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Revamped Trojans lineup set to take on Irish

| Friday, October 11, 2019

Notre Dame Stadium will be ready to welcome the University of Southern California come Saturday night for the biggest home matchup of the year. Despite being a nearly two-touchdown underdog heading into Saturday’s matchup, USC head coach Clay Helton is optimistic that his team is nearing its peak potential as the team prepares to travel to South Bend.

“It is a little bit of a different trip. You’re talking a four-hour flight. It’s going to be a great atmosphere at night,” Helton said in a press conference following practice Tuesday. “It’s going to be a little cold, our first cold weather. … It’s one of those things that you talk to your team about focusing on your job and only your job six seconds at a time and not allow the noise and distraction to get in the way and to look at the opportunity that you have ahead of you. That’s the opportunity to go compete against a top-10 team and gain national notoriety as we prepare for another six-game stretch in the conference.”

Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish junior tight end Brock Wright runs from defenders during Notre Dame’s 52-0 victory over Bowling Green on Oct. 5 at Notre Dame Stadium.

The Trojans have had their fair share of struggles early on, losing to BYU and Washington after their starting quarterback JT Daniels was sidelined in the season opener with an ACL and meniscus tear. Daniels was highly touted out of high school and became just the second true freshman quarterback to start the season for the Trojans last year. Staying consistent with the young core, Helton turned to true freshman Kedon Slovis. Slovis was the primary play caller until suffering a concussion early in USC’s upset win over No. 15 Utah 30-23. Redshirt junior Matt Fink moved into the lineup against the Utes and went 40-62 over the next two games. With the advantage of a bye week, Helton announced Slovis has been medically cleared and is expected to start Saturday.

“Both Kedon and Matt are preparing just like they’re starters, just like they do every week, but Kedon will start in this game,” Helton said.

Despite having missed nearly three weeks of play, Helton said Slovis looked in full form in practice earlier this week.

The bye weekend came at an opportune time for USC, allowing Slovis an extra week of recovery.

“Being able to get fresh from a health standpoint — that week couldn’t have come at a better time. Right off of game five with some nicks, bruises and having played two physical games with Utah and Washington,” Helton said. “Getting ready to have another physical game against Notre Dame, I couldn’t imagine a better time.”

USC has also earned themselves the reputation of being a significant threat in the secondary, with skilled receivers such as senior Michael Pittman Jr. and sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown, younger brother of former Notre Dame wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly recently claimed that USC has one of the best receiving corps in the country.

“I think it’s a compliment. I feel like Pitt and [redshirt junior] Tyler [Vaughns] and Amon-Ra have done a wonderful job this year and it’ll be a good defensive squad going up against a good offensive squad,” Helton said.

While much of USC’s offense is focused in the air, they’ve got several key backs who could help spread the defense through the run game. Helton noted that he’s been particularly impressed with redshirt freshman running back Markese Stepp’s progression.

“He’s growing; he’s getting better,” Helton said. “He’s learning pass protection — I think he’s really taken a step forward there. He’s learning how to try to be a natural ball catcher out of the backfield.”

All of these pieces will have to come together if the Trojans want to keep this game competitive, as Helton said they’re preparing to go up against “two of the more dynamic defensive ends that [they’ll] face all year.”

“They cause havoc in the backfield, and I think one of the biggest things for us will be protecting the quarterback,” he said.

That pass protection will be crucial to avoid turnovers to the Notre Dame secondary.

“I’ve been extremely impressed by how physical they are, especially in the run game,” Helton said of Notre Dame’s cornerbacks and safeties. “To be able to play multitudes of coverage, to be able to load the box with that secondary, they show up and they show up fast. It’s like adding an extra player to the run game. … You’ve got to be able to hurt them with the deep ball.”

On the flip side, Helton knows that his defense will have their hands full with Notre Dame senior quarterback Ian Book.

“Offensively, very impressed with Ian Book and the job that he’s doing with the skill players around him,” he said. “I think that he’s being a great field general for that team.”

Many believe Helton’s job to be on the line this season as the Trojans have struggled to make any significant noise on the national scene since leading the program to the Rose Bowl in 2016, his first season as head coach. However, Helton said he’s not concerned by the perceived implications of Saturday’s game, rather choosing to focus on his team.

“I just focus on the 11 men out there,” he said.

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