USC football will take on No. 9 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., following a bye week and a 28-14 loss to then-No. 17 Washington. Saturday’s game will mark a chapter in what’s been described as the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football.
True freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, who is second in the nation in completion percentage, will return to the Trojans offense after suffering a concussion during Week 4 against Utah. The injury forced him to the sidelines during Week 5’s road matchup against Washington.
“We're glad to have him back," USC head coach Clay Helton said. "I think one of the biggest things for us will be protecting the quarterback."
Slovis’ injury came during the second play in the Utah contest, but USC’s third-string, redshirt junior quarterback Matt Fink, shined against the top-10 team that evening. The Trojans will attempt to accomplish that feat as an unranked team yet again on Saturday, but this time on the road. USC has only beaten Notre Dame in South Bend 14 times in history, most recently in 2011.
“I don’t think it makes a big difference whether I’m on the road or in the Coliseum,” Slovis said. “Coach Helton is going to come up with a great game plan.”
The athletics department has not given up vocalizing support for their head coach, despite the escalating rumors surrounding Helton’s fragile job security. Interim athletic director Dave Roberts told the Los Angeles Times that the school’s next athletic director will determine Helton’s future at USC.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly continues to impress during his 10th year with the Fighting Irish. His career there includes a 2013 National Championship appearance and a 6-3 head-to-head record against USC.
“[Helton has] done a terrific job keeping his team in the hunt,” Kelly said. “It’s a dangerous team.”
Notre Dame’s defense this season has turned heads across the country, as leaders such as senior defensive lineman Julian Okwara helped lift the team to its first shutout win since 2014. However, they have a match in USC’s electric receiving corps: wideouts senior Michael Pittman Jr., redshirt junior Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown have combined for 90 receptions, 1,153 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
The Trojans have also been busy on the ground, as running backs redshirt junior Vavae Malepeai, junior Stephen Carr and redshirt freshman Markese Stepp have a combined 708 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns.
Notre Dame welcomes back junior running back Jafar Armstrong, who suffered a torn abdominal muscle injury in Notre Dame’s season opener that required surgery.
USC’s will see the likes of sophomore defenders in cornerback Olaijah Griffin and safety Talanoa Hufanga return from injuries as well.
“I think [Hufanga] brings a whole other energy level to our defense when he’s available,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “You can see by his play that he really leads by example.”
Notre Dame’s schedule has not been as overwhelming as USC’s, as the Fighting Irish have only faced off against two ranked teams—Georgia and Virginia—and lost to the former 23-17. USC is 2-1 against ranked opponents this season, all three being Pac-12 schools: Stanford, Utah and Washington.
The Trojans look forward to taking on Notre Dame for the 91st time in history.
“It’s one of the most historic rivalries in college football,” Pittman said. “I told [the younger players] to embrace the suck, that it’s going to be cold, but that it’ll be fun when we’re running up the score.”
As the two programs account for the most players drafted into the NFL – USC with 502 and Notre Dame with 495 – they will battle for the jeweled shillelagh trophy, awarded to the winner of the rivalry game each season. The last time an unranked USC squad beat out the Fighting Irish in South Bend was 1971, when the Trojans pulled a 28-14 victory.
"It's a special game, and it's a special place in history. It's something where you can make history," Helton said to the team.
The rivalry will kick off tonight at 4:30 p.m. PT in South Bend and will be televised nationally on NBC.