USC faces Notre Dame with Pac-12 fate undecided
The 12th-ranked University of Southern California Trojans (8-3, 7-2) wrap up their regular season Saturday against the rival Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the L.A. Coliseum, having completed the conference schedule with seven consecutive victories. One of those wins came against Colorado, which is 7-1 in the league but plays host to a tough Utah team Saturday after the USC game.
If the Utes win, the Trojans advance to the conference title game as the Pac-12 South winner because of its head-to-head victory over the Buffaloes.
"We'll be big Utah fans next week," USC coach Clay Helton said after his team beat UCLA 36-14 on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. "We've set our mark at 7-2, and we've got to see if Colorado can match it."
As for what the Trojans can control, they can only continue to play well and hope to position themselves for the biggest bowl possible. Nothing less than a smackdown of struggling Notre Dame (4-7), which coughed up a pair of 17-point leads last week in a 34-31 home loss to Virginia Tech, is expected.
The hits kept coming Tuesday when the NCAA ruled that Notre Dame must vacate wins from the 2012 and 2013 seasons due to academic misconduct, stemming from a student athletic trainer completing coursework for football players. The university announced it would appeal the decision.
The 2012 season includes a 12-0 run in the regular season.
Kelly called it "student on student" cheating, adding that he felt "zero" responsibility in the matter.
"I'm proud of our support staff, our academic support staff," he said. "I'm proud of the people that represented us here at Notre Dame during this time."
While the school litigates those old victories, Kelly and the Irish will be trying to pull off an upset to get one more in 2016.
"Their personnel is fabulous," Helton said of the Irish. "I know they'll come to play. A Brian Kelly team always does."
Well, USC did win 49-14 when the teams last met in Los Angeles to end the 2014 regular-season.
The Trojans enter this meeting in a much better place, thanks in large part to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. With his arm, smarts and crafty ability to escape pressure, he has positioned himself on some Heisman lists behind Louisville's Lamar Jackson, even though Darnold has started only eight games.
Helton inserted Darnold into the starting lineup in the fourth game after a 1-2 start with quarterback Max Browne. The Trojans lost Darnold's first start, when the defense gave up a touchdown in the final seconds to Utah, but haven't lost since.
USC has scored at least 36 points five times in its seven-game winning streak. Helton says there is a trust level with Darnold that is allowing offensive coordinator Tee Martin to be more aggressive.
"A lot has to do with Sam. We're able to play with our hair on fire right now," Helton said. "Our success on third down ... we're gunning on third down. There's a lot of trust from Game 1 to now."
Darnold is eighth nationally with a passing efficiency rating of 162.4.
Notre Dame has one of the top NFL quarterback prospects in DeShone Kizer, but USC has two of the nation's most athletic cornerbacks in Adoree' Jackson and Iman Marshall.
"The two corners we have right now are doing a tremendous job," Helton said.
USC has held the past two opposing starting quarterbacks to under 50 percent passing -- Washington's Jake Browning (17 of 36) and UCLA's Mike Fafaul (15 of 31).
Kizer was 16 of 33 for 235, with two touchdowns, last week against Virginia Tech. The Irish also posted their second consecutive 200-yard rushing day, led by running back Josh Adams. He has three 100-yard rushing games this season.
Notre Dame looked good at times on defense, with tackle Jarron Jones and end Isaac Rochell up front, but the Irish are statistically average, ranking 55th nationally by allowing 26.3 points per game.
Each of the Irish's seven losses have come by eight points or less, but the Trojans are hot enough to run up the margin.
Kelly is still looking for elusive consistency.
"Some of that is guys growing up, getting more experience," he said. "Some of that is better coaching. But, yeah, there's nothing endemic within the program as much as it is a team that has not executed consistently for four quarters."
Notre Dame leads this traditional intersectional rivalry 46-35-5, which does not include the Trojans' 2005 victory that was later vacated due to NCAA penalty. Including that 2005 vacated game, USC has won 10 of the last 14 meetings.