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Notre Dame Football: USC Trojans Game Preview

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A top-13 matchup under the lights between hated rivals, you say? Yeah, we can get a little excited for ND-USC. Let’s discuss why.

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

IT’S OFFICIALLY BEAT SC WEEK!!!!

That’s right, folks. Your #13 Notre Dame Fighting Irish will play host to the #11 USC Trojans tomorrow evening in The House That Rockne Built, and EVERYONE is buzzing with anticipation and excitement about the big-time rivalry matchup.

USC enters the game with a 6-1 record and a slew of injuries that have taken down a few key players, while ND enters with a 5-1 record and looking to add a huge win to its unimposing resume.

For both teams, any hopes at a College Football Playoff spot are completely reliant on the outcome of this game, as the loser will be effectively eliminated from contention while the winner will become one step closer to making that top 4.

So, considering what is at stake season-wise, as well as what is at stake reputation-wise, it goes without saying that this weekend is going to be a wild ride, and that Notre Dame has an excellent chance to ruin their hated rivals’ moods while also emerging victorious.

Let’s dive in. Beat SC.

USC Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

USC QB Sam Darnold entered this 2017 NCAA football season as the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman trophy. He tore it up in his freshman season in 2016 to the tune of 3,086 yards, 31 TD, and just 9 INT, all while completing 67.2% of his passes. He delivered a Rose Bowl victory for USC in a wild 52-49 win over Penn State, throwing for 453 yards and 5 TD.

So, it seemed pretty reasonable to assume this guy would only be better as a sophomore and would just blow everyone away this season.

Of course, not everything always goes according to plan, and the USC season has definitely not gone according to plan. The team has had a rash of injuries, including multiple along the offensive line that have led to some very inexperienced guys being tasked with protecting a potential Heisman QB. Opponents took notice, and so various games this year for USC — particularly against Texas and Washington State — have featured Darnold under immense pressure, forcing him into tough passes, knocking him down a lot, etc.

That’s certainly something the Fighting Irish defense will try to do, as defensive coordinator Mike Elko has significantly improved the ND pass rush from a year ago (as if it were possible to do anything but improve that shit-show...).

Look for ND’s best pass rushers like DEs Daelin Hayes (2 sacks, 3 QBH) and Julian Okwara (1.5 sacks, 5 QBH) and DT Jerry Tillery (3 sacks, 5 QBH) to be in Darnold’s face constantly, and expect at least a few blitzes that send guys like CB Shaun Crawford or Rover Drue Tranquill storming into the backfield looking for big sacks on key 3rd downs.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

USC will not be without answers to the expected pressure on Darnold, though, as offensive linemen Toa Lobendahn and Chuma Edoga will both be healthy and playing, giving him some more protection from what has been a driving force behind Darnold’s (relatively) disappointing performances this year.

Of course, Darnold hasn’t been terrible by any means this season, even with the increased pressure causing more turnovers (he already has 9 INT on the year, tying his 2016 total). The sophomore has still managed to throw for 2,063 yards and 15 TD in 2017, and is completing passes at a 62.7% clip. He’s incredibly dangerous through the air, and a huge reason for that is a very talented receiving corps he gets to throw to — a group more talented than any Notre Dame has faced, or probably will face, this season.

The group is led by Deontay Burnett, a 6’0” junior who has racked up 49 receptions, 626 yards, and 6 TD this year. He’s Darnold’s go-to guy, and has a penchant for making big-time catches in big moments — 13 catches for 164 yards and 3 TD in that Rose Bowl victory will vouch for that.

Joining Burnett are senior Steven Mitchell, Jr. (23 receptions, 333 yards, 2 TD), freshman Tyler Vaughns (25 receptions, 287 yards, 1 TD), and junior TE Tyler Petite (17 receptions, 245 yards, 3 TD). All combined, the group is a fast, smooth, talented group of receivers that can beat you deep or wear you down on a long drive full of short passes.

The Irish secondary will have their hands full, for sure, but don’t expect the Irish corners to struggle too much. Julian Love has been as reliable as they come in coverage this season (27 tackles, 8 passes broken up, 1 INT), and we all know that Shaun Crawford will stick to whoever he’s covering like glue and be around the ball ready to make a play (14 tackles, 2 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 3 passes broken up, 1.5 sacks).

