Well folks here we are at (close) to the end of the road. It’s Week 13 and the Notre Dame football program is closing out its regular season with a rivalry game against USC.
With the week-to-week craziness that’s been the defining characteristic of the Irish’s 2022 campaign, I had almost forgotten how big of a matchup this is. As someone’s who’s college football awareness really came into form post Bush push and USC’s heyday, the rivalry has always meant more because of cultural stuff instead of actual play.
Growing up in Louisiana, California and the Pac-12 (or maybe just the Pac-10 now?) seemed like a faraway land. If Notre Dame football just barely penetrated the SEC’s defense mechanisms just imagine how little about Cali teams made its way down. Before getting to South Bend in 2009, my best picture of California and USC football was a really weird collab of palm trees, surfboards and Sunshine remember the Titans.
Over the years, that image has gotten much more detailed, largely colored by high-powered passing offenses, quarterbacks who all seem to be eligible for international modeling contracts and a complete disregard for the defensive aspect of football. As Notre Dame gets set to face off against the 10-1 USC Trojans in Los Angeles, not a lot about that profile has changed.
The Trojans are somewhat of a juggernaut coming into this game. Their only loss on the season came in Week 7 to Utah and with a #5 ranking they’re right on the College Football Playoff bubble. While I can’t deny that they’ve got some really good things going for them this season, their success comes with the perennial asterisks of the Pac-12 competition pool and how that translates to matchups with teams form other regions (and more diversified football strategies). Though I won’t go as far as saying that they’re as much of a potential dud as Michigan this season, given this factor there is some possibility that the Irish might be able to overcome their underdog odds and walk away with a giant win to cap off what’s without a doubt going to be a storied regular season.
So let’s see what the data has to tell us about USC going into the game.
Definite Scoring Advantage to the Trojans
It should come as no surprise to us that a USC program puts a lot of points on the scoreboard. Through twelve weeks of football, USC has outscored Notre Dame 492-341. The Irish have turned their scoring troubles around through the season’s final stretch but the Trojans still have a definitive edge. USC is averaging around 43 total points per game with a season high of 66 in Week 1 (against Rice) and a low of 30 in Week 6 against Washington State.
The Trojans are averaging close to 513 total yards of offense per game. In the middle of the season they hit some roadblocks in this area but have been on somewhat of a yardage tear since Week 7. Their season high of 649 total yards came last week in a shootout with UCLA that they walked away from with a 48-45 win.
Strong Season for Caleb Williams
USC’s passing game has been the main driver of their offensive success. They’re averaging around 331 passing yards per game and hit a high of 470 yards last week against UCLA. The season got off to a slower start for passing but they’ve found their groove now and the Irish secondary is going to be facing its toughest test of the year. If the performances of Benjamin Morrison and the ND squad the last couple of weeks remains intact on the road, though, I’m confident we’ll be up for the challenge.
The Trojan’s sophomore quarterback, Caleb Williams is having a rockstar season. He’s completed 65% of 385 attempts for a whopping 3,480 yards. That passing success has been accompanied by only 3 interceptions but a combined 20 sacks.
Rushing Game as the Secondary Strategy
USC’s ground game had a much more important role in the offensive production earlier in the season. They’re averaging around 192 total rushing yards per game.
In terms of efficiency, they’re getting a little under 5 yards per carry, with the big outlier of 7.4 yards per attempt in the Week 1 rout of Rice.
Senior running back Travis Dye is the Trojan’s definitive rushing standout. Dye is averaging 6.1 yards per carry on 145 attempts and has tallied up 46% (884) of the team’s overall rushing yards. Austin Jones is a close second, averaging 6.2 yards on 73 attempts. Notre Dame’s defense front is firing on all cylinders so maintaining the Trojan’s ground unit doesn’t keep me up at night too much.
A Deep Trojan Receiving Corps
In true Pac-12 form, the Trojan’s boast a really deep receiving corps. For receivers with more than 10 receptions on the year, junior wide receiver Jordan Addison is the leader. Addison is averaging 15 yards per reception on 51 catches. He’s tallied up 22% (765) of the team’s collective receiving yards. The receiving threats can really come from all over the place, though.
Low Odds for Turnovers
For a team that relies so heavily on its offense, USC is really stingy with giving up the ball. Through twelve weeks of play they’ve only racked up 1 lost fumble and thrown 3 interceptions. The Irish defense has been doing some really impressive work forcing turnover late in the season but the odds aren’t in our favor that that’ll continue in the regular season closer.
Porous USC Defense
When your offense is regularly putting up a ton of points, I guess it doesn’t relay matter what your defense does. At least that’s what the Pac-12 philosophy has been for a while now and is largely the case for the 2022 Trojans.
USC’s defense has allowed an average of 405 total yards per game. They’ve progressively gotten worse in this area as the season has pushed along. They allowed a season high of 562 total yards in Week 7 against Utah and gave up 513 last week against UCLA. While ND’s offense isn’t quite as prolific as the opponents that USC has faced, it paints a promising picture for overall success.
The Trojan’s defense has proved comparably more susceptible to opponents’ passing attack (not necessarily the go to for Notre Dame), a there’s limitations for what that means for this matchup given the Pac-12 airing it out philosophy. They’re giving up an average of close to 150 yards on the ground to opponents and let both Stanford and UCLA run for 200+ yards.
It’s definitely going to be a challenge to Notre Dame to walk out of the Coliseum with a W on Saturday.
Our offense is (knock-on-wood) in a place that we don’t have to worry so much about it being a liability instead of an asset. But the defense will be meeting its toughest opponent of the year and the secondary is going to have to play lights out to contain Caleb Williams and the Trojan’s talented receiver corps.
Without a bunch of comparable games to look at, it’s tough to say that just by the numbers the team will pull it out. But we’ve seen some special things through the last leg of this year’s Irish football campaign and I think it’ll go down to the wire but ND pulls some defensive and special teams rabbits out of the hats and finish the season with a strong win.
Cheers and Go Irish!!