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One Foot Down Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. USC

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The regular season comes to an end with a visit to Los Angeles Coliseum.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

USC helmet

Notre Dame (+7) at Southern California

Los Angeles Coliseum in University Park, California

Kickoff: 3:30 PM ET

Television: Fox

Series: 45-35-5 Notre Dame

Here is the One Foot Down preview for this weekend's game against the the USC Trojans.

5 Factoids

  • A Tale of Two Quarterbacks?

USC quarterback Cody Kessler has somewhat quietly put up some impressive numbers this season. Perhaps most impressive of all is that he's been above 62% accuracy in all 11 games. Has that ever happened before? However, even with 30 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions this season Kessler hasn't taken control of any games against the Trojans toughest competition. Against Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona, and UCLA he was 85 of 131 (64.8%) for 807 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. In USC's other 7 games Kessler has tossed 3 touchdowns per game and 130 more yards per game than the tougher competition. Which side of those stats will the Irish end up on after Saturday?

  • Unranked

This will be the 86th meeting between Notre Dame and USC and since the AP Poll began in 1936 this will be only the 10th game in which neither club comes into the rivalry as a ranked club. This will be the third meeting in four years where neither the Irish or Trojans are ranked prior to this game.

  • Battle for Third Down

While neither team comes in ranked both offenses have been fantastic on third down this year. The Irish are sitting at 23rd nationally converting 46.25% of third down opportunities while USC is right behind in 24th place converting 46.02% of their attempts.

  • 7-Win Steve

New head coach Steve Sarkisian earned this derogatory nickname while at Washington where he compiled three straight 7-win seasons sandwiched in between 5-7 and 8-4 seasons. A win by Notre Dame this weekend would keep the moniker alive through at least bowl season.

  • Red Zone Touchdowns

I thought it was odd that USC's kicker had only attempted 10 field goals on the season then I checked the Trojans red zone stats. They have 32 touchdowns on 38 attempts inside the 20-yard line. That 72.73% conversion rate is 4th best in the country among Power 5 teams.

4 Players to Watch

  • RB Buck Allen

The redshirt junior is leading USC in rushing for the second straight season while his 1,244 yards ranks 20th best nationally and 11th best among Power 5 tailbacks. He's been getting the ball a lot this year too. Allen's 231 carries is the 7th most among major conference running backs and the second most for a Pac-12 player. He's also a good receiver who is third on the team with 39 receptions and 425 yards.

  • WR Nelson Agholor

The 6-1, 190 pound athlete from Tampa has been a starter at USC since his freshman season and now as a junior has moved into the elite ranks on the national scene. Agholor is coming off a season-low 24 yards against UCLA but is currently 7th nationally with 85 receptions and 12th nationally with 1,103 receiving yards. He's also a factor on special teams as many Irish fans will remember Agholor racking up 100 yards on 4 punt returns last year (the Irish have only given up 39 yards this entire season, good for 11th nationally) and he's taken a punt back for touchdown against Arizona State and Washington State this year.

  • OLB/S Su'a Cravens

The sophomore from Vista Murrieta was the Composite top safety recruit and No. 5 overall player in the country for 2013.  After making 13 starts at safety as a freshman and beginning the first 3 games of 2014 at safety he's moved to the strong-side linebacker position where the USC defense is able to use Cravens' size (6-1, 225) and tackling ability in the box. He currently sits 5th on the team with 56 tackles but leads the Trojans in tackles for loss with 15 and is second with 8 pass break ups. Cravens banged his knee up against Washington State but has been able to play since sustaining that injury.

  • DE Leonard Williams

The junior from Daytona Beach, Florida is one of the best jumbo-sized defensive ends in the country. After garnering a plethora of All-American honors last season, Williams has played through a couple nagging injuries in 2014 but remains a major weapon for the USC defense. Coming into Saturday's game against Notre Dame he has 139 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, and 11 sacks in his last 24 games.

3 Concerns

  • Defensive Depth

Starters at nose guard (Louis Nix), defensive end (Stephon Tuitt), outside linebacker (Prince Shembo), inside linebacker (Carlo Calabrese), inside linebacker (Dan Fox), and corner (Bennett Jackson) needed to be replaced heading into 2014 as they pursue NFL careers.

Projected starting linebacker Jarrett Grace got a couple starts in 2013, broke his leg, and hasn't played in 2014. Backup defensive lineman Tony Springmann had to retire in the summer due to back problems. Starting corner Keivarae Russell has been suspended all season for academics as has projected starting defensive end Ishaq Williams. Linebacker Kendall Moore may be starting now but was also part of the academic suspensions. Backup safety Eilar Hardy missed the first 8 games due to suspension but is now back.

For Saturday, 2014 starters at middle linebacker (Joe Schmidt), defensive tackle (Sheldon Day), and nose tackle (Jarron Jones) are out. Backup safety Nicky Baratti is out. Projected starting safety Austin Collinsworth missed most of the first 9 games and is playing hurt. Starting corner Cody Riggs is hurt as is backup defensive tackle Daniel Cage although both may try to play. Backup-turned-starting safety Drue Tranquill tore his ACL during the Louisville game and is lost for the season.

If anyone has seen a more depleted Notre Dame defense during my lifetime please let me know.

