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USC's defense feels refreshed for No. 9 Notre Dame

By DAN GREENSPAN

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) Christian Rector really needed a week off.

Sure, Rector played in Southern California's last game against Washington, but the defensive end never felt like himself because of an injured ankle, finishing with one tackle. He is feeling much healthier after having an open week to rest.

Rector wasn't the only one who benefited from the break before facing No. 9 Notre Dame this Saturday. Safety Talanoa Hufanga and cornerback Olaijah Griffin are set to return after missing the Trojans' 28-14 loss at the Huskies on Sept. 28.

The return of Hufanga could be the biggest addition for USC (3-2). Hufanga ranks second on the team in tackles with 42 despite missing the game at Washington while in concussion protocol, and the sophomore is fourth in tackles for loss (2+).

"Oh, it's huge," Rector said. "I think it boosts the confidence of the defense. He's a great tackler in space. So it's a guy we can rely on to come up big for us."

Hufanga's sound tackling will be needed against the Fighting Irish (4-1), who will challenge the Trojans with a productive attack that includes a heavy dose of run-pass option plays. Quarterback Ian Book ranks 14th in the FBS in touchdown passes (13), 17th in passer rating and 21st in yards per attempt (9.0).

Hufanga has the traits a safety needs to disrupt an offense built around quick throws. He is as sound in playing man coverage as he is being lined up deep as the last defender. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said Hufanga's versatility could be could be important in throwing off Book's timing and rhythm.

"You know, he can he can play up around line of scrimmage, he can play the intermediate part of the field and or he can play in the back part in the field," Pendergast said. "So we've had things kind of dialed up for him when he's been available to be in all those different situations."

Hufanga is dealing with a shoulder injury and practiced in a yellow no-contact jersey Wednesday, but he does not believe he will be hindered in any way against Notre Dame.

"I expect to just go out there and just do whatever they are asking me to," Hufanga said. "Coach (Pendergast) will put me in a spot. At the same time, if I'm limited, that's their job to pull me out. I'm just going out there to play."

There should be no such concerns about the sophomore Griffin, who practiced in full this week after not playing against Washington because of a back injury. Griffin leads the defense with six pass breakups.

As for Rector, he said he feels 85-to-90 percent healthy after spraining his ankle against Stanford on Sept. 7.

"I think it was a huge improvement that I saw in my ability to run full speed and make cuts on it," Rector said.

Rector, a redshirt senior, has a Rose Bowl win and Pac-12 title to his name, but success against the Irish has eluded him. USC is 1-3 in its past four games against Notre Dame, including two losses in South Bend, Indiana.

"The Jeweled Shillelagh, having that back home is always great," Rector said. "Being able to mark yourself in history. We put it up on the wall in the meeting room. It's a big deal to me and this team."

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Updated October 10, 2019

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