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USC looks to salvage lost season with upset of Notre Dame

| Friday, October 22, 2021

In rivalry games, records are thrown out. And while Notre Dame has had the recent edge over USC, their rivals are not to be taken lightly, despite an odd and underwhelming start to their season. The Trojans are 3-3 with no game having been closer than 14 points. They are also 2-0 on the road and 1-3 on their home turf. 

The Observer sat down with Nathan Ackerman of Annenberg Media Sports, USC’s student-run multimedia news outlet, to discuss the upcoming rivalry clash, to take place Saturday, October 23. 

“Inconsistency is the biggest thing. Coming into the year, people could have conceivably seen them winning 11 games this season,” Ackerman said of the preseason expectations for USC. 

Yet, USC, after a solid opening performance against defending Mountain West champions San Jose State, dropped a home clash to Stanford, 42-28.

“When they lost that Stanford game, people became apathetic — there were expectations but we knew Clay Helton wasn’t good. And people just reached a breaking point,” Ackerman said. “Losing at home by 14, 18 [to Oregon State] and 16 [to Utah] doesn’t help.”

No doubt, USC has been a mess at times, but the offense has remained pretty solid, scoring at least 26 points in every game and delivering 45-14 and 37-14 beatdowns of Washington State and Colorado, respectively. The defense has been the X-factor, as USC has given up 42, 42 and 45 points in their three losses, getting particularly gashed by the run game. 

At 3-3, USC is in a bad position with a tricky schedule left to navigate. 

“The season is pretty much lost if I’m being honest,” Ackerman noted. “After the Stanford loss, they could have still won the Pac-12 and go to the Rose Bowl — theoretically you could even contend for the Playoff … but when you lose two more — you’re not even going to win the Pac-12 and you might not even go bowling.” 

That makes USC almost a more dangerous opponent. The Trojans have next to no expectations, meaning one of the biggest prizes left in their season would be snapping a three-game losing streak in this rivalry series with Notre Dame. A team with little to lose and the talent that USC boasts, particularly on offense. Kedon Slovis, before an underwhelming start to 2021, was considered a potential top-10 draft pick at quarterback. And while Slovis hasn’t been fantastic — receiver Drake London has been about everything the Trojans could ask for, and the main reason for their offense’s continued potency amidst a poor season. Averaging over 138 receiving yards per game plus five touchdowns on the season, London has been virtually impossible to stop. 

“Nobody can stop Drake London. It’s what the other receivers can do and what the running game can do is always a question mark, but nobody can stop that guy,” Ackerman said when asked about USC’s offensive keys. “Notre Dame is probably best in realizing they won’t stop him, but just try to limit him and contain everyone else. That’s worked for other teams.”

However, London is not enough, Ackerman noted — stating that others would need to step up, particularly in the red zone, in order for USC to reach their offensive potential. After the Irish surrendered 38 points in their season opener, they haven’t allowed more than 24 points as a defense — two teams notched 29 points but scored on pick-sixes. If the Irish can keep London to around his season averages or slightly below and minimize contributions from elsewhere on the USC roster, they have a solid chance of holding the Trojans under that 26-point threshold they’ve crossed in every contest. 

However, there is some uncertainty regarding the USC offense. Reminiscent of 2019, when true freshman Kedon Slovis came in and nearly stunned Notre Dame at home, after starting the year as a back-up, the Trojans boast another talented freshman quarterback. Jaxson Dart has been injured since he put together an outstanding effort against Washington State. In his only extended action of the year, Dart went 30-46 for 391 yards and four touchdowns. The injury has made Slovis the only truly viable option, but with Dart doing well in his recovery, he could be ready to play against the Irish. And according to Ackerman, in a virtually lost season, there’s little reason not to start him over Slovis. 

“It’s clear that Slovis’s freshman season was probably his ceiling. He’s regressed to the mean a little bit. I never really thought he was the problem — his floor wasn’t that bad,” Ackerman said. “He’s not the issue, but he’s definitely not the solution. You get what you’re gonna get from him. He’s going to be fine — the decision-making isn’t always great, and the pocket awareness is something I’ve had issues with, but he’s going to have his moments.”

Certainly, for a program searching for answers after firing their head coach earlier in the season, starting the younger quarterback with two years left with the program seems logical. And if the ultra-talented — but raw — Dart enters the game, then Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will have to deal with some major unknowns. However, the approach may not change, Ackerman says, as success against USC’s offense centers around one major facet: “If they can get pressure on Kedon Slovis — or whoever is at quarterback, they’re going to have a pretty easy time. When you don’t have much time, Drake London can only do so much.” 

However, even if the Irish don’t necessarily stifle the Trojans offensively, USC’s defense does not stack up well against Notre Dame. The Irish finally looked like a team that could run the ball against Virginia Tech, and that doesn’t bode well for USC’s ailing run defense. 

“I mean if running it up the middle 100 times is a strategy, then that’s the way to beat [USC]. They haven’t been able to scheme opponents away from that, and then Notre Dame can attack the secondary which hasn’t been great at times either,” Ackerman said. “If [USC] can’t stop that … I could see Notre Dame putting up 50. If they can do those things effectively, it’s not going to be that competitive.”

USC enters this game much like a wounded animal — and whether they simply lay down and take another bloody beating is yet to be seen. But Notre Dame must be ready for one final desperate lunge from the Trojans, as they try to salvage pieces of a once-promising season.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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