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

The greatest inter-sectional rivalry got real weird this week.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

usc helmet

USC (+6.5) at Notre Dame

Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana

Kickoff: 7:30 PM ET

Date: Saturday, October 17, 2015

Television: NBC

Series: 45-36-5 Notre Dame

Here is the OFD preview for this weekend's night game against the Trojans of Southern California.

5 Factoids

Post-Carroll Carousel

This isn't interim head coach Clay Helton's first rodeo with the drama that has become USC football. The Trojans' OC also became the interim head coach for their 2013 bowl game after then interim head coach Ed Orgeron quit following news he wouldn't be hired as the full-time coach. Helton, who spent a decade at Memphis prior to coming to USC in 2010, at least offers some stability for a program that badly needs it right now.

This now makes it 4 different coaches for USC to face Notre Dame since 2012: Helton, Sarkisian in 2014, Orgeron in 2013, and Kiffin in 2012.

Kessler's Heisman Chances Vanish

This week Bovada pulled USC quarterback Cody Kessler's Heisman odds off the board following the Trojans' 2nd loss of the season. For his part, it might have been Kessler's worst game in the garnet and gold. His passer rating was the second worst of his career, YPA was third worst, completions 8th worst, and passing yards 3rd worst. Additionally, it was his first multi-interception game since September 28th in 2013 against ASU.

That makes for some weird trivia, in each of the last two games in which Kessler has thrown 2 picks the Trojans have fired their coach before the next game.

Unranked, Again

USC has had 2 really long and legit stretches of prowess when it comes to facing the Irish. From 1962 until 1979 the Trojans were unranked prior to meeting Notre Dame only on 3 occasions and still won each of those contests. In another 15 games, USC was ranked inside the Top 10, and an even more amazing Top 5 team for 11 games--including being No. 1 in the land 3 separate times. Over this 18 year stretch the Trojans went 11-5-2 against Notre Dame.

The second stretch came in recent times from 2002 until 2009 when USC was ranked in every matchup against Notre Dame, including 7 times inside the Top 6 and twice as the No. 1 team in the country. This spans the entirety of USC's 8-game winning streak against the Fighting Irish. Amazingly, this will be the 6th straight game that USC comes in unranked against Notre Dame.

Button Up

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Strong Defense

Notre Dame's recent victories over USC have come mostly on the back of very strong defensive performances. In the last 3 wins over USC, the Irish have only given up an average of 13 points. You have to go back all the way to 1986 to see an Irish win in the series when USC scored 30 or more points.

4 Players to Watch

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

Smith-Schuster, who added the hyphenated last name in honor of his step-father, is one of the finest athletes in the nation. He's currently first among all Pac-12 wideouts with 619 yards and is second with 6 touchdowns. Through 18 career games JuJu has 87 catches, 1,343 yards, and 11 touchdowns.

CB/WR Adoree Jackson

No one is doing as many different things in major college football right now. Jackson is playing corner, receiver, and returning both kicks and punts for the Trojans. Coming into the weekend, Adoree has 515 all-purpose yards and 11 tackles.

LB Cameron Smith

USC brought in an amazing 9 recruits for 2015 that were more highly rated than Smith (.918 Composite, so comparable to Asmar Bilal) yet the middle linebacker from Granite Bay has made every start for the Trojans this year. He's currently leading the team with 42 tackles and also has a sack and a couple pass break-ups.

LB Su'a Cravens

The junior is projected to be a 1st round pick and is in his first full season playing in his edge rushing all-over-the-field roaming linebacker role which he was moved to early last year. He's averaging one more tackle per game this year but his play-making is a little down. Last year, Cravens had 17 TFL and 9 pass break-ups and comes into the ND game with 4 TFL and 2 pass break-ups.

3 Concerns

Keeping Kessler in Check

USC has a good rushing attack (ranked 3rd nationally by S&P) as all three of Tre Madden, Ronald Jones, and Justin Davis are averaging over 6 yards per carry. But it's Kessler who stirs the drink as the Trojans have scored only 2 rushing touchdowns in their 3 games against Power 5 opponents. Kessler has thrown for 8 scores in those 3 games.

Poor Start, Losing the Crowd

Over Notre Dame's last two losses to USC the starts of the games have been abysmal. Last year, the Irish offense opened with 4 punts, an interception, and a fumble. In 2011 Notre Dame opened with 4 straight punts on offense. The score following both 1st quarters was USC 35-0.

USC 5 Factors

USC 5 Factors

Notre Dame 5 Factors

5 Factors ND USC

Poking a Wounded Animal

A highly talented but 3-2 USC team with an interim head coach is THE storyline for this game. Will they wilt in the cold on the road after a whirlwind week? Or will they rally around their remaining coaches, and themselves, and play pissed off?

2 Sides of the Line

The big news for USC on the offensive line is the loss of senior center Max Tuerk (6-6, 285) who tore his knee last week against Washington. In his place, 2014 freshman All-American Toa Lobendahn (6-3, 290) will take over the snapping duties after starting at left guard. In Lobendahn's guard spot the Trojans are expected to start sophomore Viane Talamaivao (6-2, 320) who was also a freshman All-American last year but was the first man out of the starting five prior to Tuerk's injury.

At right guard, USC is starting sophomore Damien Mama (6-4, 355) who was the third linemen on the team to earn freshmen All-American honors last year. On the edges, the Trojans have a little more experience with redshirt junior Chad Wheeler (6-7, 280) at left tackle and redshirt junior Zach Banner (6-9, 360). Wheeler missed the last 5 games of 2014 with a knee injury but has been healthy this season.

