No. 10 USC vs. No. 21 Notre Dame: Trojans prepare for a wet, bruising game day

USC quarterback Caleb Williams leaps into the end zone for a touchdown against Notre Dame.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams leaps into the end zone to score a touchdown against Notre Dame last season at the Coliseum.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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The artificial crowd noise was turned all the way up. With rainy weather in the forecast for Saturday, staff members chased players and sprayed them with water. When safety Max Williams caught the ball, water droplets splashed in his face.

Yes, it feels like Notre Dame rivalry week.

“Growing up, being a USC fan and dreaming about coming to USC, you always dreamed about playing in USC-Notre Dame game,” said Williams, a former star at Gardena Serra, “and especially playing at South Bend is a dream.”


Notre Dame Stadium has been closer to a nightmare for USC recently. The Trojans (6-0) haven’t knocked off their rivals on the road since 2011, but ended a four-game losing streak in the series last year.

USC leaders say the offensive line isn’t playing as well as they thought it would six weeks into the season. Notre Dame will test the group Saturday.

Oct. 12, 2023

“One of the greatest rivalries in college football,” quarterback Caleb Williams said.

Already loaded with prestige, Saturday’s rivalry game also begins a critical stretch for the No. 10 Trojans. After slipping in the polls for three consecutive weeks, USC will face five ranked opponents in its last six regular-season games.

Here are four things to watch in USC’s game against the No. 21 Fighting Irish (5-2) at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. PDT (Ch. 4):


Behind the sticks

USC wide receiver Tahj Washington finds open field after a reception against Arizona.
USC wide receiver Tahj Washington (16) finds open field after a reception against Arizona at the Coliseum on Oct. 7.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)


The Trojans still lead the country in scoring with 51.8 points per game, but three shaky performances are revealing malfunctions in USC’s typically machine-like offense.

USC is nine for 28 (32.1%) on third down in the last three games and converting on 42.9% for the season after ranking second nationally last year at 53.6%.

“No. 1 thing is we gotta stay out of third-and-longs more than we have in the last couple of weeks,” coach Lincoln Riley said.

The Trojans are two for 12 on third-down tries of nine or more yards during the last three games. Caleb Williams stressed the importance of avoiding first- and second-down sacks to keep the offense on track. Of the junior’s four sacks last week against Arizona, two came on first down and one was on second down. It was the most times he’s been sacked in a game this year and the first time he was sacked on first down.

USC coach Lincoln Riley and players defended the defense for their performance in Saturday’s 43-41 triple-overtime win over Arizona.

Oct. 10, 2023


Special teams

USC receiver Michael Jackson III catches a touchdown pass against Nevada's KK Meier
USC receiver Michael Jackson III, left, catches a touchdown pass against Nevada’s KK Meier at the Coliseum.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)


Zachariah Branch electrified USC’s dormant special teams with kick and punt returns for touchdowns in his first three games. Without the dynamic freshman, who has missed two games because of an undisclosed injury, the Trojans are looking for a jump-start.

During the last two games, Michael Jackson III’s three punt returns have totaled eight return yards. Makai Lemon has taken over kick-return duties and is averaging 20.25 yards per return, better than the 15 yards Branch averaged, excluding his 96-yard touchdown.

Branch, the first Trojan since Adoree’ Jackson in 2016 to have a punt return, kick return and receiving touchdown in the same season, was on the field this week, catching punts and running routes during the periods of practice that were open for media viewing, but Riley said Thursday he still hadn’t participated fully in practice.

“We’ll get him back sooner rather than later,” Riley said. “We don’t think it’s long-term, but we’ve also got to be smart.”


Reinforcements needed

USC linebacker Raesjon Davis in action against Nevada.
USC linebacker Raesjon Davis (9) in action against Nevada at the Coliseum.
(Johm McCoy / Associated Press)


After making the game-sealing tackle in triple-overtime and playing almost every snap against Arizona, linebacker Mason Cobb revealed he has been battling a rib injury for the last month.

If Cobb is unavailable, the Trojans could turn back to Raesjon Davis, who started in Cobb’s place for two games but had a limited role against Arizona and didn’t record a tackle.

USC’s most inconsistent position, cornerback, is facing even more questions as injuries mount. The Trojans were down to their fourth and fifth cornerbacks toward the end of last week’s game. Domani Jackson, who missed the last two games, is expected to return this week, Riley said. Christian Roland-Wallace and Jacobe Covington were limited during the second half against the Wildcats.

USC leaders say the offensive line isn’t playing as well as they thought it would six weeks into the season. Notre Dame will test the group Saturday.

Oct. 12, 2023


Scouting the Irish

Notre Dame's Sam Hartman throws during a game against Duke.
Notre Dame’s Sam Hartman throws during a game against Duke in Durham, N.C., on Sept. 30.
(Ben McKeown / Associated Press)

USC’s depleted defense will match up against a physical Notre Dame offense desperate for a bounce back. After piling up 46 points per game in its first four games, Notre Dame averaged 18.3 in its last three, all against ranked opponents. Playoff hopes that came with new quarterback Sam Hartman have faded, but like two-loss Utah facing unbeaten USC last year in Salt Lake City, the Irish still could play spoiler while fighting to salvage their major bowl hopes.


Notre Dame is the only Football Bowl Subdivision team with two tight ends posting 100-yard receiving games this season, with Mitchell Evans’ career-best 134 yards against Duke and Holden Staes’ 115 yards against North Carolina State. Hartman, a transfer from Wake Forest, leads all active FBS quarterbacks in career touchdown passes (126) and passing yards (14,679) but is coming off his worst game of the season. He threw three interceptions and was sacked five times during Notre Dame’s loss to Louisville.

USC’s Heisman-winning quarterback also is trying to shake off his worst performance of the season. Williams will face a fierce Notre Dame front led by defensive lineman Howard Cross III, who leads all FBS linemen with 42 tackles.