SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There will be no Heisman Trophy favorites on the field and no national championships on the line when Southern California and No. 13 Notre Dame meet for the 92nd time Saturday night (6:30 p.m., NBC-5).
Ignore the records and any scenarios. The struggling Trojans (3-3) are playing for interim head coach Donte Williams, who replaced Clay Helton earlier this season, while Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish (5-1) have questions on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
It’s still USC and Notre Dame, who watched their storied rivalry get shelved last year amid the pandemic — the first time the two hadn’t met on the gridiron since 1943-45 due to World War II. Absence hasn’t made any hearts grow fonder for players at both programs, which are coming off bye weeks.
“It’s Notre Dame — it’s our biggest rivalry,” USC junior quarterback Kedon Slovis said after the Trojans spent their off week trying to right themselves following a 42-26 home loss to Utah.
Notre Dame junior safety Kyle Hamilton, whose team has rested up following its come-from-behind 32-29 victory at Virginia Tech, feels the same way about the series that began in 1926.
“It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest college football rivalry in the country,” Hamilton said. “They’re going to bring their ‘A’ game and we are too.”
That’s something both fan bases would love to see.
USC has not won in South Bend since 2011, but the Trojans are 2-0 on the road this season. Williams said the bye week provided “a major reset” to the program getting used to its stand-in coach.
“They have an idea now who I am, and I have an idea who they are as a head coach,” he said. “It was a chance to unwind and see what we did wrong or right.”
One player doing it right all season is 6-foot-5, 210-pound junior wide receiver Drake London, who already has 64 receptions for 832 yards and five touchdowns from Slovis and freshman Jaxson Dart. He will be a challenge for the Irish secondary.
Notre Dame needed its break, too, with four of its victories being decided in the fourth quarter or in overtime.
“There were a lot of things we needed to get better on,” Kelly said.
Hamilton, who has a team-high three of Notre Dame’s 10 interceptions, will likely see a lot of London and USC’s air attack, which is 11th nationally at 318.3 yards per game.
“He’s really athletic, he can high-point balls, he’s a good route-runner,” Hamilton said of London. “He doesn’t really have any weaknesses — they love getting the ball to him. Our game plan is definitely centered around him.”
Slovis has completed 64% of his passes for 1,519 yards and nine TDs. But he could split time with Dart, who relieved an injured Slovis at Washington State and threw for 391 yards and four TDs in a 45-14 victory.
“Kedon has been really sharp. The ball is jumping out of his hand. He’s doing a lot of good things,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “We’ll put whoever out there that gives us the best chance to move the ball.”
For his part, Kelly plans to start quarterback Jack Coan but continue to give time to freshman Tyler Buchner.
Coan (61.7% passing for 1,208 yards and 10 TDs) has started every game but been relieved in the last five, mostly by the more mobile Buchner (191 yards and two TDs passing; 167 yards and one TD rushing). A rebuilding offensive line has surrendered 24 sacks.
“Jack continues to be the guy that we feel like gives us the best chance to win,” Kelly said after Coan engineered two late drives for the last 11 points against Virginia Tech. “We’ll continue to get Tyler more playing time.”
VERY HOT SEAT
Kelly has coached against four different USC coaches, going 7-3. He was 2-1 against Lane Kiffin, 1-0 vs. interim coach Ed Orgeron, 0-1 against Steve Sarkisian and 4-1 against Helton. Williams now becomes the fifth USC coach Kelly has faced.
“USC is going through a coaching change, we understand that,” Kelly said. “But this team plays extremely well against Notre Dame. It’s a rivalry game and they played very well on the road because they can get away from the distractions that they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis.”
Notre Dame expects to have sophomore tight end Michael Mayer (32 receptions, 360 yards, 3 TDs) available after he sat out Virginia Tech game with an adductor strain. … RB Chris Tyree (turf toe) and DT Jacob Lacey (ankle) have been limited in practice. … Ishmael Sopsher, a 6-foot-4, 330-pound sophomore nose tackle who transferred from Alabama, is expected to make his USC debut after offseason compartment leg syndrome surgery.