LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California offensive line coach Tim Drevno refers to his freshmen as “rookies.” After a dismal performance against rival UCLA, Drevno needs them to play like veterans against Notre Dame.
“We got a job to do up front,” Drevno said. “We got to get guys blocked. We got to get the quarterback protected. We got to score touchdowns, and that’s on us.”
The Trojans (7-4) struggled with each of those tasks during last weekend’s 38-20 loss to the Bruins, surrendering six sacks while the offense staggered to a season-low 276 yards. A line that had two true freshmen starters and replaced a redshirt freshman for another first-year player during the game was dominated by UCLA’s more experienced defensive front.
USC coach Steve Sarkisian conceded after the game that UCLA controlled the line of scrimmage, but said Tuesday he was largely pleased with the offensive line’s performance this season.
“It’s been a season where we have played four really young players, and if you want to count Zach Banner a fifth young player who hadn’t played a lot of football up until this season,” Sarkisian said. “That group, to their credit, in my opinion has probably overachieved maybe with what the expectations were supposed to be for them. And that is a great sign. Were they great Saturday? No, that wasn’t their best game, but we’re not always going to be perfect.”
Next up is another challenge on Saturday afternoon against Notre Dame, even with two of the Fighting Irish’s top defensive linemen — sophomore Sheldon Day and junior Jarron Jones — out because of injuries. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is known for his blitz-happy tendencies and has only turned up the aggression as Notre Dame has been gutted by injuries.
Sarkisian, who calls plays for the offense, said he would be more cognizant of trying to take pressure off the offensive line, “but at some point we’re going to have to block,” he said.
It appears USC will make one change up front, with freshman Damien Mama taking the majority of snaps at left guard in practice Tuesday. The 6-foot-5, 370-pound Mama started the first two games of the season, contributed as a frequently used backup during the next six games, and was slated to return to the starting lineup before suffering a minor knee injury in practice before the Nov. 1 game at Washington State.
Mama saw significant reps against UCLA coming off the bench, and Drevno praised his performance by saying Mama has earned more playing time.
“He is a big guy with a lot of body girth. He can move people. He deserves it,” Drevno said.
But the key player for the line is likely freshman left tackle Toa Lobendahn. USC has struggled to run the ball since sophomore Chad Wheeler suffered a season-ending knee injury at Utah, forcing Lobendahn to move from guard to protecting quarterback Cody Kessler’s blindside.
In the three games with Lobendahn at tackle, USC is averaging a meager 2.68 yards per carry and has not topped 127 yards rushing.
Notre Dame fields
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame fans might need a flip card to keep track of who is playing on defense for the Fighting Irish.
Heck, the coaches might need to keep a list available to know who is still available.
Isaac Rochell will be the only Notre Dame defensive lineman to start against USC who was projected as a starter before the Irish opened training camp in August. The only others left from 11 expected starters are linebacker Jaylon Smith, cornerback Cody Riggs and safety Austin Collinsworth — and Riggs and Collinsworth have injuries that could limit their playing time.
Notre Dame (7-4) heads into its rivalry game against USC (7-4) with a defense being held together with spit and baling wire. Coach Brian Kelly described the injuries the Irish sustained as “devastating.”
Kelly announced earlier this week the Irish will be without two starting defensive linemen. Nose guard Jarron Jones, tied for sixth with 40 tackles, tore a ligament in his foot against Louisville and is out for the season. Defensive tackle Sheldon Day, with 38 tackles, is out a second week with a sprained knee.
Freshman safety Drue Tranquill, who started two of the past three games and has 33 tackles, is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.