You guys, I have some incredible news — the #3, 11-0 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team STILL has another game to play in this regular season of 2018.
Even more exciting, that final game is against none other than the USC Trojans, who are having a bad year (5-6, just lost to a 2-8 UCLA team) and may even fire their coach if ND kicks their asses badly enough.
THAT GETS ME GOING, YOU GUYS. LET’S WATCH A COUPLE THINGS AS PUMP-UPS FOR THAT.
OKAY COOL, LET’S KEEP GOING.
The Trojans, despite their struggles and strife this year, do still have some seriously talented players on their team, so beating them won’t exactly be a cakewalk. The Trojans are actually 41st overall in S&P+ rankings and feature some young, exciting players at positions like QB, WR, and in the back half of their defense.
The Irish, though, appear to be up to the task. ND enters the season finale with that flawless record and #3 ranking, sure. But they’re also 6th overall in S&P+, top-30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, and are fresh off a 36-3 shellacking of the then-12th-ranked Syracuse Orange last weekend. With a perfect season and a CFP bid in sight, there’s no question that the Irish will come into this game focused, on a mission, and looking to take care of business.
So, how will the two teams match up? Let’s dive in below, and always remember:
USC Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense (Beat SC)
This match-up should be pretty intriguing to watch play out, as the Irish defense has been STIFLING this season, ranked #3 in S&P+, #11 in defensive efficiency, 20th in total defense, and 15th in scoring defense. The USC offense, meanwhile, is #55 in S&P+ and #65 in offensive efficiency.
Led by a fantastic front seven, defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s unit has been very good at bottling up the run (#32 in yards allowed per rushing attempt, #39 in total rushing defense), and even better against the pass (#2 in pass efficiency defense, #3 in yards allowed per passing attempt, and #21 in total passing defense).
That group’s success certainly starts with the defensive line, led by senior DT Jerry Tillery in the middle. Tillery has been a menace, stuffing runs before they can get going and reliably collapsing the pocket on passing downs (7 sacks).
On the outside, Tillery is joined by a trio of junior defensive ends who have been SENSATIONAL this season. Julian Okwara is probably the best of the bunch, with 6 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, and an unreal 21 QB hurries in 2018 so far. He is rarely able to be blocked by opponents, and instead they have to either slow him down by holding him or by sending extra guys to take care of him, leaving opportunities for Irish teammates to make big plays. The other 2⁄3 of that junior defensive end trio are Khalid Kareem and Daelin Hayes (combined 6.5 sacks, 14.5 TFL, 14 QBH), and both of those guys — especially Kareem — have been incredibly productive in getting to the QB as well.
The USC offensive line is 69th in the country in sacks allowed, so that kind of productive pass rush could be VERY harmful to the Trojans having any sort of chance at a consistent passing attack tomorrow.
Leading the charge there, if he’s able to get some time, is true freshman USC QB JT Daniels. Daniels skipped his final year of high school to reclassify to this year’s incoming recruiting class, and won the job this summer/fall over guys like Jack Sears and Matt Fink. For how young he is, Daniels has done pretty well, but he’s also obviously looked like a talented high school senior playing against grown college men at times. On the year, he’s thrown for 2,323 yards, 13 TD, and 10 INT while completing passes at a 57% clip.
What does worry me a bit here is that Daniels has plenty of talented weapons to throw to, considering USC is NEVER lacking long, fast, dangerous receivers. This year’s group is no different, led by Michael Pittman Jr. and his 34 catches for 667 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Amon-Ra St. Brown (Equinimeous’s younger brother) is a true freshman as the team’s #2 wideout, but he looks polished and is super dangerous as a guy who has reeled in 50 balls for 656 yards and 3 TD. His rapport with Daniels is one that’s carried over from when they were high school teammates, and he has the 5-star talent that could BURN ND DBs if the USC offense is given enough time to allow it.
Joining Pittman and St. Brown in the receiving corps are Tyler Vaughns (46 rec, 554 yards, 5 TD) and Velus Jones Jr. (21 rec, 242 yards, 1 TD).
Unluckily for Daniels and that passing attack, even if he gets a little time, he might not find a ton of success against ND’s #2 passing efficiency defense. Led by lock-down corner and All-American candidate Julian Love (14 PBU, 1 INT, 1 FR TD), the ND secondary has been vastly improved even from last year’s solid group, as guys like Jalen Elliott (59 tackles, 6 PBU, 4 INT) have taken big leaps in production and newcomers like Navy transfer safety Alohi Gilman (66 tackles, 3 PBU, 2 INT, 1 FF) have been absolute MONSTERS all over the field. Troy Pride Jr. has been great in his first full season starting opposite Love as well, breaking up 9 passes and snaring 2 picks of his own.
