Jung Money: Matchup with Notre Dame is a major test
One storyline has dominated the pregame hype as No. 11 USC prepares for a road trip to No. 13 Notre Dame: the College Football Playoff elimination game. Saturday’s primetime tilt matches up two one-loss teams in the top 15, so this makes sense. Whether it’s the Trojans or the Fighting Irish, one team will see its playoff dreams shattered this weekend.Funnily enough, from the two programs’ perspectives, most games this season have been elimination games. A two-loss team has never made the playoff, so USC has been playing for its postseason life ever since its loss to Washington State last month. Notre Dame has been punching its way off the ropes since Week 2, when it suffered a narrow loss to now-No. 3 Georgia. A victory for either side on Saturday would simply be another step in a marathon campaign with no margin for error.It’s this reality that seems to have held the Trojans back at times this fall. Last season’s swashbuckling squad played with no fear after a disastrous start to the season eliminated all expectations, but this year’s team has occasionally appeared paralyzed by its high hopes. Even while flashing the same explosiveness that catapulted it to Rose Bowl glory in 2016, USC has also unraveled at points — like last week, when a backward pass that hit junior running back Ronald Jones II in the facemask fell to the grass and resulted in a turnover.We’ve been waiting all year for the Trojans to right the ship and eliminate the inexplicable missteps. Perhaps this so-called elimination game on Saturday will be the cure. For USC, every other game this season has brought much to lose and little to gain, as heavy-underdog teams arrived amped up and hungry for an upset. For maybe the first time this fall, the Trojans have an opportunity to play for something other than simple survival: destroying the Irish.But giving Notre Dame a season-ending loss won’t be easy. Not only do the Irish rank above USC in multiple key categories like total defense and turnover margin, but they are also playing at home following a bye week. The Trojans, meanwhile, will be playing their eighth consecutive week of football after jumping three time zones en route to South Bend. Taking on a fresh opponent in a hostile environment, head coach Clay Helton and his squad face a tall challenge. Can they rise to it?The first candidate could be Jones, whose front flip into the end zone gave USC the fourth-quarter lead last Saturday. The junior has found pay dirt in every game he has played in this season (he sat out the team’s trip to Cal in late September), and he broke the 100-yard benchmark for the fourth time in 2017 against Utah. Unfortunately for Jones, Notre Dame has allowed just a single rushing touchdown all year. That’s even fewer than Alabama — or any other program in the nation, for that matter.So if Jones can expect tough sledding in South Bend, the weight falls on redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold to lead the Trojans to victory. It hasn’t been a dream season for the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite and potential top overall NFL Draft pick: Darnold lost three fumbles last week — though one came on Jones’ bone-headed drop — and he now has 14 giveaways on the year (nine interceptions and five lost fumbles). But Darnold also avoided a pick against the Utes, which marked the first time this season he managed to go a full game without being intercepted, and his 358 passing yards were Darnold’s highest total this fall excluding the Week 3 double-overtime victory against Texas.These may seem like baby steps — perhaps unimpressive steps at that in view of Darnold’s incredible 2016 campaign. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see USC’s superstar signal-caller round into form, even slightly, as the team’s receiving corps finally comes together. Darnold will have six legitimate weapons at his disposal on Saturday: three wideouts in junior Deontay Burnett, redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns and redshirt senior Steven Mitchell Jr. ,and three tight ends in junior Tyler Petite, true freshman Josh Falo and redshirt sophomore Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who appears to have finally shaken off a series of lower-body injuries that have dogged him all season. With a full stable of options, Darnold has no excuse not to produce against Notre Dame.And USC will desperately need its Heisman-level star back on Saturday. The Fighting Irish boast the fifth-ranked rushing offense in the FBS, led by junior running back Josh Adams, who has the 10th-most rushing yards in the nation (776). Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s unit has been a major strength this year, but it is depleted going into its matchup with Notre Dame, especially after senior nose tackle Josh Fatu was ruled out with a concussion. Without getting proper rest (i.e. without lengthy offensive drives), the Trojan defense will struggle to contain the Irish attack.In other words, USC must play a complete game to retain the Jeweled Shillelagh — I guess that comes as no surprise. Again, victory in South Bend wouldn’t even be a game-changer with four weeks still to go in the regular season.But a loss would be catastrophic for either side, and the winning program will remember it for years to come. It’s time to play for spite as well as survival.Oliver Jung is a senior studying print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, Jung Money, runs Fridays.