by John Vannie
Notre Dame will reach the end of what has become a most dismal football season when the Fighting Irish travel to Los Angeles to take on archrival USC on Saturday. The game represents a final opportunity for the 4-7 Fighting Irish to salvage a semblance of pride from this campaign after a series of disappointing losses and off the field embarrassments. Meanwhile, the heavily favored Trojans have won seven consecutive games. The team has jelled under Coach Clay Helton and quarterback Sam Darnold after a rocky 1-3 start, and hopes to land a berth in the PAC-12 championship game as well as the Rose Bowl. National television coverage is being provided by ABC starting at 3:30 Eastern time.
Both squads opened the season in the State of Texas with disappointing results. Notre Dame lost in overtime to the Longhorns, whom they had beaten by 38-3 one year earlier. USC played a neutral site game against Alabama, and the Trojans looked dazed and confused in a blowout loss. Helton immediately came under fire, but his steady leadership along with the emergence of Darnold in place of opening day starter Max Browne have righted the ship. Brian Kelly has yet to suffer any consequences for his failure to get the Irish to play to the level of their talent, but that could change in the wake of NCAA penalties that were handed down this week arising from an academic scandal and what may be a resounding defeat to end this season at 4-8.
The Irish remain without the services of wide receiver Torii Hunter, Jr., who suffered a knee injury against Navy. Defensive tackle Daniel Cage is also questionable for this week’s game. The Trojans are mostly healthy now that defensive linemen Josh Fatu and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, a graduate transfer from Utah, have recovered from mid-season ailments. Star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is also close to 100% after a month-long battle with back spasms.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. USC’S DEFENSE
USC’s 3-4 defense has been playing very well of late, both in terms of stopping the run and applying pressure on the passer. The Trojans held previously undefeated Washington and its high octane offense to 17 yards rushing in an impressive victory, and last week limited UCLA to just 55 yards on the ground. Nose guard Tu’ikolovatu leads a disruptive defensive line that also features sophomore tackle Rasheem Green and several other underclassmen in the rotation.
There is plenty of speed and athleticism at linebacker, where senior Michael Hutchings is surrounded by sophomores Cameron Smith, the team’s leading tackler, and Porter Gustin, whose specialty is making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Rounding out the group is Uchenna Nwosu, a speedy outside backer who is an adept pass rusher. USC has been successful of late because its down linemen have dominated opposing offensive lines and allowed its linebackers to either shut down the run or find clear lanes to pressure the passer.
Once again, Notre Dame will rely on quarterback DeShone Kizer to carry much of the offensive load. Helton is very much aware of Kizer’s talent and his potential to engineer an upset. “Elite arm, but has the ability to create in the run game,” Helton said. “You’re talking about a quarterback that already has over 500 yards rushing and then you see him spread the ball around to several different receivers. He’s a very talented kid; a kid that will end up playing on Sundays.”
Kizer’s receivers will be defended by a secondary that boasts only one senior, safety Leon McQuay III. The best player in the group is cornerback Adoree Jackson, who was repeatedly torched last year in South Bend by Will Fuller. Sophomores Iman Marshall and Marvell Tell III round out this very fast but sometimes vulnerable group. Based on the matchups and Kelly’s history of abandoning the running game early when it doesn’t produce immediate results, it’s almost certain that Kizer will throw between 40-50 passes in this contest.
USC’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
A strong offensive line has enabled Helton’s attack to be balanced and allowed Darnold to develop into a solid performer. Bookend senior tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler line up with an interior group that makes up for inexperience with size and enthusiasm. Sophomore Ronald Jones II is the primary running back, although the Trojans will rotate in multiple players including Justin Davis and Aca’Cedric Ware. The group has averaged over 200 yards per game and an impressive 5.3 yards per carry. They will also run a power formation with fullback Reuben Peters in lieu of an extra wide receiver.
Darnold is a 68% passer and has multiple targets at his disposal. Smith-Schuster is the most explosive with eight touchdowns, while steady Darreus Rogers is the lone senior. Deontay Burnett and Steven Mitchell are also in the mix, and freshman tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe is emerging as a present and future star. The Irish will have to find a way through the Trojan forward wall to pressure Darnold, who has been susceptible to forced throws resulting in interceptions. If he has time to throw and the running game is rolling, it will be a long afternoon for the visitors.
During this two month winning streak, USC has reached 500 yards of offense six times in seven tries. The defense has contributed by winning on third down and turning the ball back to Darnold, and this formula resulted in a whopping 44-16 minute time of possession advantage last week at UCLA. When the Trojan attack is stopped, it is often due to their penchant for committing penalties or turnovers at inopportune moments.
Jackson is a dangerous weapon as both the punt and kickoff return man for USC. He has scored touchdowns in each role, as has Notre Dame’s C.J. Sanders. The Trojans take pride in their special teams and have dominated opponents in each statistical category. Kicker Matt Boermeester is accurate on attempts under 50 yards, while Australian native Chris Tilbey’s punts are relatively short but well-placed.
Notre Dame has enjoyed a few excellent returns from Sanders this season, but he has been the lone bright spot in this phase of the game. The recent, catastrophic failures of the Irish special teams have been well-documented, but USC is well positioned to make them pay for any miscues. On the positive side, kicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome have steadily improved all year and are plus performers for Notre Dame.
USC is a very young team, but somehow Helton has managed to build them into a formidable force despite early growing pains and a new quarterback. The elephant in the room for Notre Dame is how motivated the coaches and players have been to prepare for this matchup, especially given this week’s distractions. More importantly, it may not only be the football season that will end on Saturday, but also a regime change may be on the horizon.
Conversely, the dynamic for the Trojans is quite the opposite. Their dominance of the Huskies in Seattle solidified them as a legitimate power that would cause a few sleepless nights for anyone other than Alabama. Their strength is in the trenches, and the emergence of Darnold has allowed the offense to reach its full potential.
Here are a few questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:
Will the Irish be able to generate an effective running game?
Which special teams will make plays that alter field position?
Can Notre Dame pressure Darnold into poor decisions?
Which team will win the battle in the trenches?
Can Kizer convert enough third downs to keep the game close?
Will the Irish sustain a strong level of effort for 6o minutes?
In which quarter will Kelly start screaming at his players?
All signs point to a Trojan victory, although the game should not deteriorate into an absolute shellacking like USC put on the Irish the last time they visited the Coliseum. As long as Notre Dame can maintain a credible running threat, Kizer could exploit the Trojan secondary and put points on the board. Over the course of four quarters, however, the hosts will wear down the Irish and the matter will be decided well before the final whistle. On this last weekend of the season, the larger question is not about which team will win, but rather what future awaits Brian Kelly and his staff in the aftermath.
USC 38 NOTRE DAME 20