Considering Daniels is still so young and raw and considering the Irish pass rush, I expect this secondary will make a play or two, similarly to how Elliott and Gilman came up with 3 interceptions last week against Syracuse.
In terms of the rushing offense, USC has not been great and also just doesn’t run the ball all that much. The Trojans are 83rd in the country in yards per rushing attempt and sport the 102nd overall rushing offense.
When they do move the ball on the ground, though, that effort is spearheaded by RB Aca’Cedric Ware, who has 757 yards and 6 TD this season on 6.8 yards per carry. He’s spelled by Vavae Malepeai (480 yds, 7 TD on 5.4 ypc) and Stephen Carr (384 yds, 2 TD, 4.7 ypc).
Unfortunately (again — I feel like a broken record as I point out how ND will counter any USC offensive talent) for USC, ND is pretty stout against the run as well. The Irish are, as I said above, #32 in yards allowed per rushing attempt. That production is driven by that defensive front mentioned above, plus DTs like Jonathan Bonner and Kurt Hinish and Jayson Ademilola helping Tillery out in the middle.
Then, at the second level, you have to look at the linebacker trio of Te’von Coney, Drue Tranquill, and Asmar Bilal, who all have the speed and athleticism and coverage ability to be good in the passing game, but who all EXCEL in chasing down ball carriers and making sure they wrap them up for as little gain as possible. Coney leads the team with 99 tackles (9 for loss), and Tranquill has 66 and another 9 for loss. They’ve also combined for 7 sacks. Bilal isn’t talked about as much, but he’s been very good this year in picking up 42 tackles and 3 TFL. That trio will make sure Ware, Malepeai, and Carr don’t get very far if they get past the first line of defense.
Overall, I do think USC has enough play-makers at the skill positions to give the ND defense a little trouble. However, we’re talking about a Trojans team that scored just 14 points against Cal and just 3 against Stanford. I think at some point, the ND defense will break them and the Irish will step on USC’s throat, allowing Ian Book and the offense to put the final nail in the coffin.
Offensive Trojan to Watch (Beat SC)
WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
The Trojans will need some big plays on offense, and St. Brown is an electric receiver with TONS of speed and talent. He will need to torch some very solid Irish DBs if USC wants to be able to score enough on ND to potentially win this thing.
Defensive Irish to Watch (Beat SC)
DE Khalid Kareem
I just have a feeling that Khalid Kareem is about to get 3+ sacks tomorrow. Not sure why (other than the fact he’s a beast and is due for a monster game).
Halftime Fun Facts!!!!! (Beat SC!!!)
Best Names in the Game (Beat SC)
1. USC WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
2. Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister
3. USC RB Aca’Cedric Ware
4. Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
5. CB Je’Quari Godfrey
6. S Talanoa Hufanga
7. LB Oluwole Betiku Jr.
8. Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo
9. S Davonte Nunnery
10. LB Solomon Tuliaupupu
Honorable Mention: USC TE Tyler Petite, Notre Dame LB Asmar Bilal, USC RB Quincy Jountti, USC RB Vavae Malepeai, USC WR Josh Imatorbhebhe, USC TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe, USC TE Erik Krommenhoek, USC DL Trevor Trout, USC LB Juliano Falaniko, USC DB Chuma Edoga, USC S Bubba Bolden, USC S Marvel Tell III
Quick Power Ranking: Trojans (Beat SC)
T-1. Trojan Horse
T-1. Trojan War
T-1. Trojan language (I guess this is what they spoke in Troy)
T-1. Trojan (celestial body): a minor planet or moon that shares an orbit with a larger planet or moon
T-1. Trojan Records (British record label)
T-1. Trojan (1986 arcade game)
T-1. Trojan (1991 novel by James Follett)
T-1. Trojan, South Dakota — a ghost town
T-1. Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Oregon
T-1. Trojan (former British automobile manufacturer)
T-1. Trojan, Gauteng, South Africa (suburb of Johannesburg)
T-1. Les Troyens (The Trojans) — opera by Hector Berlioz
T-1. Trojan (mountain on the border of Albania and Montenegro)
T-1. Troy Trojans
T-1. Trojan condoms
T-1. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans
T-1. Trajan Langdon’s first name, misspelled as “Trojan”
T-1. Trojan (malware)
Dead Last. USC Trojans
Pete Carroll Eats Babies (Beat SC)
Pete Carroll eats babies.