  • Field Goal Kicking

If this game is going to be close I have a big concern with Notre Dame's struggles kicking field goals against USC's Andre Heidari. The Trojan kicker is a senior with 4 years of starting experience. He's converted 54 out of his 65 career field goal attempts for an outstanding 83.0% rate. What's more, he's nailed 12 out of his last 14 kicks going back to late 2013 and has never missed inside 30 yards.

On the other side, Kyle Brindza has been a mess plus we know about the holder situation. The senior Irish kicker is currently sitting at 70.8% for his career and has hit numerous clutch kicks over his career, however, he's only 3 for his last 8 attempts.

  • Turnovers

Things were better last week, though!

2 Sides of the Line

The Trojans will be lining up the youngest and most inexperienced offensive line Notre Dame will face during the regular season. Redshirt sophomore Chad Wheeler (6-7, 280) came into 2014 starting for a second straight season but tore his ACL against Utah. For the last 3 games true freshman Toa Lobendahn (6-3, 280) has slid over to left tackle after starting the first 8 games at left guard.

That moved redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers (6-3, 315) into the starting lineup at left guard for the past 3 games. Junior Max Tuerk (6-6, 285) started at guard last season and has been at center for all of 2014. The right guard position started with true freshman Damien Mama (6-5, 370) but he's been replaced by fellow true freshman Viane Talamaivao (6-3, 330) since the third game of the season, although there is some talk that Mama may get a look at left guard this week. Finally, redshirt sophomore Zach Banner (6-9, 350) is in his first year as starter and been an anchor at right tackle all season.

New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox implemented a 3-4 defensive scheme this off-season and wasn't operating with ideal depth before redshirt freshman and 5-star recruit Kenny Bigelow tore his ACL during the summer. So far this season the Trojans have been fortunate to stay pretty healthy up front and have relied exclusively on 8 players when including the rush linebacker position.

Junior Leonard Williams (6-5, 300) is mentioned above and is backed up at defensive end by redshirt junior Greg Townsend (6-3, 275) who has totaled 9 tackles and 2 sacks. At nose tackle it is redshirt junior Antwaun Woods (6-1, 325) as the primary starter. He played a lot last year and has 33 tackles and 1 sack this season. Backing up Woods is redshirt junior Cody Temple (6-2, 310) with 8 tackles and 2 tackles for loss.

At defensive tackle the Trojans have relied on Texas Tech transfer and redshirt junior Delvon Simmons (6-5, 295) who has totaled 42 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1 sack. Junior JUCO transfer Claude Pelon (6-4, 295) has also seen extensive playing time on the interior with 15 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks.

The rush linebacker spot has been manned mostly by senior J.R. Tavai (6-2, 250) although he injured his knee against Utah, missed a couple games, and saw minimal snaps last weekend against UCLA. Tavai made several starts last year as well and has totaled 42 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks this season. If he's not starting against Notre Dame the Trojans will turn to redshirt sophomore Scott Felix (6-2, 230) who has played well with 33 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, and 1 sack.

1 Prediction

The story was supposed to play out that Notre Dame's healthy roster and quality recruiting would wear down an injury depleted USC team still dealing with the aftermath of scholarship sanctions. Well, the Trojans are expected to dress about 50 players on Saturday when you remove freshmen who are currently taking a redshirt. One part of the story came true.

Unfortunately, the Irish will be traveling to Los Angeles with about 55 scholarship players available who actually see the field so that upper hand doesn't exist for Notre Dame anymore.

Football Outsiders' Advanced Stats for Week 14

STAT IRISH TROJANS
S&P 22 28
S&P Offense 16 30
S&P Defense 42 36
FEI 28 16
FEI Offense 23 33
FEI Defense 26 31
GE 32 25
F/+ 24 27

If Notre Dame wins this game it's because it takes advantage of USC's offensive line and their secondary. More precisely, I think the Irish need to at least make a few extra plays against the Trojan offensive line but really dominate the USC secondary.

USC has an okay running game (78th yards per game, 94th yards per carry) although Allen and Justin Davis are good backs. Getting -152 yards from quarterback Cody Kessler doesn't help but that does point to the 28 sacks (95th nationally) allowed this year. There should be plenty of opportunities to feast in pass rushing situations for Notre Dame.

The only problem with that is Notre Dame hasn't been all that great at generating pressure (70th in sacks, 60th in tackles for loss) and plus remember that whole injury situation.

Golson against the USC secondary should be a big advantage. The Trojans are currently starting a true freshman and sophomore at safety, plus a true freshman and junior at corner while trying to incorporate 5th-year senior corner Josh Shaw back into the lineup following a 10-game suspension. Yards per game isn't a real accurate measure since the Trojans play in a much more wide open and productive offensive conference but nevertheless they're 111th in passing yards given up per game.

After not allowing a touchdown by air through their first 4 games USC has now surrendered 17 scores over their last 7 games. Over their last 3 games the USC defense has allowed a stat line from opposing quarterbacks of 95 completions, 65.5% accuracy, 991 yards, 8 touchdowns, with 3 interceptions. Perhaps most interesting is that USC allowed 11.1 yards per attempt to Arizona State and 10.5 yards per attempt last weekend to UCLA. There may be some opportunities for big pass plays that hopefully end in 6 points.

However, I cannot in good conscience predict a Notre Dame win with the shape this depleted defense is in right now. Jacob Matuska and a banged up Daniel Cage at nose tackle is horrifying. I do like a cover, though.

Notre Dame 32

USC 35