Although the 2018 season has not gone as expected for the USC football team, there is still plenty at stake in Saturday’s regular-season finale against intersectional rival Notre Dame. It marks the seniors’ final game in the Coliseum, the significance of which coach Clay Helton addressed after Wednesday’s practice at Howard Jones Field.
“It’ll be an emotional day,” Helton said. “What can I say about this group? We’ve been in this thing together for four years. They were the ones as freshmen who helped fight for a Pac-12 South title and helped me get the [head coaching] job. We won a Rose Bowl together and a Pac-12 title together. It’s a group that has not only played well, but led well, and has done so much for me, my family and our university. The results have not been what we’ve all wanted, but it’s a great atmosphere and I hope our fans come out and support this group of seniors. This is an opportunity to compete for the shillelagh.”
The two-hour practice in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts was the Trojans’ second-to-last before taking on Notre Dame in the second of back-to-back rivalry games. USC surrendered the Victory Bell after a 34-27 loss to UCLA last Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
“Being a two-time captain is something I’ll always be proud of. I’ve had a lot of fun and some great memories in the Coliseum,” senior inside linebacker Cameron Smith said. “In fact, we just watched the 2016 Notre Dame game [a 45-27 USC victory]. It was a memorable day.”
Notre Dame has won four of the last six meetings, including a 49-14 blowout last October in South Bend, Ind., when the Trojans were ranked No. 11 and the Fighting Irish were ranked No. 13. Notre Dame leads 47-37-5 in a rivalry that began in 1926.
“We have to be there for each other, execute on all cylinders and play like our heart depends on it,” senior cornerback Iman Marshall said. “Sometimes situations simply don’t fall into place like you want — that’s football. Obviously, it would mean everything to us to beat Notre Dame. We have to think about the game and nothing else.”
Asked if he believes this is the best Notre Dame team he has seen since he has been at USC, Helton did not mince words.
“I’d have to say so… it’s an 11-0 football team that plays at a high level in all phases,” Helton said. “It’s the best defensive front we’ve seen all season, the quarterback’s extremely efficient and makes the right decisions, he has really good skill around him and the defense has been lights out. I don’t see any weaknesses. It’ll take our best effort and they’re going to get it.”
The Trojans (5-6) must upset the third-ranked Fighting Irish to end the regular season 6-6 and become bowl eligible. The task will be formidable as Notre Dame knows a victory will almost assuredly clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“They’re clicking right now, they run and throw the ball well, they have a great core O-line… I’m excited to play them,” Smith said. “Who cares if we’re underdogs? Anyone can win on Saturday. Playing them is special… it’s not ‘we got to’ it’s ‘we get to.’ It’ll be special for us seniors but my goal is to have fun and enjoy the game. I put them in the same category as Stanford. They’re going to play hard to the whistle, no dirty stuff, just hard-nose football and that’s the way it should be.”
USC freshman cornerback Olaijah Griffin and freshman receiver Devon Williams were out with shoulder injuries. Redshirt junior linebacker John Houston continues to progress but is still day-to-day with a hamstring.
“We’ll work in [freshman Palaie Gaoteote IV] at the weak side linebacker position and then we’ll see how John [Houston] comes back. Palaie won’t have to be the quarterback of the defense… he can just focus on his task, his responsibility. He’s had a great week of prep so far and I’m excited for him.”
The last time USC finished with a losing record was in 2000 in its last of three seasons under coach Paul Hackett. That was also the last year the Trojans failed to qualify for a bowl game, except for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, when they were ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions.