Welp, Irish fans, the day is FINALLY about here.
Tomorrow stands as the latest installment in the annual tradition that is Notre Dame Fighting Irish football fans being able to greet each other on game day with the simplest, yet also most beautiful, of phrases.
The 4-1, 9th-ranked Irish will play host to their hated rivals the USC Trojans, who enter this game with a 3-2 record that truly displays the roller coaster ride they’ve endured to begin the year, beating ranked-at-the-time versions of the Utah Utes and Stanford Cardinal but also losing to the BYU Cougars and Washington Huskies.
Notre Dame has won the last two games over USC in this annual series, and hasn’t lost at home to the Trojans since the fateful “Crazy Train”/Crist goal line fumble/first night game in forever 2011 contest. The last three match-ups in South Bend have given us:
- 2013: Stephon Tuitt singlehandedly destroyed USC while an Andrew Hendrix-led 2nd half offense did nothing — Notre Dame won 14-10
- 2015: Will Fuller burned Adoree Jackson deep, Equanimeous St. Brown blocked a punt, and Corey Robinson made a huge TD catch in the 4th — Notre Dame won 41-31
- 2017: Complete and utter evisceration of the Trojans on both sides of the ball, with Brandon Wimbush and Josh Adams looking like gods among men (same with Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey) — Notre Dame won 49-14
So, with all that in mind, what kind of result are we in store for this year? Will the top-10 Irish continue to roll, or will a dangerous and talented USC team, with their 2nd string, freshman QB back and ready to play, pull off a major upset?
Let’s dive into the details.
USC Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The Trojans offense has been through a lot so far in 2019.
Sophomore starter J.T. Daniels tore his ACL in game one against the Fresno State Bulldogs, leaving USC to start true freshman Kedon Slovis in his place. Slovis filled in VERY well for Daniels at first, throwing for 377 yards and 3 TD in a 45-20 shellacking of Stanford. However, Slovis came back to earth a bit the following week in a loss to BYU, throwing 3 interceptions. He then got injured himself in the Trojans’ next game against then-10th-ranked Utah, where 3rd-string Matt Fink stepped in and led the team to victory. With Fink as the starter against Washington two weeks ago, the Trojans wilted and lost by a couple scores.
Despite all that turmoil and the revolving door at QB due to injuries, USC is still 19th in the SP+ offensive rankings, sitting 26th-best in the country in passing yards per game.
Now, Slovis has been medically cleared to return to that strong offensive unit, stepping in as a true frosh starter on the road in Notre Dame Stadium, looking to connect on enough big passing plays with his dangerous group of wide receivers he’ll be throwing to in order to pull off the upset.
That receiving corps is certainly the place we should start in discussing this USC offense, as they are an EXCEPTIONAL group of guys who will all likely play on Sundays. Michael Pittman Jr. leads the crew with 35 catches, 501 yards, and 4 touchdowns so far this season, and is always a threat to score with his speed and athleticism.
Tyler Vaughns (31 rec, 414 yds, 2 TD) and Amon-Ra St. Brown (24 rec, 238 yds, 3 TD) bring a similar knack for explosive plays, and so the fact that the Irish secondary will have to cover/account for all three at one time is alarming, to say the least.
It’s made all the more alarming by the fact that Shaun Crawford will not be back from his dislocated elbow until the Michigan game, meaning ND is down their best cover corner with what was already some very shallow depth at the position.
TaRiq Bracy (19 tackles, 5 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR) has stepped in nicely so far at the starting spot, but will need to really step up his game against receivers that are about 1000x better than any of the receivers ND has gone up against in the past couple weeks. Troy Pride Jr. (13 tackles, 2 PD), as the speedy, senior corner still out there, will need to have a really nice night in coverage as well, careful not to let Pittman or Vaughns or St. Brown beat him deep.
Bracy and Pride will be absolutely key guys this week, as will be ever-reliable safeties Jalen Elliott, Alohi Gilman, and Kyle Hamilton. Elliott (22 tackles, 2 PD, 2 INT) and Gilman (29 tackles, 1 PD, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR) have been fantastic as the starting safeties so far this year, but haven’t had to help cover a group of receivers that is such a vertical threat as the Trojans, with only the Georgia Bulldogs receivers coming close.
They’ll need to be ever-wary of USC receivers slipping behind them for big plays, and quick to capitalize on any errant passes the ND pass rush may force Slovis to make. Hamilton especially seems like a guy, with his natural tendency to make big plays and force turnovers (13 tackles, 2 PD, 2 INT, 1 TD), who could really be a difference maker tomorrow evening.
Slovis (732 yds, 77.9% completion, 9.5 ypa, 5 TD, 4 INT) will of course be slinging the ball around to the likes of Pittman, Vaughns, and St. Brown all evening, and so part of the key for Clark Lea’s defense HAS to be continuing to get strong pressure on the freshman quarterback with the front four — Slovis hasn’t shown he’s immune to making frosh mistakes back there, and forcing him into some bad decisions while hitting him early and often could be the difference in this game.
