One of college football’s greatest rivalries continues Saturday night in primetime as 13th ranked Notre Dame hosts #11 USC. For over 90 years these two blue bloods have battled in epic games with national title hopes hanging in the balance. With both squads coming into this game with one loss, Saturday’s game effectively serves as an elimination game for the College Football Playoff. Saturday’s game represents the beginning of a brutal second half for the Irish where they could either play their way into the playoff, or quickly fade from the national conversation.
Despite the great history of this rivalry, it has been quite some time since both teams played as national contenders. Saturday night will be the first time both teams come into this game ranked since 2009. This game is certainly the most hyped ND-USC game at Notre Dame Stadium since the infamous “Bush Push” of 2005. Additionally, the 1977 national champs, who beat USC 49-19 that year, will be honored for their 40th anniversary during the game. The return of the ’77 team has rumors flying that the Irish could come out in green jerseys as a surprise. As if the stadium wouldn’t be electric enough, if the green jerseys come out the top will blow off of the place. Green jerseys or not, the Irish will be amped, the Trojans will be ready and this has the potential to be a game for the ages.
Notre Dame Offense vs. USC Defense
Coming into the season, everyone knew Notre Dame would have a strong running game. What nobody knew, is just how dominant that rushing attack would be. At 308 yards per game, the Irish rank 5th in FBS in rushing yards per game. With Josh Adams and Tony Jones both back at 100%, expect the Irish to lean on the left side of the line and commit to the run. Left guard Quenton Nelson has been making defensive lineman look like rag dolls all season and I expect that to continue Saturday night. While Nelson and McGlinchey get most of the attention, Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars, Tommy Kraemer, and Robert Hainsey have all played well this season. While the Irish have put up big numbers on the ground, much of it has been boom or bust. Against a team like USC, it’ll be difficult for Josh Adams to break 65 yard runs on multiple occasions (if he does, hello Heisman). Can the Irish consistently churn out 5 yard runs? We’ll find out soon enough.
There’s no question that Brandon Wimbush has struggled with his accuracy this season. The junior quarterback has completed just under 52% of his passes. Even with the strong Irish running game, he’ll have to do better than that to lead Notre Dame to victory. The hope is that Wimbush will play similar to how he did against Michigan State, when he went 14-20 and hit on deep throws to Equanimeous St. Brown and Chase Claypool. After a disappointing first half, St. Brown will have something to prove against the school he grew up with in his backyard. Another receiver the Irish will look to is sophomore Kevin Stepherson. With his four game suspension in the rearview mirror, Stepherson may be the only Irish receiver who can truly take the top off of an athletic USC secondary. He’s no Will Fuller of course, but Stepherson proved his legitimacy as a deep threat last season.
Speaking of Will Fuller, here’s him torching Adoree Jackson.
Before the bye week, Notre Dame faced an extremely banged up North Carolina team. Similarly, USC has lost numerous starters due to injury. The Trojans have been hit the hardest on the defensive side of the ball. Most recently, SC lost veteran defensive tackles Kenny Bigelow and Josh Fatu, which will force freshman Brandon Pili into action. Can you imagine having your first start at nose tackle against the best left guard in America? That could be an ugly mismatch for the Trojans. Pilli came into the season as a fourth-stringer and almost sure redshirt. Now? He’ll try to hold the point of attack against an elite Notre Dame offensive line. Additionally, the Trojans could be without one of their best pass rushers as defensive end Rasheem Green has not been practicing with ankle issues. On top of all that, linebacker Porter Gustin who both rushes the passer and plays in coverage will be out Saturday night.
With all of the injuries to the front seven, USC needs their talented secondary to make plays. Corners Iman Marshall, Jack Jones, and safety Marvell Tell were all five star talents and will play on Sundays. However, Trojan fans have been disappointed in the play of their highly touted secondary. That frustration is backed up by the numbers, as SC is 90th in pass yards allowed per game at nearly 240 yards. While they may give up big time yardage numbers, one thing this secondary can do is make plays. USC already has 10 interceptions on the season, and I would be shocked if this group doesn’t get at least one against Wimbush. This secondary has yet to play to its potential, and with the issues up front, needs to be dominant on Saturday for the Trojans to win.
