USC football faces its toughest challenge yet after bye week

Both the Trojans and No. 13 Notre Dame face serious quarterback questions in South Bend on Saturday.

A photo of USC quarterback Kedon Slovis

The USC Trojans kick off the second half of their 2021 season with their biggest test yet: a visit to South Bend, Ind., to battle No. 13 Notre Dame. This matchup will be the Trojans’ first against a top 25 opponent this season.

USC had its bye last week, taking two weeks to not only focus on its upcoming opponent, but also to focus on improving in all facets. 2021 has been an up-and-down year thus far; the team has alternated wins and losses through six games to find itself at 3-3. The Trojans lost their previous game Oct. 9 to Utah in what was a third consecutive blowout defeat at home. On Saturday, the Trojans aim to bounce back with a big road victory just as they did following their first two losses. However, those two wins came against teams that currently have a combined 6-7 record.

Head coach Donte Williams expressed no concern about his team’s morale during the bye, saying, “It’s one thing to all of a sudden think, ‘We have to practice today.’ It’s another thing to have the opportunity and say, ‘We get to practice today.’ I believe these guys still have the voice in their minds and their heads, and they go out and show every day that it’s, ‘We get to practice today.’ So, I feel the morale is great.”

While Notre Dame has had a much better year record-wise than USC, currently boasting a 5-1 record, it has at numerous points this year played down to its competition. The Fighting Irish squeaked out wins over unranked Florida State, Toledo and Virginia Tech by a field goal in each game. With an extra week to prepare, the Trojans have a real opportunity to pull off the road upset.

One of the most intriguing storylines this weekend will be each of these teams’ quarterback situations. A month ago at Washington State, freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart reinvigorated the USC fanbase with a 391-yard, four-touchdown performance, but he has not seen the field since due to a knee injury. Dart has continued to make progress with the knee and has significantly boosted his participation in practice over the past two weeks.

Williams says that Dart is still day-to-day with the injury and has not yet been fully cleared for game action, but left the possibility of a Dart appearance wide open.

“We’ll do the best thing possible to put ourselves in position to win the football game,” Williams said on Thursday. “If that’s Jaxson all of a sudden starting the football game last second, if that’s Jaxson coming in the second, third series of the game, then so be it. We’ll do what’s necessary to win the football game, as long as his health is first.”

Junior quarterback Kedon Slovis, who has started every game for the Trojans this year, has not been able to run away with the job since Dart went down. Slovis threw for 401 yards last week against Utah, but completed only 33 of his 53 passes and could not move the offense for much of the game. Turnovers have also been a significant issue this year, as he has thrown five interceptions to just nine touchdowns.

Turnovers will play a critical role in this matchup. The Irish currently sit tied for seventh in the country in takeaways per game with 2.3 and second in interceptions per game with 1.7. Williams’ decision on the quarterback position could come down to who he trusts more to protect the football against a dangerous secondary.

While USC might use two quarterbacks in this matchup, Notre Dame could possibly use three. Senior quarterback Jack Coan, in his first season for the Irish after transferring from Wisconsin, is still the starter, but his inconsistent play this year has allowed for two other quarterbacks to find roles in the team’s offense. Coan has completed 62% of his passes this year and has not surpassed 225 passing yards in a game over his last four outings. He did, however, end his last game on a high note — after he was benched for the bulk of the game against Virginia Tech, he re-entered the game in the fourth quarter and led two scoring drives to secure his team’s victory. Coan went 7-for-9 with 93 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner has seen action in four games for Notre Dame and brings a very different skillset to the table. While Coan is more of a pocket passer, Buchner actually has more rushing attempts than passing attempts this year. He is second on his team in rushing yards and first in yards per run among players with multiple carries with 6.4. He excels in particular in designed runs to the outside. The Trojan defense should expect to see Buchner in a few key situations in the game in order to pick up easy yards on the ground.

Sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne is the third option for head coach Brian Kelly. Pyne came in relief twice this year for a struggling Coan; he played excellent the first time but struggled mightily in his second game, completing just nine of his 22 passes. At this point, Pyne would likely only have a role in this game if Coan is completely ineffective, while Buchner will likely get snaps no matter what.

Whichever quarterback is under center for Notre Dame will have an array of weapons to throw to. Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer has been the team’s most dependable option, leading the team in receptions and yards, and creates a constant presence in the middle of the field. Additionally, they boast a couple of receivers who can take the top off of a defense. Senior wide receivers Kevin Austin Jr. and Avery Davis both average over 17 yards per reception and have created numerous big plays for the offense. Mayer will be the bread and butter of the Fighting Irish passing game, but those two receivers may cause the biggest problems for the Trojans’ struggling secondary. Two weeks ago the secondary was completely dismantled through the air. The Utes had five passing plays over 20 yards in that game en route to a 42-point performance. Expect Notre Dame to try and attack the USC secondary down the field early and often on Saturday.

Notre Dame’s biggest offensive weakness is its offensive line. The unit has allowed four sacks per game this season, tied for the third worst rate in the FBS. The struggles up front have gotten Coan off his rhythm in multiple games this year and have been a factor in several interceptions. The Trojans, on the other hand, have been getting to the quarterback much more in recent weeks. Seven of the team’s 10 sacks this season have come in the last two games.

USC’s sack leader, junior linebacker Drake Jackson, gets most of the attention from offenses, so freshman defensive end Korey Foreman could be the difference maker. The top recruit recorded his first sack-and-a-half as a Trojan against Utah and has seen his role steadily increase in Todd Orlando’s defense.

“He’s doing a really good job in the last couple weeks with his practice habits, and his practice habits are starting to show up in the game,” Orlando said about Foreman’s improvement. “I think the actual grasp of everything we’re asking him to is starting to slow down too, so I think you’re gonna see him be more and more productive down the road.”

Putting constant pressure on the Notre Dame quarterbacks for 60 minutes will be the key for this defense to take the Fighting Irish offense out of rhythm and create a few game-changing plays. If the Trojan defensive line can seriously expose Notre Dame’s offensive line and if Slovis can protect the football, USC will have a real chance to pull off the upset. The Trojans take on the Fighting Irish Saturday at 4:30 p.m at Notre Dame Stadium.