It was the game everyone circled on their calendar, USC taking that trip to South Bend to face Notre Dame in week seven. On one hand USC is coming off of last year's 49-14 beating of the Fighting Irish, while on the other Brian Kelly and Notre Dame is seeking revenge. DeShone Kizer and CJ Prosise are looking forward to putting on a show in front of their home stands, while USC is coming in trying to turn things around and silence a sold-out stadium. Despite how great this sounds, college football is not that simple there always has to be a twist. From the moment USC's athletic director Pat Haden had taken a knee on the sideline due to feeling light-headed and had to be assisted to the hospital, something felt off throughout the night. Here are my went wrongs and what could've gone right for the Trojans
Early Quarter Blues
USC was first to receive the ball and they wasted no time putting points on the scoreboard. Interim head coach Clay Helton and Cody Kessler executed a balance attack of ground express and passing that produced a Kessler three-yard touchdown run in three minutes. The Trojans instantly looked like their old selves and a huge improvement from last week's opening first quarter versus Washington. Despite the quick score, the Fighting Irish had an answer that wouldn't take long to figure out. Literally 15 seconds later, DeShone Kizer finds a streaking Will Fuller down the field for a 75-yard score to tie up the game. Kizer froze up the USC defense with a play-action to Prosise, which gave Fuller a one on one with USC track star Adoree Jackson. Fuller out-ran Jackson on what looked like a seam route to get separation and an easy score to steal the momentum from the Trojans. From there USC's special teams and defense started to disintegrate, and Fuller began to bully the Trojans' secondary. While Kizer and his receivers forced USC to put more emphasis on the pass, the running game once again had its way against USC.
Arm Tackles and Blown Assignments
Notre Dame wasted no time attacking USC's front seven and making them pay for being on the field. Kizer's patience on the zone read with a mixture of Prosise downhill running produced a running game that boasted 214 yards and two touchdowns. Prosise started the second drive off running like a man possessed, beating Scott Felix around the corner and putting Plattenburg on skates as he attempts to arm-tackle the 200-pound back. The result was a 31-yard run and a play that jump-started a rushing committee throughout the night. Prosise finished the second drive with a 25-yard run touchdown to put the Fighting Irish up 14-10, and gave him 3 carries for 61 yards on that drive alone. The Irish kept attacking the edge and Felix, often getting a man on him and a big gain that led to scores. Prosise could've easily went over 200 yards rushing if Notre Dame didn't try to pass so much to Fuller, Robinson, and Jones. The Trojans not only struggled to keep Prosise from getting so many explosive plays, but they let Kizer expose their outside linebackers on the zone read.
Kizer also stressed USC through the air with his consistent throws and going through his pass progressions. Besides Kizer connecting with Fuller for 131 yards and a touchdown, they also produced passing interference calls on the secondary twice. Fuller's speed and Kizer's detailed play-actions forced the secondary to hold Fuller when they were in danger of allowing him to score multiple times. Seymour, Jackson, and Marshall had no answer for the Notre Dame's pass threat as they were torched and caught on for 262 yards. It's clear this Trojan defense has plenty of problems that need to be fixed, however they do have the talent and numbers to make improvement.
Special Teams & Penalties Cut Deep
Special teams are one of the most underrated factors in football period. If you put plenty of time, meetings, practice, and game plan into special teams you will see a huge boost in improvement of field position and points scored. If you don't then you'll look like the Trojans punt team in the first quarter Saturday night. USC had three- YES three- offensive lineman back to cover punter Kris Albrado, and the result was a Notre Dame touchdown. No the Fighting Irish did not take the punt back to the house for 70 yards but instead rushed seven and came up with a blocked punt. The poor execution of players identifying their man and holding on to their blocks cost the Trojans big, putting this game at 21-10. USC's punt team was also lackluster in coverage, allowing CJ Sanders to set up a Fighting Irish field goal after a 25-yard punt return. The Kickoff unit team also gave up return that could have gone for six if kicker Alex Wood didn't make the touchdown-saving tackle. Special teams must matter to the Trojans if they want to win, it'll help their defense tremendously and put the offense in better field position.
Speaking of field position, the Trojans put themselves in senseless situations where they couldn't control the field. USC racked up ten penalties for 105 yards, which included false starts, holding, pass interference, and hands to the face. In a game like this, ten penalties give you no room for any further error and it nailed the Trojans' back to the wall. USC's offensive line was accountable for at least five penalties that cost USC on critical plays, particularly third down. The offense was responsible for 60-yards of 105, which put the Trojans out of field advantage that could have led to a touchdown.
Helton & Kessler's "Two-Minute Drill"
In the last 3:35 the Trojans took over at what looked like the three-yard line and had a chance to put up a quick score. Instead the Trojans played it "safe" and settled for five yard throw and pass connections, rather than go for a touchdown. With time in their favor the Trojans could've put up a touchdown, convert for a two-point conversion, and kick an onside kick. From there if they recovered the kick, they would have the opportunity to go for another touchdown or get in field goal range to win the game. Obviously that scenario must only happen in a perfect world because instead of even putting points on the board, the Trojans took the small yards, let the clock run, and let Kessler get sacked in the final seconds. The play calling was highly questionable and raises a lot of eyebrows on if USC was trying to win this game. In the future USC will have call better plays that get the ball to Jackson and Smith-Schuster down the field instead of throws in the flat or across the middle for seven yards.
The Trojans have plenty to work on and this will not be an overnight success story. USC only played two great quarters, but allowed their start and finish to fail miserably. USC has to play with the same fire they came out with on offense in their first drive and orchestrate scoring drive. USC will have their hands full this upcoming weekend versus Utah who runs behind one of the top running backs in the nation and an impressive defense.