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Game Preview: Notre Dame at USC

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One Foot Down previews Notre Dame’s season finale in Los Angeles against the USC Trojans

NCAA Football: Southern California at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Hey youuuuuuu guyyyyyyysssssss!

In case you didn’t know, the hapless 4-7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish still have one football game remaining this season - and it’s a road match-up against its rival, the Trojans of USC.

USC enters the game with an 8-3 record and number 12 ranking, looking to make the PAC-12 championship and keep pushing for as good of a postseason berth as possible.

USC has rattled off 7 straight victories and is as hot of a team as anyone in the country.

So how will the Irish, who have continuously disappointed but at least competed in all of their games, match up with the favored Trojans? Let’s take a look!

Notre Dame Offense vs. USC Defense

The Notre Dame offense has looked a little more consistent the past two weeks against Army and Virginia Tech, and will need to continue to score points to keep up with a high-octane Trojans offense.

The USC defense enters the game at 27th in total defense and 25th in scoring defense, so the Irish will certainly have their hands full against a unit with lots of speed, size, and talent.

The good thing for ND is that USC’s defense is just 59th in the country in pass defense, and considering how much more productive the passing game has been than the rushing game, expect Brian Kelly’s offense to lean on QB DeShone Kizer to move the ball down the field through the air.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Kizer has been very good this season, throwing for 2,705 yards, 24 TD, and 8 INT while also running for 509 yards and 7 rushing TD. He’ll be looking early and often to his favorite targets: Equanimeous St. Brown (51 receptions, 867 yards, 8 TD), Torii Hunter Jr. (38 receptions, 521 yards, 3 TD), Kevin Stepherson (23 receptions, 428 yards, 4 TD), and CJ Sanders (24 receptions, 293 yards, 2 TD).

That receiving corps will likely have some trouble creating separation, as USC starts Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall at cornerback, and the two of them bring oodles of speed, athleticism, and coverage ability to the table. Jackson has 49 tackles, 4 INT, and 9 pass break-ups this season, while Marshall adds 43 tackles, 2 INT, and 7 pass break-ups.

Those two, along with fellow DBs Chris Hawkins (41 tackles, 2 pass break-ups, 2 forced fumbles), Leon McQuay III (40 tackles, 1 INT, 4 pass break-ups), Marvel Tell (39 tackles, 1 INT), and Ajene Harris (21 tackles, 4 pass break-ups, 1 INT), form a formidable secondary that boasts a ton of talent and speed. However, considering their very mediocre production in terms of stopping the pass this season, it looks like ND could definitely exploit a few weaknesses with its passing attack in order to put points on the board.

When Kizer drops back to pass, he will have an athletic USC defensive front bearing down on him at all times. The defensive line features sophomores Porter Gustin (56 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 4 sacks) and Rasheem Green (44 tackles, 5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) as two behemoths who move fast and will likely wreak some havoc in the Irish backfield.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

DL Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (40 tackles) adds more size up front, and then the linebackers for the Trojans really clean things up in terms of racking up the tackles.

The linebacking crew for USC is led by sophomore Cameron Smith (69 tackles, 6 TFL, 4 pass break-ups) and Michael Hutchings (59 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks) as athletic, sure-tackling linebackers that are always around the ball. Add in Uchenna Nwosu (43 tackles, 7 TFL, 2.5 sacks) and the Trojans have multiple linebackers and defensive linemen that could get to Kizer and really make things difficult for the Irish.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

To help prevent that, Notre Dame will need to try to successfully run the ball at least occasionally, feeding Josh Adams (753 yards, 5.3 ypc, 5 TD) in hopes that he may break off some longer runs and force the Trojans to bring more people into the box and create some space over the top for Kizer and co.

Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams (523 yards and 5 TD combined) could also prove very useful there, as well as Kizer, who is second on the team in rushing and has made a lot of big plays with his feet of late.

Overall, it will be interesting to see how effective anything the 61st-ranked total offense and 55th-ranked scoring offense matches up with such a highly-rated and athletic defense. ND will probably see some success, but may also make a few mistakes that could lead to turnovers that cost the Irish dearly in the end.

USC Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

The USC offense has really evolved as the season has progressed, as the group sputtered early on with Max Browne running the show. Once Sam Darnold took over at QB, though, the USC offense has looked fantastic, and Darnold has dazzled while throwing for 2,428 yards, 24 TD, and 8 INT while completing passes at a 68.3% clip.

The group of receivers he has to work with are phenomenal and include JuJu Smith-Schuster, one of the best wide receivers in the country, who has compiled a season stat line of 59 receptions, 758 yards, and 8 TD.

Other talented receivers including Darreus Rogers (47 receptions, 605 yards, 3 TD), Deontay Burnett (38 receptions, 424 yards, 4 TD), and Steven Mitchell Jr. (24 receptions, 226 yards, 1 TD) help keep defenses from focusing too much on Smith-Schuster, and the emergence of freshman tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe (14 receptions, 219 yards, 4 TD) has given Darnold a big, reliable target in key situations.

NCAA Football: California at Southern California Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Notre Dame secondary, ranked 29th in the country in pass defense, will be facing the best passing attack it’s seen all season. It will be a great measuring stick for senior cornerback Cole Luke (44 tackles, 2 INT, 4 pass break-ups), and a daunting test for all of the young DB talent ND is bringing along, like Julian Love (36 tackles, 1 INT, 3 pass break-ups), Donte Vaughn (22 tackles, 1 INT, 6 pass break-ups), and Devin Studstill (35 tackles, 1 INT).

NCAA Football: Miami at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The USC offense is no slouch running the ball either, and will get heavy use out of RB Ronald Jones III, who has rushed for 893 yards and 10 TD this season on 6.3 yards per carry.

Jones is as explosive as they come at the running back position, and he will be joined in carrying the ball against the Irish by Aca’Cedric Ware (389 yards, 2 TD) and Justin Davis (528 yards, 2 TD). Those three backs and Darnold (214 yards rushing, 2 rushing TD) will give the Irish front seven all they can handle, as LBs Nyles Morgan (83 tackles, 6 TFL, 4 sacks), James Onwualu (72 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3 sacks), Te’von Coney (59 tackles), and Greer Martini (54 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks) will be the ones charged with running those ball carriers down and ensuring they don’t get out into the second level.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame vs Army Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Irish defensive line will need to help enable that with a strong push up front, and that will need to come from the ever-inconsistent Jarron Jones (38 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 2 sacks) in the middle along with Isaac Rochell (53 tackles, 7 TFL, 10 QB hurries) and Jerry Tillery (34 tackles, 5 QB hurries) alongside him. If they can get any sort of push up-field and potentially even get to Darnold a couple times when he drops back to pass, it would go a long way in freeing up the back half of the defense to make some plays and hopefully get a turnover or two. Whether or not they are able to do so could be the difference in this one.

Prediction

This is a rivalry game and thus you never know what could happen. However, knowing this year’s ND team and seeing how USC is playing heading into a home game for the Trojans, it’s tough for me to see anything except ND losing this game. I think the Irish might put up a fight early, but the Trojans’ talent and speed will eventually overwhelm ND and the Irish will not execute well enough to keep up.

USC 37, ND 24

Hope I’m wrong though, and as always, BEAT SC!