, he’s got speed, explosiveness, great vision. I love Ronald,” Kelly said. “We recruited him out of high school. He’s just a terrific back.
“You know, he’s a featured back. I think he’s as good as anybody in the country and he runs behind an offense that can throw the football. So creates great opportunities and great space. He’s a weapon. Dangerous, dangerous player.”
However, USC’s injury problems don’t end with Jones II. The defensive front especially is an area of concern for the Trojans as defensive linemen junior Rasheem Green, senior Josh Fatu and junior linebacker Porter Gustin have recently dealt with injuries.
On Wednesday, Helton announced that Gustin, who had been dealing with a variety of injuries and underwent surgery in early September will sit out versus Notre Dame. Fatu will also sit out due to concussion symptoms after being in an automobile collision earlier this week.
“Josh [Fatu] is probably out for this game, going through concussion protocol,” Helton said. “We’ll see if we can’t get him back in next week. He’s listed day-to-day, but the reality is probably next week.”
Green, however, will play, and Kelly said the Trojans’ pass rush is one of his primary concerns about the USC defense.
“I think if you look at their defensive front, it’s probably more than anything else, been one where they have gotten a lot more disruptions; the ability to pressure the quarterback,” Kelly said.