Notre Dame Offense vs. USC Defense (Beat SC)
USC’s strength, according to S&P+ and ESPN.com’s defensive efficiency metric, is actually their defense, which is rated 37th and 45th in the country, respectively. However, the Trojans defense, despite having plenty of talent, is certainly not elite, and with possibly its best player Porter Gustin out due to injury, the Notre Dame offense shouldn’t have too much trouble putting up enough points to win.
Book returned last week against Syracuse to the tune of 292 yards, 2 TD, and 1 INT, looking healthy and efficiency once again. That performance brought him to 2,116 yards, 17 TD, and 5 INT on the season, and although his completion percentage dropped to 72.6%, Book is still #2 in the country in that statistic.
The Trojans have just the #53 pass efficiency defense in the country, so it will be a tall task for Trojans DBs like Iman Marshall, Marvel Tell III, Ajene Harris, Talanoa Hufanga, and Isaiah Langley. Each of those guys has had their share of pass break-ups, but the group has only pulled in 3 INT on the season. Clearly, they will have to step it up against such an accurate passing attack to force the turnovers needed to change the game.
The Trojans would certainly need a good pass rush to force Book into any big mistakes, but unlike Syracuse last week (who was a top team in sacks but only managed to sack him twice), the Trojans are tied for 50th in the country in sacks, and without Gustin (10 TFL, 7 sacks) they do not have a very substantial pass rush. The names to know in that regard, though, are going to be DL Christian Rector (9 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 3 QBH), DL Marlon Tuipulotu (2.5 sacks), DL Jay Tufele (4.5 TFL, 3 sacks), and LB Jordan Iosefa (3 TFL, 2 sacks).
Thus, without a ball-hawking secondary or a good pass rush, there’s a good chance that the Irish receiving corps will be able to make some plays tomorrow. You all know the names to watch there — Miles Boykin (51 rec, 730 yds, 8 TD), Chase Claypool (43 rec, 558 yds, 4 TD), Chris Finke (40 rec, 461 yds, 1 TD), and Alize Mack (33 rec, 334 yds, 3 TD) are the big-time targets for Book in the passing game, and they will likely continue their recent success against this Trojans defense.
In the run game, the Trojans are 69th in the country in rushing yards allowed per attempt, giving up more than 4 yards per carry to opposing backs. ND RB Dexter Williams must be licking his chops considering the 6.7 yards he’s averaging per carry (844 yds, 11 TD), and Tony Jones Jr. (377 yds, 3 TD, 4.7 ypc) and Jafar Armstrong (377 yds, 7 TD, 5.4 ypc) should also see a few chances to gash the USC defense for big chunks of yardage.
The USC linebackers are pretty athletic and could do an okay job corralling the Irish backs, as guys like Cameron Smith (69 tackles, 5.5 TFL), John Houston Jr. (67 tackles), and Palaie Gaoteote IV (31 tackles, 3 TFL) will be leading the charge in that regard. On the d-line, guys like Malik Dorton and Brandon Pili will be key in helping hold the point of attack, but that whole front seven just hasn’t been super strong this season, and UCLA just ran for over 300 yards on them last weekend (UCLA RB Joshua Kelley had 289 yards on over 7 ypc on his own). ND should be able to run very successfully against USC and really wear the Trojans down as the game goes on.
Overall, I don’t think USC has the firepower to make enough plays to slow down Book and co. and keep the Trojans in the game. Despite some good individual talent (Marshall, Smith, etc.), the Irish should do their normal thing and have built themselves a comfortable lead in the second half.
Defensive Trojan to Watch (Beat SC)
The Entire USC Secondary
USC will not be able to shut down the Notre Dame offense, so it’s going to be up to the back end of the Trojans defense to take the ball away, help flip the field, and give USC some serious momentum. I don’t think they’ll do a great job of that, but it’ll be necessary for Tell, Langley, Marshall, and Harris to force turnovers if USC wants to have a chance in this one.
Offensive Irish to Watch (Beat SC)
RB Dexter Williams
Dexter is 156 yards away from 1,000 for his shortened season, and this USC defense just allowed UCLA’s #1 back to run for nearly 300 yards. Look for Dex to be trying for home run TDs early and often in this one, and he will probably connect on a couple.
Special Teams??? (Beat SC)
Honestly, nothing big to talk about here. USC is 43rd in special teams S&P+, while ND is 61st. USC’s kicker Michael Brown has only kicked 8 field goals all season (made 6 of them), and we all know at this point what we have in Justin Yoon (15/19 on the year — dude is very solid and reliable).
Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One (and also Beat SC)
Notre Dame’s defense is too disciplined and talented and poised to allow a high schooler to pick them apart, and the USC defense isn’t good enough to make up the difference.
Notre Dame 41, USC 20
Agree? Disagree? Chime in below in the comments to tell us your own predictions for the game and its happenings!!!!