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Senior CB Nick Watkins struggled a bit in earlier games in terms of just making plays on the ball (he’s almost always in the right position to make said plays), but with 5 passes broken up on the year, I think Watkins will also have a pretty strong day and make a few big plays himself.

The concern will definitely be with the safeties, Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott. They’ve played well this season (especially Coleman, who’s been a revelation after switching over from cornerback), but they’ve mostly dazzled in run support and have just made sure they haven’t been beaten deep by the mediocre passing offenses they’ve faced. Darnold and the Trojans receivers are a different story, and it will be interesting to see if they’re able to go over the top for any huge plays against a defense that rarely surrenders them under Mike Elko.

If USC has success over the top, it will make the game very interesting, as Elko’s squad will have to adjust and potentially give up some emphasis at the point of attack. USC has, in very Brian Kelly-esque fashion, been under-utilizing a couple of fantastic running backs this season, and so if the Trojans have an excuse to give Ronald Jones II (640 yards, 6.3 yards per carry, 8 TD) more carries, it could spell some trouble for the Irish defense.

Backup running back Stephen Carr (309 yards, 5.9 yards per carry, 3 TD) will be out with a foot injury, otherwise the Irish would have two very talented running backs to worry about tomorrow. Nevertheless, Jones is an absolute menace on his own, and will be a huge thorn in the Irish’s side, especially if they give him a little space to run.

With LB Greer Martini out, it will be up to Nyles Morgan and Te’von Coney (86 tackles combined) to be sure to corral him before he hits the second level, as Jones is a game-breaker type of back in the same vein as a Saquon Barkley or Josh Adams.

If he’s able to get out into the Irish secondary, he could very well be gone. Drue Tranquill (34 tackles) will be critical in preventing that from the Rover position — look for the senior to have a busy evening in run support.

Additionally, the Notre Dame defensive line will be crucial, as guys like Tillery, Jay Hayes, and Jonathan Bonner will be needed to hold the point of attack, occupy blockers, and even make some plays at or behind the line of scrimmage to take Jones down before he can get any momentum.

Overall, this is easily the most talented offense that Mike Elko’s defense has had to face this season, but the Irish should be mostly up to the task of containing them. Darnold and co. will likely make a few big plays that keep this game close for a while, but I expect the ND defense to continue to stop its opponents from scoring touchdowns more often than not, and to give the Irish offense the opportunity to put some distance between itself and the Trojans squad before it’s all said and done on Saturday night.

Notre Dame Offense vs. USC Defense

In my very uneducated opinion, this matchup is where the game will be won or lost. The Notre Dame offense’s success is predicated upon the idea that it will be able to run the football, wear the opponent down, own the time of possession battle, and not have to throw the ball downfield too much and risk turning the ball over.

The Irish offense is ranked 5th in the country in rushing yards per game, led by junior RB Josh Adams, whose 776 yards and 5 TD have come at a 9-yards-per-carry clip. Adams has been sensational this season and has shown an incredible ability to pick up huge chunks of yardage at a time — he’s had 9 runs of over 30 yards this season, with 5 of those going for 60+.

He’ll look to run right behind LG Quenton Nelson and LT Mike McGlinchey, a couple All-Americans who have just been plowing people into the dirt as of late.

ND QB Brandon Wimbush will add his own running talent to the mix as well, back this week after sitting out against North Carolina two weeks ago. Wimbush has 402 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground this year, and in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense he’s been deadly with the read-option.

The Irish have a good chance of being able to move the ball on the ground this weekend, as USC starting nose tackle Josh Fatu (27 tackles, 7 TFL, 5 sacks) will be out of the game with a concussion he suffered in a car accident this week.

He, along with LB Porter Gustin (15 tackles, 3 sacks — out with toe and biceps injuries), will be substantial pieces missing from a thin USC defense, forcing younger guys like Brandon Pili and Connor Murphy into the spotlight against an offensive line that has been just annihilating opposing defenses.

Some good news for USC, though, is star DL Rasheem Green should be playing. Green has been battling an ankle sprain, and although he won’t be fully healthy, having his size and athleticism anchoring some young and inexperienced teammates in the front seven will be crucial to trying to contain Adams, Wimbush, McIntosh (230 yards, 4 TD, 5.8 yards per carry), etc.

