The day before his young team traveled cross-country for the latest entry in one of college football’s most historic rivalries, Clay Helton offered up his own history lesson.
The USC coach wanted his team to feel the significance of what it was stepping into here, where No. 9 Notre Dame, the most talented team remaining on its schedule, awaits Saturday. So in a team meeting, Helton hit all the historical notes, even giving a tutorial on the shillelagh that goes to the winning team.
With the direction of USC’s season still somewhat undecided after an off week, maybe history would help Helton’s Trojans (3-2) understand the stakes beyond just the swirling uncertainty that surrounds the program.
“This is not just another game,” Helton said. “It’s a special game. It’s got a special place in history.”
For Helton and the Trojans, though, the rivalry’s recent history has hardly been kind. USC hasn’t won at Notre Dame (4-1) since 2011, when Helton was in his second season as quarterbacks coach under Lane Kiffin. Since that last road win in South Bend, across the tenures of three head coaches, the Trojans have won just two of the rivalry’s seven meetings.
There was no hiding from that history, so Helton addressed it head-on. In his decade of experience in the rivalry, one thing had consistently rung true: The team with the fewest mistakes almost always prevails.
Over a forgettable past decade in the rivalry, however, the Trojans have rarely been that team. In each of their last five losses against Notre Dame, USC has either committed double-digit penalties or turned the ball over twice.
Last season, with hopes of saving a .500 season with an upset of the undefeated Irish, USC lost two fumbles and squandered a strong start, losing 24-17. In 2015, it was a similar script, as the Trojans committed 10 penalties, Cody Kessler had two late passes intercepted, and the Irish scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
This season, similar turnover issues have continually plagued the Trojans. Through five games, USC ranks 122nd in the nation in turnover margin, while Notre Dame ranks second. The problem, as Helton saw it, was concerning enough that he addressed it every day this week.
“In my time here,” Helton said, “what’s created the separation is turnovers and penalties. I hit it right in the face with our team.”
Offensive composure is a must if USC’s offense stands any chance of moving the ball against a Notre Dame defense that has allowed only one team to accumulate more than 200 yards passing. That effort should be aided by the return of freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, who will be under center Saturday for the first time in nearly a month.
“There’s not much more than you can ask for,” Slovis said. “It’s Notre Dame-USC.”
Slovis ranks second in the nation in completion percentage, but his composure on the road raises its own questions. In his only away game as quarterback, Slovis had three passes intercepted against Brigham Young, including one that clinched an overtime loss.
Issues on the road aren’t unique to Slovis. Helton’s teams have struggled mightily as underdogs in big games away from the Coliseum, winning in one of eight tries. That task won’t get any easier this week in the most hostile environment USC will face this season.
“Things just get rolling against us,” wideout Michael Pittman Jr. said of USC’s road issues. “It’s hard to break that cycle. As long as we play clean football, I think we’ll be good.”
For Notre Dame, that should be no problem. The Irish have given the ball away only four times this season, where the Trojans have lost the ball 14 times.
But with a week of rest under the Trojans’ belt, Helton sees an opportunity ahead. With another top-10 team on tap, USC has a chance to change the narrative of its season.
“We’ve got a conference championship on the line,” Helton said. “We get to play a top-10 opponent this week. There are some great opportunities in this seven-game stretch.”
The question now is if the Trojans can take advantage of those opportunities, without giving too many away in the meantime.