Of course, that means starting defensive ends Julian Okwara (4 sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR) and Khalid Kareem (13 tackles, 2.5 sacks) will need to be absolute menaces coming around the edge, and reserves Adetokunbo Ogundeji (12 tackles, 1 FF, 1 FR TD) and Jamir Jones (2 sacks, 1 FF) will need to provide the same intensity and pressure when they rotate into the game.
If the Irish can mostly contain the USC passing game, it will be a very good sign for ND’s ability to win the game — but the Trojans do have some decent backs who could do some damage on the ground if the defensive tackles and linebackers don’t play a strong game in run stoppage.
USC running back Vavae Malepeai leads the team in rushing with 360 yards on the year, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and 4 touchdowns. Add in Stephen Carr’s 189 yards and 2 touchdowns on 6.1 yards per carry, and Markese Stepp’s 159 yards and 1 TD on 6.4 yards per carry, and USC certainly has some guys who could pick up big chunks of yardage if ND is too focused on preventing big passing plays.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (30 tackles, 1 FF) will be absolutely key tomorrow evening, considering he leads the team in tackles and is counted on to fly to the ball and get to opposing ball carriers before they can get out into space. Drew White (24 tackles, 1 sack, 1 PD) and Asmar Bilal (24 tackles) will similarly need to be very sure-tackling in their efforts in this one, as there may be a little less secondary help than normal with the DBs so focused on shutting down Pittman and co. on the back end.
How the ND defensive tackles in the middle hold up will also be extremely important. The group of Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kurt Hinish, and Jayson Ademilola was underwhelming in the early going this season, but that trio has really stepped up over the past few weeks to provide a strong push up front.
Those three have combined for 30 tackles, 2 PD, 1.5 sacks, and a fumble recovery this year — the more havoc they can wreak in the backfield tomorrow, the better the Irish will be.
Offensive Trojan to Watch
QB Kedon Slovis
Slovis is a true freshman QB in a pass-happy offense that will need big plays through the air to have a chance at the upset on the road. How he returns from injury and how mistake-free he can stay with the Irish pass rush coming after him and the ND secondary patrolling on the back end will likely decide this one.
Defensive Irish to Watch
CBs Troy Pride Jr. and TaRiq Bracy
This will be the best group of receivers the Irish have faced so far in 2019, and will likely be the best they face all season. How Pride and Bracy perform in coverage will largely determine how close this game stays, as some big plays from the USC offense early could really put ND in a hole and open up the possibility of the upset.
Best Names in the Game
- USC WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
- Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister
- Notre Dame LS Axel Raarup
- Notre Dame S Litchfield Ajavon
- Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
- USC WR Bru McCoy
- USC QB Kedon Slovis
- Notre Dame DL Hunter Spears
- USC LB Ralen Goforth
- USC RB Quincy Jountti
- USC DL Trevor Trout
- Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo
- USC S Talanoa Hufanga
- USC CB Adonis Otey
- USC DL Stanley Ta’ufo’ou
- Notre Dame DE Nana Osafo-Mensah
- USC LB Solomon Tuliaupupu
- Notre Dame CB Temitope Agoro
- Notre Dame DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji
- USC LB Palaie Gaoteote IV
- Notre Dame RB Jafar Armstrong
- USC RB Vavae Malepeai
- USC OL Gino Quinones
- USC LB Eli’jah Winston
- USC CB Olaijah Griffin
Notre Dame Offense vs. USC Defense
On the other side of the ball, USC’s 51st-ranked defense (according to SP+) will try to slow down Ian Book and the #18 offense enough to give Slovis and co. the chance to outscore them.
Book, despite some obvious limitations that have shown this season, has still been quite solid overall in 2019, throwing for 1,254 yards, 13 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions while completing 65.5% of his passes and picking up 9 yards per attempt.
On Saturday evening, he will look to continue his efficient ways by throwing to his usual smattering of favorite targets, starting with WR Chase Claypool and TE Cole Kmet. Claypool is the Irish’s leading receiver this year, having already reeled in 24 passes for 347 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first five games of the year. Kmet, meanwhile, has only played in 3 games after coming back from a broken collarbone, but has been absolutely brilliant in those games, collecting 15 receptions for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns in that time.
Toss in a few other guys with a penchant for making the occasional big play — Tommy Tremble (9 rec, 136 yds, 2 TD), Javon McKinley (8 rec, 200 yds, 3 TD), and Avery Davis (6 rec, 98 yds, 2 TD) — and Book has plenty of weapons to work with out there. Add in Chris Finke (10 rec, 137 yds, 1 TD) — who has struggled in the early going but is still an important cog in the offensive machine — and Michael Young, who is only two games removed from being out with a broken collarbone of his own, and USC will have a lot of guys to worry about in the passing game.
