Notre Dame returns following the Bye Week to take on the reeling USC Trojans tomorrow night at Notre Dame Stadium. On paper it looks to be another straightforward matchup, but in a season that has been anything but there are a few angles to unpack before the game. Follow along as we give you all the advanced stats you need to know to get ready for Saturday.
USC enters this game with likely the worst pass defense Notre Dame will face all season. They give up an insane 0.41 EPA/Pass, which ranks 126th out of 130th. The results match up with the tape as well, with PFF ranking their coverage unit at 96th in the country. They are closer to average against the run, still giving up positive EPA/Play but ranking a more respectable 70th in the country. But they’re clearly more vulnerable through the air, and with that context in mind it’s understandable why Jack Coan has been tabbed to start this game. Especially with Michael Mayer returning to the lineup, there shouldn’t be a problem for the receivers to get open at all levels of the field. The one concern with the Trojans is they do have a good pass rush, ranking 39th in PFF Pass Rush Grade. Drake Jackson is an elite EDGE rusher and leads the team with 16 pressures. But he is dealing with an injury and may be limited. Regardless, the key for the offense with Coan under center is to make sure he gets the ball out of his hands quickly because of how weak his pocket presence is. He averages 8.5 Yards Per Attempt and has an NFL Passer Rating of 118.8 when his Time to Throw is under 2.5 seconds. That drops to 6.5 and 77.5 when he holds onto the ball for more than 2.5 seconds. The primary key to success on offense is making sure the pass catchers get open early in their routes so Coan can get rid of the ball quickly and negate the formidable USC pass rush.
If that is indeed the gameplan, this feels like a game where Mayer, Avery Davis, and Kyren Williams will lead the team in targets, with some shots downfield to Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy sprinkled in. Only 33.4% of Austin’s targets have come within 10 Yards of the Line of Scrimmage, and for Lenzy that number is 36.6%. This could be very different if the offensive line holds up well and Coan doesn’t crumble under pressure as he has in the past. But to us this seems like the most likely outcome offensively pregame.
Now to the defense. The path to victory couldn’t be clearer on this side of the ball, how to get there is another story. USC comes into the game with an above average passing offense and a run game that is essentially treading water. This plays into Notre Dame’s strengths as a team that wants to stop the pass first and is also capable defending the run with lighter boxes. What throws a wrench in this simple gameplan is USC Wide Receiver Drake London. He is a potential First Round pick who has been lighting it up this year. He’s posted an insane 0.68 EPA/Play and 63% Success Rate when targeted and a 90.2 PFF Receiving Grade. You may be thinking Notre Dame contained Purdue’s David Bell pretty well so they shouldn’t have that big of a problem covering London. Well, the concern is he’s a massive threat on deep balls and is a contested catch machine. London’s posted an INSANE 99.9 PFF Grade on targets over 20 Yards downfield, an area Notre Dame has consistently struggled with the past two years. And even if you’re able to cover him well he’s caught 18 of 27 contested targets this year, making him a tough proposition to defend. There are a few ways off the top of my head in how you defend him. The first being play a defense that’s the most inviting to run on and entice USC to throw as little as possible. Second, put Kyle Hamilton on him every play and live with the results (a pretty good option). Or third, play a bracket coverage scheme. Regardless, he needs to be accounted for on every play as USC’s offense goes as he goes.
One thing working in Notre Dame’s favor is Kedon Slovis has steadily declined since a very promising Freshman season. There’s something to be said for losing Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, and Amon-Ra St. Brown, but regardless he hasn’t been the player many people thought he would be at this time two years ago. He also lacks any rushing upside in his game, which makes this preview fairly dull but straightforward. Contain London and Slovis through the air and good things should follow.
Now for our prediction. Predicting the winner is easy, we’ll take Notre Dame to come out on top. We think the defense will do a good enough job of containing London and the offense will (hopefully) lean into the quick passing game and take advantage of a leaky secondary. The hard part of this prediction is the spread. The line crossing 7 after opening at 6.5 makes it tough pick the Irish, as a margin of victory of one touchdown will lead to a push. But if we had to make a pick, we’ll choose Notre Dame to cover. USC’s secondary being the worst in the country gives the Irish the biggest matchup advantage in this game. That combined with our trust in Marcus Freeman and his unit gives us just enough faith to believe Notre Dame can cover that line.