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OFD Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. USC

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Notre Dame and USC play under the lights this Saturday for the 85th meeting in series history.

Stephen Dunn

USC (+3) at Notre Dame

Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana

Kickoff: 7:30 PM ET

Television: NBC

Series: 44-35-5 Notre Dame

Here is the One Foot Down preview of this weekend's game against Southern Cal.

5 Factoids

  • 4,380

That is the number of days that has passed---up until this Thursday---since Notre Dame defeated USC in South Bend. Current New Mexico head coach Bob Davie is the last Irish coach to beat the Trojans inside Notre Dame Stadium back on October 20, 2001.

  • 3

This is the 3rd meeting out of the last 4 between USC and Notre Dame in which both teams come in unranked in the AP Poll. Last year the Irish were No. 1 in the country (not going to lie that still feels good to type) prior to the game in the Coliseum, and from 2002-09 USC came in ranked for every single game.

  • 1

Marqise Lee has only played in 5 games this season (he missed the previous Arizona game and is probable this Saturday) but he's only snagged 1 receiving touchdown in 2013. Coming into this season Lee had caught 25 touchdowns in 25 career games.

  • 15

This is USC's national ranking in run defense as the Trojans are surrendering only 107 yards per game on the ground. Teams have definitely tried to take advantage of Southern Cal's shaky secondary as the Men of Troy have only faced 29 carries per game---5th fewest in the country. Nevertheless, USC is only giving up 3.70 yards per rush which is better than Notre Dame's 3.84 stat line.

  • 11 & 16

In this week's podcast I mentioned that Notre Dame was struggling in the sacks and tackles for loss department but so far this season USC has not had those problems. These are their national rankings in each of the aforementioned categories.

4 Players to Watch

  • RB Tre Madden

The Orange County native saw some time at linebacker as a true freshman in 2011 totaling 15 tackles and then was moved to running back last year. Unfortunately, he missed all of 2012 with a torn knee ligament. This season Madden has been perhaps the Trojans' most consistent offensive player leading the team with 115 carries and a healthy 5.31 yards per rush. Madden did tweak his hamstring in USC's last game and is questionable this weekend. His burst and toughness have been impressive for someone still learning the position of running back.

  • WR Nelson Agholor

While 4pointshooter still weeps about missing on Agholor in the 2012 recruiting class the electric Florida native brings his game to South Bend for the first time. Agholor started 3 games last year and has been a co-starter for every game this fall. With the passing game off to a slow start in 2013 Agholor hasn't quite blown up yet but he did perform well last week in Marqise Lee's absence with a career high 7 receptions.

  • DE Leonard Williams

Williams teams up with Agholor as the two Floridians from the 2012 class that have made a big impact in Los Angeles. The Daytona Beach product was a freshman All-American last season following 8 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, and 1 interception in his debut effort. This year, Williams is starting at defensive end and currently leads USC in tackles with 36, tackles for loss with 7.5, and sacks with 4.

  • S Su'a Cravens

USC had some players leave early, graduate, get injured in the secondary, and it has led to true freshman Su'a Cravens starting every game at safety so far this season. For a youngster he's doing fairly well coming into this weekend third on the team in tackles (31) and he's already picked off 2 passes. We'll see if Tommy Rees tries to pick on the first-year player in the passing game on Saturday.

3 Concerns

  • Avoiding Big Losses on Offense

My instinct is that this will be a much more plodding, slow, and low-scoring game than most think. If so, the Irish really have to avoid big losses (turnovers too, obviously) and protect against the aggressive USC defense living in the backfield. USC is averaging almost 1.5 sacks more per game and exactly 3 more tackles for loss per game than Notre Dame this season. If the Irish can fight to a draw in these categories I like their chances to win.

  • Avoid Big Plays on Defense

Marqise Lee probably isn't going to be 100 percent in this game if he ends up playing and that's a big advantage for the Irish. They simply cannot let USC off the hook with big plays and must force the Trojans to beat them with long and drawn out scoring drives.

  • Execution

Don't do this.

2 Sides of the Ball

USC is bringing an experienced and veteran offensive line this weekend injected with a little bit of youth. Redshirt freshman Chad Wheeler (6-7, 275) locked down the left tackle spot prior to this season and has started every game there in 2013. Junior Aundrey Walker (6-6, 300) made 8 starts at left tackle last year but has been demoted to the primary backup at guard making a couple starts on the right side this season.

True sophomore Max Tuerk (6-6, 285) made 6 starts last year and has settled into the left guard spot in 2013. At center Marcus Martin (6-3, 310) moves in after making 20 starts at guard over the past two years. The USC line is rounded out by fifth-year senior John Martinez (6-2, 310) at right guard and at right tackle fifth-year senior Kevin Graf (6-6, 295).

