LOS ANGELES (AP) — Notre Dame returns to the Coliseum this weekend to wrap up its worst season in a decade, reeling from new NCAA sanctions and worrying about the storied program’s future.
No. 12 Southern California has had its share of grim times off the field in recent years, and coach Clay Helton realizes a rivalry game is a chance for a troubled team to clear its head and to focus on football.
But with his Trojans (8-3, No. 12 CFP) on a seven-game winning streak, Helton believes USC has the necessary focus to finish its regular season strong in this famed intersectional rivalry with the Fighting Irish (4-7) on Saturday.
“We had set a goal to be remembered in November,” Helton said. “Well, we look up and we could have an undefeated October and November. I don’t think that’s been done here since 2008. … There’s a lot of pride on the line for us as a team. (Notre Dame) is a team that has a lot of pride. When you talk about the history of football, how can you not talk about this game?”
USC is coming off a blowout victory over UCLA, its other traditional rival. The Trojans haven’t swept both rivals since 2011.
While USC would advance to the Pac-12 championship game if Utah upsets Colorado later in the day, the Trojans have motivation that goes well beyond the conference title — including the chance for an unbeaten home season.
“How many times has the Victory Bell and the Shillelagh been on this campus at the same time?” Helton asked, referring to the trophies given to the winner of the Trojans’ two rivalry games. “That rivalry has been going on 100 years, and it’s less than 20 times. How special is that? How special is it for that group of seniors to be in the Coliseum and we were able to protect our house and win each and every game?”
Both teams went 1-3 in September, but only USC recovered. While the Trojans ran off seven consecutive wins of increasing impressiveness, Notre Dame lost a series of close games to North Carolina State, Navy and Virginia Tech.
The Irish are 15-14 in their last 29 games, but they completed an unbeaten regular season at the Coliseum four years ago. Coach Brian Kelly’s program hasn’t returned to those heights, and this week’s announcement of NCAA sanctions for academic misconduct included an order to vacate that 2012 win over USC.
Quarterback DeShone Kizer believes none of those troubles will affect the Irish when they attempt to put a big finish on a lost season.
“We need to prove ourselves and we need to end on a make, as you would say in basketball,” Notre Dame defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “So for us it’s a chance to show our pride and show who we are and beat a good USC team.”
Here are more things to watch when Notre Dame visits the Coliseum with a losing record for the first time since 1986:
DARNOLD’S TURN: USC freshman quarterback Sam Darnold is getting his first crack at the Irish. He is the driving force behind the Trojans’ seven-game winning streak, throwing 22 touchdown passes during that stretch and hurting defenses with his arm strength and creativity. A USC fan since childhood, Darnold relishes the chance to play in the Trojans’ rivalry games.
SLOW FINISHES: If USC can get out to a quick start, the Irish could be in trouble. They have outscored opponents 116-44 in the first quarter this season, but the points have gone down with each passing quarter. The Irish have 93 points in the second quarter, two more than opponents, and 79 points in the third quarter, 12 more than opponents. The Irish have been outscored 74-46 in the fourth quarter and have scored just 23 fourth-quarter points in the past eight games.
FAREWELLS: Along with the departing USC seniors, star defensive back Adoree Jackson and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster could be playing their final games as juniors. Both surefire NFL prospects have been steadying influences on the Trojans during the tumult of Steve Sarkisian’s tenure and the subsequent steadying under Helton.
LOSING IRISH: Notre Dame is 6-6 against USC in seasons when the Irish finished with losing records. The Irish are 2-1 in Los Angeles in those losing seasons.
RECORD BREAKER: Brian Kelly would set the coaching record for losses at Notre Dame with a loss Saturday. Kelly is 59-30 in seven seasons at Notre Dame, while Lou Holtz was 100-30-2 in 11 seasons.
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