Edge: Notre Dame
USC Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
Sam Darnold’s struggles have been well documented this season. The presumptive Heisman favorite coming into the year has fallen completely out of the race with his 9 interceptions. Even with the turnover issues, Darnold remains the favorite to be the first pick in next spring’s NFL Draft. He is unquestionably the best quarterback Notre Dame will face all season. If you watched the Rose Bowl last season, you know this kid can absolutely sling it. Darnold also possesses a good amount of athleticism and will use his feet on occasion. Although he should bear some of the blame for the struggles of the Trojan offense, Darnold’s offensive line and receivers own more responsibility. While Deontay Burnett has been great in the slot, outside receivers Tyler Vaughns and Steven Mitchell have combined for just three touchdowns. There is no Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, JuJu Smith-Schuster, or Adoree Jackson in this group. USC will always have great athletes, but this receiver group seems to lack the usual flash.
Ronald Jones is probably the most talented running back in America no one is talking about. The junior is averaging over 6 yards per carry and has 8 touchdowns on the season. It’s pretty rare that a USC running back isn’t getting attention, but that’s the case with Jones. Athletically, he is certainly in the same category as Saquon Barkley and Bryce Love. He broke a big run in Notre Dame Stadium as a freshman in 2015, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he did it again. With freshman 2nd string RB Stephen Carr out, Jones could surpass the 20 carry mark in this game. The only question is; will he have holes to run through with a banged up Trojan offensive line? Due to injuries, the Trojans will be forced to start two true freshmen on the line.
Notre Dame fans have been raving about new defensive coordinator Mike Elko. However, Saturday night presents the first time he’ll go against a truly elite offense. Yes, Georgia has played well offensively, but their game against Notre Dame was Jake Fromm’s first start. In Sam Darnold, the Irish are finally facing a talented and experienced quarterback. That could present major problems for the secondary, especially at the safety spot which is known to be the weakness of this defense. Jalen Elliot, Nick Coleman, and Devin Studstill not only have to avoid being beat deep, but also will need to make tackles in the run game.
In order to make things easier on the secondary, the Irish need a strong performance from the defensive line. In particular, Notre Dame will be relying on another great game from defensive tackle Jerry Tillery who has started to look like a dominant player. The Irish will need the line to step up, as they’ll be without starting buck linebacker Greer Martini. Te’von Coney is more than capable as a replacement, but Martini’s absence will force Coney and Nyles Morgan to take on more snaps. One option for the Irish is to play more nickel coverage with Shaun Crawford to take a linebacker off the field. While Martini is an above average player, his absence shouldn’t affect the Irish defense too much. Still, the secondary could struggle against perhaps the best quarterback in the country.
Notre Dame should feel confident in the kicking and punting duo of Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome. Newsome has shown the ability to flip the field, and his punt inside the 5 against North Carolina was the catalyst for a safety. Occasionally, Newsome has outkicked his coverage which has led to some long returns against the Irish. On kickoffs, Notre Dame still struggles as they rank 106th in the country in kick return defense. Both CJ Sanders and Chris Finke have been somewhat unremarkable as the kickoff and punt return men respectively.
Chase McGrath has been tremendous as the Trojans place kicker this season, he is 8/9 on field goals and perfect on extra points. Reid Budrovich has also done a solid job, averaging 44.6 yards per punt. Velus Jones could do some damage as he’s averaged over 27 yards per return. However, the Trojans kickoff coverage unit is also liable to make a mistake as they give up an average of 25 yards per return and have allowed a touchdown.
I really struggled to make a pick here. Everything is pointing to a Notre Dame victory, and maybe even a comfortable win. The Irish are coming off a bye week, at home, at night. USC is banged up beyond belief and have to travel halfway across the country after a slugfest against Utah. Yet, the Irish haven’t had a big win like this since 2012. Brian Kelly has never beaten a team ranked as high as #11 at home. When everything is pointing to an Irish win, that’s when I get the most nervous. Especially when Sam Darnold is the opposing quarterback. Still, the Irish have an advantage along both lines and should be able to wear down the weakened Trojans by the 4th quarter. Darnold will keep it close, but Notre Dame will start their second half gauntlet with a massive win.
Notre Dame 31 USC 24
Tailgate Song of the Week
One of the first lines of this song is “I’m fired up and tired of the way that things have been.” That perfectly describes my feelings towards Notre Dame football. I’m tired of the Irish coming up short in big games. Florida State, Clemson, Stanford, Texas, I could go on. There’s no room left for close losses, there’s no excuses. I’m not sure if I trust this team yet, but win this and I’m a believer.