New hire defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has brought a 3-4 hybrid defense to L.A. that utilizes defensive end-types as outside linebackers near the line of scrimmage in pass rushing situations.

The core starters up front this season have been the aforementioned Leonard Williams (6-5, 290) as well as redshirt junior George Uko (6-3, 275) who returns after making every start for the Trojans last year. Both of these players are performing at a very high level right now.

Against non-spread and run heavy teams USC employs redshirt sophomore Antwaun Woods (6-0, 310) on the inside at tackle. Adding depth is junior J.R. Tavai (6-2, 270) who has struggled with injuries in 2013 but is coming off a 10-tackle, 3.5 tackles for loss performance last week against Arizona.

Adding in their pass rushing linebackers the Trojans have fifth-year senior Devon Kennard (6-3, 255) who comes into the weekend with 24 career starts in addition to 4 sacks in 2013. Senior Morgan Breslin (6-2, 250) has missed a couple games this year---including the previous game against Arizona with a hip injury---but when he plays he's been a terror on the field with 17 sacks and 27 tackles for loss in just 17 career games. USC has utilized redshirt freshman Jabari Ruffin (6-3, 225) in Breslin's absence and he has 7 tackles in 4 games.

1 Prediction

This is a really intriguing matchup especially with Kiffin being gone and USC possibly being a different team---at least mentally---from what we saw earlier in the year. We know the Trojans have the talent and because of that they remain a very dangerous foe.

Football Outsiders' Advanced Stats for Week 8

F/+ 36 20
Off. F/+ 23 32
Def. F/+ 60 13
S&P 51 23
Off. S&P 29 68
Def. S&P 75 10
FEI 39 32

Obviously the health of Marqise Lee is pretty important for any prediction. If he's not himself USC is losing not just a great receiver but a great return man as well. What's more, other receivers like De'Von Flourney and Victor Blackwell have been banged up and it's mainly just Nelson Agholor and not much else if the injury bug continues to bite.

Although the USC defense has been the better side of the ball this season I think their offense offers more overall potential. As such, the play of the Notre Dame defense feels a lot more important to me in this game. I'm not sure USC is the type of team that can struggle on offense and lean on their defense for a big road game victory. Maybe they can do that but I'm assuming if USC wins it'll be because their offense controlled the game much like they did 2 years ago in South Bend.

I honestly don't know what to make of Cody Kessler but he seems to be gaining some confidence in recent weeks with almost 300 yards per game against the Arizona schools. The ground game for USC is where Notre Dame should focus because Madden, a healthy Silas Redd, and true freshman Justin Davis offer 3 very good options at running back. Keep that trio contained, limit big pass plays, tackle well in space, and Notre Dame's defense should have a solid day at the office.

The Irish pass blocking has been phenomenal this season but they'll be tested in a big way on Saturday. Further, the Irish offense can't afford some of the bad cuts and poor decisions from running backs like we saw against ASU. Notre Dame has struggled all year on first down and in getting manageable third down attempts so losing 20 yards because of USC tackles for loss could be killer.

There will be an opportunity to run right at USC's defense and take advantage of their aggressiveness which is exactly what happened last year (222 yards on 42 carries). They've tired in the second half in recent weeks but that's as much to do with the style of offense USC has faced in Arizona State and Arizona more than their overall defensive conditioning. Plus, the Irish really don't have the type of offense to take advantage of that weakness anyway.

The Trojans' secondary has been shaky this year so you know Notre Dame is going to throw the ball around in this game. And this is where my skepticism keeps reminding me this could very easily be a loss. I don't think Kelly believes he can run the ball 40 times and win this game, and I probably agree with him. As a whole the running backs just aren't polished enough to carry the offense in a game like this against top flight talent. Of course this means Rees is likely to chuck the ball 35 times and we'll pray he plays well enough to get the ball to Jones, Daniels, and Niklas on a consistent basis without making too many mistakes.

My gut instinct is that this will be a loss for Notre Dame. This has looked like a 4-loss team for most of the season and losses to USC Saturday and Stanford in the finale are more likely than any others. However, my gut can be and is often quite wrong.

So now that I've successfully balanced myself so delicately on the fence I must fall down on one side. Notre Dame needed the bye week really bad---hopefully Tuitt is healthier and Sheldon Day is ready to roll. Even though USC has had 10 days off, a well rested Irish team gives Kelly & Co. a little bit of an edge. The weather could play a factor with game-time temperatures dropping into the 40's and that may be yet another edge. The final edge is Notre Dame's mental toughness, which has been outstanding even through a somewhat rough 4-2 start to the season. I fully expect USC to control the game for long stretches but the Irish to counter with a few big plays and fight through mistakes to grab a win.

Notre Dame 23

USC 21