Stanford v USC Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

He’ll also be joined by DL Christian Rector up front, and Rector has been fantastic in getting penetration into the backfield, racking up 29 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 3 QB hurries on the year.

Even more important to the Trojans defensive performance tomorrow night, though, will be the play of Cameron Smith and Uchenna Nwosu, the men in the middle at linebacker who have had to do it all for USC this season.

Smith leads the team in tackles for the 2nd year in a row with 62 (he was also 2nd on the team two years ago, so nearly 3 years in a row), and is always around the ball and making plays, what with his 6.5 TFL and 1 INT on the year.

Nwosu has been potentially even more versatile, as he’s 4th on the team in tackles with 37, has 1.5 sacks and 6 QB hurries on the year, has broken up 8 passes, and has an interception and a fumble recovery to his name.

He and Smith will be absolutely crucial in being the guys who will need to take Adams down before he gets out into the secondary and wreaks havoc, and will also be critical in shutting down the short passing game of the Irish, who love bubble screens and short routes that are easy for Wimbush to use to get into a rhythm.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

If USC is able to do what only Georgia has done in 2017 and bottle up this vaunted ND rushing attack, then Wimbush will be forced to try to make more plays through the air, which is not what Notre Dame wants. He’s only completed 52% of his passes this season, and has thrown for just 783 yards and 6 TD, along with 2 INT.

Luckily for Wimbush, if he is forced to throw, the USC secondary might be considered the team’s weakest defensive unit. There’s plenty of talent in the group, with Iman Marshall (32 tackles, 8 passes broken up) and Jack Jones (25 tackles, 4 INT, 5 passes broken up) at corner and guys like Chris Hawkins (39 tackles, 1 INT) and Marvel Tell III (48 tackles, 2 INT) at safety, but the group has been far from perfect this year and susceptible to giving up some big plays. Also, you may remember Hawkins as the guy who kept having to tackle Will Fuller (and get pass interference calls) in 2015 to prevent him from scoring touchdown after touchdown.

Western Michigan v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Of course, the ND receivers have been well below perfect as well, so it will take a fantastic effort from the Irish to put any kind of strain on the Trojans DBs over the top. That effort will begin with Equanimeous St. Brown, the team’s leading receiver (15 catches, 211 yards, 2 TD) who exploded last season but has not been able to take off this year with the strong emphasis on the run and the lack of a consistent passing threat in Wimbush. If there were ever a time for St. Brown to step up and lead the charge in making some big plays through the air, it’d be tomorrow night.

Along with St. Brown, guys like TE Alizé Mack (17 catches, 154 yards) and WR Chase Claypool (12 catches, 144 yards, 1 TD) will need to step up in a big way and be the big, reliable targets that Brandon Wimbush will need in order to extend drives on 3rd downs.

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

Furthermore, Claypool and St. Brown, along with Cameron Smith or potentially Kevin Stepherson, could give Wimbush a vertical threat in order to really go for the home run play and to also alleviate some pressure at the front line, opening up more room for Adams and co. to run.

Overall, I think the ND offense will have pretty consistent success in running the ball on USC, although probably with fewer big, home run scampers by Josh Adams because of the Trojans’ athleticism and speed. Wimbush will play a smart game, picking his spots to toss the ball downfield and maybe even connecting on a deep ball or two. ND will sustain long drives that wear down the thin USC defense and allow for Nelson, McGlinchey, and the rest of the crew to do what they do best.

Prediction

I’ve been as pessimistic as anyone I know since last season, and am still not 100% bought-in to this Notre Dame team being as good as they seem, considering the poor competition they’ve faced to-date.

However, we’re talking about an 11-vs.-13 matchup under the lights in October in South Bend, and we’re talking about an Irish team that runs the ball extremely well and plays sound, opportunistic defense. I think the Fighting Irish win this one, and I think they actually win it pretty big, considering the running game they’re touting (even if Dexter Williams won’t be 100% healthy).

Notre Dame 45, USC 27.

Beat SC, everybody.

Beat SC, Beat SC, Beat SC.