Since the beginning of August, Notre Dame football has experienced a rash of self-inflicted calamities. A recap of those:
— Sophomore tight end Alize Jones is ruled ineligible just before spring practice, with academics the culprit.
— Coach Brian Kelly announces both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire will play against Texas, a decision neither quarterback was happy about.
— Senior cornerback Devin Butler is arrested after a scuffle with a police officer outside the Linebacker Lounge in South Bend and suspended indefinitely.
— Senior safety Max Redfield, sophomore linebacker Te’von Coney, sophomore running back Dexter Williams, redshirt freshman cornerback Ashton White and freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson are arrested in Fulton County, Ind. Redfield was kicked off the team and was charged with possession of marijuana and possession of a handgun without a license; Coney, Stepherson, White and Williams were disciplined internally and did not miss any games.
— Notre Dame loses its season opener, 50-47, in double at Texas, with the Kizer-Zaire plan being scrapped after just over two quarters and Brian VanGorder’s defense suffering frequent breakdowns.
— In a 39-10 win over Nevada, redshirt freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford suffers a torn Achilles’ tendon that ends the promising player’s season.
— VanGorder’s defense again breaks down, and along with an offensive lull and special teams mistake, Notre Dame loses, 36-28, to a Michigan State team that won’t end up making a bowl game this year.
— A week later, Notre Dame suffers its most embarrassing loss of the Kelly era, falling 38-35 to Duke. After the game, Kelly defends VanGorder and says all his players are on notice, which draws criticism from national observers.
— A day after losing to Duke, VanGorder is fired and replaced by analyst Greg Hudson.
— In the wrath of Hurricane Matthew, Kelly & Co. have the Irish offense attempt 26 passes in a sloppy 10-3 loss to N.C. State.
— In a 17-10 loss to Stanford, Kizer is benched for a stretch in the second half.
— Notre Dame beats Miami, 30-27, but blows a 20-point lead in the process and suffers two more catastrophic special teams mistakes.
— The Irish only get six possessions in a 28-27 loss to Navy. Kelly’s decision to kick a field goal down four midway through the fourth quarter results in Notre Dame not getting the ball back against the Mids’ triple option offense. Wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. suffers a leg injury in this game that kept him out against Army and Virginia Tech and could sideline him Saturday against USC, too.
— Notre Dame blows a 17-point first half lead and loses, 34-31, to Virginia Tech to officially become ineligible to reach a bowl game.
— On Tuesday, the NCAA releases its report on Notre Dame’s academic violations that occurred in 2012 and 2013, and rules that the football program should vacate all records from those seasons. While Notre Dame will appeal, and the violations were uncovered back in August of 2014, the NCAA report opened a fresh round of criticisms about the state of the Irish football program.
To top it off, Notre Dame now is in Los Angeles to face a No. 12 USC side that’s played like one of the best teams in the country since switching quarterbacks, from Max Browne to Sam Darnold, in late September.
“I don’t think we need any extra motivation other than the fact that it’s USC,” offensive lineman and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “They’re our arch rival. It’s the game that we circle on our calendar, and nobody needs to get up for USC whether we’re 30 point favorites or 30 point underdogs. We’re going to approach the game the same way, we understand the intensity behind this one — it’s the 88th consecutive game played between the two universities, it’s a historic rivalry. We’re lucky to be a part of it and were gonna have a hell of a battle on Saturday for sure.”
Notre Dame’s senior leadership is reason to believe Notre Dame will put forth a quality effort on Saturday, even with nothing tangible to play for except upsetting a rival. Two years ago, that effort — and a number of key players who suffered injuries — wasn’t there, as USC blew out the Irish, 49-14.
That five-touchdown defeat still sticks with some of Notre Dame’s seniors like McGlinchey, defensive end Isaac Rochell and linebacker James Onwualu.
“I’d be dumb to sit here and say it’s not tough for guys to get excited to play their last game knowing they’re not going to a bowl game,” Rochell said. “But we have a special team, we have special leaders — James, Mike, Torii (Hunter) Cole (Luke) — so I think we have a special identity that’s helping us. It’s definitely tough, but it’s not something that’s affected our team.”
But it’ll take much more than just effort for Notre Dame to put up a fight against USC, let alone win. This team will need to play largely mistake-free football to avoid a 4-8 season — the problem, though, is that the only two games in which Notre Dame played that well came against Nevada and Army.
Notre Dame, of course, won’t have the size and talent advantages it had in those two games against USC. Darnold has completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,428 yards with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions, with his connecting to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (59 catches, 758 yards, eight touchdowns) powering plenty of that offensive success. Running back Ronald Jones is 107 yards away from reaching 1,000 on the season. Defensive lineman Porter Gustin has 10 1/2 tackles for a loss and four sacks. And cornerback/returner Adoree' Jackson has four interceptions, nine pass break-ups and a touchdown on both a punt and kick return.
The Trojans are 18 1/2-point favorites as of Friday afternoon for a reason, after all.
Saturday will be Notre Dame’s final game of the season, which is a shame for guys like Rochell and Onwualu, who gave so much to this program over the last four years and deserve a better ending to their Irish careers. But all those self-inflicted wounds are why their college careers will end in Los Angeles, which is an unfortunately fitting end to what’s been a disaster of a 2016 season at Notre Dame.
“What we’re playing for is Notre Dame, what we’re playing for is pride,” Rochell said. “We’re playing for each other. It’s special because that’s all we have to play for, which makes it more unique. I’m excited for the game.”