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USC seniors' final game provides a first: All the drama is on the field

USC seniors' final game provides a first: All the drama is on the field
USC defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu comes upfield on a pass rush against Colorado on Oct. 8. (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

USC players were openly crying after a team meeting in early December 2013.

This season's seniors were freshmen at the time, and they had just learned USC would not be retaining their popular interim coach, Ed Orgeron.

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"Feel like I lost my dad," defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow Jr. tweeted after emerging from the meeting.

He added one word, which would become an epitaph for that freshman class' time in the program: "again."

Again, the Trojans would adapt to a new coaching staff. Again, their time would be lost to issues — such as former Coach Steve Sarkisian's alcohol-related incidents — that had only a tangential relationship to football. Again (and again and again), they would finish a season with an anticlimax in a mediocre bowl.

"Every year was trauma in some type of way," linebacker Quinton Powell said.

USC's seniors will play their final regular-season game on Saturday against Notre Dame, and, again, there will be drama — some of it beyond their control.

But this time, it is all about football.

A win over the struggling Fighting Irish would give USC (8-3, 7-2 in Pac-12 Conference play) a possible chance at playing in the Rose Bowl. And a Colorado loss to Utah later Saturday would give USC the Pac-12 South division title.

"I think this class has been the ultimate in battle-tested," USC Coach Clay Helton said. "Now they have a chance to do something really special down the stretch here."

USC's Rose Bowl hopes don't rely on a Pac-12 championship because Washington still can make the College Football Playoff. In that event, the Rose Bowl would select the next-best Pac-12 team — most likely based on the College Football Playoff ranking.

USC is ranked No. 12 and Colorado No. 9. An impressive USC win Saturday, combined with a Colorado loss in the title game, could be enough to bump USC above the Buffaloes, whom they defeated earlier this season. And even if it didn't, the Rose Bowl still could decide to choose USC based on other factors, such as that the Trojans defeated the Buffaloes head to head.

In a reversal, USC enjoyed a quiet, focused week of preparation, while Notre Dame has been buffeted by off-the-field issues.

On Tuesday, the NCAA levied sanctions against Notre Dame after it found an athletic trainer had provided improper academic benefits to several football players. Notre Dame must pay a $5,000 fine, serve one year's probation and vacate victories from two seasons, though the university is appealing the vacation-of-records penalty.

The first murmurs of discontent with Coach Brian Kelly's job performance have bubbled to the surface. Kelly fired his defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, after an upset loss to Duke, but the offense has been no better. Notre Dame is 55th nationally in both scoring defense and scoring offense.

Notre Dame still has enough talent to be dangerous. Quarterback DeShone Kizer and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown have been a proficient pair. Kizer, a redshirt sophomore, is projected as a high pick if he leaves for the NFL after the season. That is considered probable, especially given Notre Dame's instability.

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It is an instability USC knows well. The university's senior day festivities Saturday will include nine players who have endured four coaches. Eight other redshirt juniors have played under coaches Lane Kiffin, Orgeron, Sarkisian and Helton.

It is a new senior, though, who deserves much credit for USC's turnaround this season: defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, who transferred as a graduate student from Utah during the off-season.

When Tu'ikolovatu showed up during the summer, he was not impressed by USC's defensive line.

"To be honest, there was a drop-off" compared to Utah, Tu'ikolovatu said. "It was pretty big."

Now, USC has held its last three opponents to less than 100 yards rushing. Two of those opponents, Oregon and Washington, led the Pac-12 in rushing at the time.

Players such as defensive end Rasheem Green have become fearsome. "I think he's an all-conference player," Tu'ikolovatu said.

USC's edge defenders, Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu, have neutralized opponents' speed.

The most visible force has been Tu'ikolovatu, who, in recent games, often has pushed opposing centers several yards into their own backfield. Tu'ikolovatu credits the penetration, paradoxically, to a sprained knee.

"It's hard to play lateral, so the most effective way for me to go is straight," he said. "So I was just trying to be as effective as I could."

Hearing this, defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze shook his head.

"Don't listen to Stevie," he said. "Stevie is doing a really good job because Stevie knows who he is. Stevie is a very, very powerful human being. And once he puts his hands on people effectively, then there's not much that the other person can do."

For this week, though, USC may wish Tu'ikolovatu were back helping Utah against Colorado. That game is scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m., likely after USC's game concludes, so the Trojans will be able to watch as their Pac-12 fate is determined.

"I hope practice is going really well for them right now," Helton said, laughing, of Utah.

USC wishes it didn't have to rely on help. But for the seniors it is a new, pleasant situation: They have a shot at the Rose Bowl, or more, with little else to worry about.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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