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.
Drevno said Lobendahn already displays the footwork and intelligence to become an elite player, only needing to add size and strength in the years to come. That echoes the praise Sarkisian has for the offensive line as a whole.
''We have gotten a lot of mileage out of those guys that has helped us win this year, but I really think for our future it sets the stage for what an opportunity we have coming down the road,'' Sarkisian said.