The Trojans are 68th in the country in yards allowed per passing attempt, so they aren’t exactly world-beaters in pass defense. With that said, there is some strong talent in the USC secondary, led by safety Talanoa Hufanga, who has 42 tackles, 0.5 sacks, and 1 PD on the season.
Hufanga is joined in coverage by some athletic guys at corner such as Olaijah Griffin (17 tackles, 6 PD) and Greg Johnson (17 tackles, 2 PD, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR) and Isaac Taylor-Stuart (16 tackles, 2 PD). Add in guys like Chris Steele, Chase Williams, and CJ Pollard and there are plenty of USC guys who could jump on an errant Ian Book pass and make the Irish pay.
For that to be relevant, though, USC will certainly need to get pressure on Book. He’s been sacked 8 times this season and certainly has shown that the more pressure coming at him, the more likely he is to bail from the pocket and/or make bad decisions throwing the ball, and so the Trojans’ pass rush will be crucial for them getting stops against the Irish, as well as potentially forcing turnovers against the current #2 team in the country in turnover margin.
That pass rushing effort will certainly be led by the USC defensive line, as guys like Drake Jackson (22 tackles, 3 sacks), Jay Tufele (19 tackles, 2 sacks), Marlon Tuipulotu (24 tackles, 1 sack, 2 PD, 1 FF), Christian Rector (9 tackles, 1 sack, 1 PD), and Connor Murphy (1 sack) have certainly been the main drivers of sacks for the Trojans defense.
Add in linebackers Isaiah Pola-Mao (29 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Hunter Echols (9 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 FR) and USC certainly has the horses to bring plenty of pressure at Book. The ND offensive line will need to bring its A-game in order to keep Book on his feet and allow him enough time to make reads and find his receivers getting open against a good, but not great, secondary.
In the running game, the Irish will be overjoyed to have 2019 opening day starting RB Jafar Armstrong back after his abdominal injury in the season opener against Louisville. Armstrong brings an explosive, home run ability that Tony Jones Jr. simply doesn’t have, adding a huge dynamic component to the ND running game that just hasn’t been there through these first 5 contests.
Jones Jr., of course, has been very good in Armstrong’s stead, rushing for 381 yards and 4 touchdowns while picking up nearly 7 yards per carry. Furthermore, Armstrong’s absence has meant more reps for Jahmir Smith (61 yards, 4.4 ypc, 2 TD) and C’Bo Flemister (60 yards, 2.5 ypc, 3 TD), giving the entire group just a little more experience running the ball as the Irish enter into the second half of the season.
USC is 88th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per attempt, giving up 4.5 yards per carry to opposing running backs. So, despite some talented USC linebackers like John Houston Jr. (45 tackles, 1 PD) and Palaie Gaoteote IV (41 tackles), the Irish should be able to run the ball fairly well tomorrow night — especially with the return of Armstrong to the arsenal of backs Book will be handing off to in this one.
Defensive Trojan to Watch
DL Drake Jackson
I think the USC defensive front HAS to get pressure on Ian Book and force him into some mistakes in order to hang around in this game. Jackson, as the team leader in sacks, will need to beat some Irish o-linemen and get to Book as often as he can, setting the tone that the Trojans will be in his face all evening.
Offensive Irish to Watch
RB Jafar Armstrong
Considering the success Tony Jones Jr. has seen recently and considering he’s juuuuust coming back from his injury, Armstrong probably won’t see an ungodly amount of touches tomorrow night. But he will play, and what he is able to do in terms of providing a dynamic spark in the running game will be key, especially against a mediocre run defense like USC’s. Also, how he looks will be telling for how effective he can be in the remainder of the season, with the Michigan game looming just two weeks from now.
USC PK Chase McGrath has been perfect so far in 2019, having hit all 19 of his extra points and all four of his field goals, including one from 50+ yards out. Notre Dame PK Jonathan Doerer has been nearly as perfect, going 24-of-24 on extra points and making three of four field goal attempts, with his one miss being from the 40-49 yard range.
In the return game, USC return man Velus Jones Jr. has already taken one kickoff back for a TD this year, and is 3rd in the nation in total kickoff return yards with 487 so far this season (23rd in the country in average yards per return at 25.6).
ND needs to bottle him up the same as they did with Virginia returner Joe Reed, who was relatively quiet a couple weeks ago after also entering the ND game as one of the top return men in the nation.
Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One
Notre Dame 37, USC 28
I think Kedon Slovis and the USC wide receivers are bound to have a few nice plays through the air that lead to points — especially with Shaun Crawford out. However, I don’t think the USC defense has enough firepower to slow down the ND offense too much at home, and I think the ND defense will force the true frosh Slovis into a couple mistakes that lead to turnovers and game-changing momentum shifts that lead the Irish to winning this one in the second half by two scores.