On the defensive line USC is led by some veterans who are solid but aren't playing at a high level. Fifth-year senior Greg Townsend (6-3, 275) is the starter at SDE and has 18 tackles with 2 TFL. His backup is senior Claude Pelon (6-4, 300) who slid inside when 5th-year senior Antwaun Woods (6-1, 320) missed a start. Pelon has 1 TFL but has been ruled out this weekend with an injury while Woods has been limited to just 10 tackles. Fifth-year senior Cody Temple (6-2, 300) and his 3 tackles also see minutes at the nose.

At the tackle spot is 5th-year senior Delvon Simmons (6-5, 295) with 22 tackles and 1 TFL. Redshirt sophomore Kenny Bigelow (6-3, 290) is back after missing last year with an injury and has totaled 2 sacks. The starting Rush linebacker is redshirt junior Scott Felix (6-2, 240) who has 2.5 TFL on the season.

USC has been using a lot of bodies in their front including freshman Rasheem Green (6-5, 285), freshman Noah Jefferson (6-6, 330), freshman Jacob Daniel (6-4, 325), and redshirt junior Jabari Ruffin (6-3, 245) who've collectively chipped in 25 tackles.

The problem for USC is that while they've been average against the run (3.92 YPC defense, 55th nationally) they are struggling to make plays in the backfield. Of all the players listed above there are only 4.5 sacks through 5 games and the Trojans as a team are 84th in the nation with just 5.4 TFL per game.

1 Prediction

I know what you're thinking--how could the post-Navy aspect to this game not be a concern? I'm sure most of you are aware of the trend since 2010, and prior to that as well. The Irish are 2-3 following the Navy game with losses to Arizona State (2014), Pitt (2013), and Tulsa (2010). The only victories were against Purdue (2012) and Wake Forest (2011) by a combined 10 points.

So it's definitely a concern. Maybe the biggest concern. Prior to the season I firmly believed this would be a loss because I didn't think Notre Dame would be able to bounce back from a road trip to Clemson, followed by Navy, and have enough in the 3-week tank to play perhaps the most talented team on the schedule.

I usually try not to get too bogged down in statistical and positional unit comparisons for these previews. "Our offensive line is better and will control the game, leading to a win" or "We're only giving up x amount of points and we'll hold them to y amount of points for a win" isn't my style and too much emphasis on that stuff can make you miss the wonderful mysterious emotion that surrounds college football.

Well, this weekend's game against USC is fascinating for the intangibles on both sides.

F/+ 4 7
S&P 7 6
FEI 8 16

USC has that whole "ND sucks after playing Navy" thing going for them, they could rally around their interim head coach, losing an ill Sarkisian could be a coaching upgrade, they could be genuinely pissed off at their situation and last game, plus they can play the underdog card hard as the Irish are nearly a touchdown favorite following last year's blowout loss.

Or, the Trojans could be just too distracted, disinterested in beating a non-conference opponent on the road in the cold, and genuinely in free-fall mode as the drama of a lost head coach affects the entire roster.

Notre Dame needs to overcome recent history and give their best post-Navy performance to date, still has a ton more injuries, and now all of the pressure to win has shifted to the blue and gold.

The pressure to win is an interesting shift for the Irish. As much as I am loathe to use this language--and wouldn't have believed I'd say this back in the summer--there really aren't that many reasons why Notre Dame should lose this game.

Home game. At night. Cold weather. A rival reeling, stammering, with "FINISH HIM" flashing across the screen. A failed attempt to send USC packing would be a massively missed opportunity for Brian Kelly & Co. That's what is so crazy about this game to me. Before the season, and maybe even a few weeks ago, this was just an expected loss in my view. Now, the game feels like one the Irish cannot afford to lose at all.

That's always dangerous territory for this Notre Dame program. A win on Saturday night could send the team flying high into Palo Alto at 10-1 and Kelly meeting the bulk of expectations for the season. That would set up an off-season with a strong recruiting finish and more stability than at any point since Kelly arrived.

But a loss to a USC team in this condition? In addition to making it more difficult to reach the 10-win benchmark and finish recruiting with fervor there'd be crying the Irish lost to the most talented teams on the schedule no matter how the season finishes.

As I wrap up, a couple things pique my interest. One, USC is largely healthy which makes them such a dangerous wounded animal to poke given their talent level. Losing center Max Tuerk could be big but the Trojans will still be putting an entire unit on the field with starting experience. If you set aside the whole Sark issue, this is still a team with Kessler, JuJu, Adoree, and some of the best freshmen in the country.

Two, I talked about in my summer preview that this isn't your typical powerhouse USC team littered with upperclassmen stars. JuJu and Adoree are just true sophomores, as are the three big bodies on the interior of the offensive line. Tre Madden has been a quality back but the true freshman Ronald Jones looks like a future star. Defensively, the Trojans basically have a bunch of journeymen (for their standards) on the D-line and 4 underclassmen starters in the back 7.

Your 4th and 5th-year starters for USC are: QB Cody Kessler, RB Tre Madden, TE Taylor McNamara, OT Chad Wheeler, OT Zach Banner, LB Scott Felix, DE Greg Townsend, NG Antwaun Woods, DT Delvon Simmons, and LB Anthony Sarao. It's a nice list to be sure but nothing overwhelming, especially since Kessler has fallen from underrated Heisman darkhorse to overrated senior in a matter of weeks.

Ultimately, while looking at intangibles I think the biggest Irish edge could be in senior leadership and fighting through adversity in what should be a close game. I could be convinced that if USC brings its A-game they are better and could, and maybe should, win this game. They just have so much going against them and so many young players in key roles that it's going to be difficult to win this big game on the road.

I'm looking at a somewhat low-scoring game. I think Clay Helton will self-correct hard after last week's performance against Washington and run the ball a ton. In response, the Irish should oblige and be happy slugging things out slowly but surely on the ground in the starry cold air.

Notre Dame 24

USC 20