Who, and What, to Watch?

Notre Dame’s biennial October matchup with USC in South Bend offers a mixed bag of storylines for Irish fans to follow Saturday night.

1 – Familiarity Breeds Contempt: Rarely does a game week fan or media-fueled theme come to fruition between the lines, but USC’s 49-14 mercy-killing of the Irish last November left a lasting impression – one that’s been festering since. And not only among vengeful Notre Dame fan base, but from the competitors that will actually determine the outcome Saturday night.

“They pushed us around a lot last year,” said Irish star receiver Will Fuller. “We know they don’t have any respect for us. We have to earn our respect back.”

Fuller offered last December that while the Trojans were clearly the better team, the tenor of the contest in Los Angeles was determined more by the disengaged Irish.

In a contest that includes one of the nation’s best quarterbacks (USC’s Cody Kessler), two of its best receivers (Fuller and Trojans sophomore JuJu Smith), and a breakthrough runner (Notre Dame senior C.J. Prosise), the chief storyline might ultimately be the programs’ mutual dislike.

2 – Nickel and Dimed: Almost 60 days have passed since Notre Dame freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford was lost for the season due to a knee injury. Saturday’s contest could signify the first that the rookie’s absence bears fruit for the foe.

Though USC is likely down a starting receiver (Stevem Mitchell), the Irish are without their slot defender of choice in Crawford, and Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler is well equipped (and best equipped among the Irish slate) to take advantage of Notre Dame’s yet-to-be exploited weakness in that regard. Look for junior Devin Butler – a starter among the main victims in last season’s blowout – to be put to the test tonight at left corner as senior KeiVarae Russell shifts inside.

3 – On the Fast Track? For the first time since the new millennium, the team speed advantage between Notre Dame and USC might reside in South Bend. But the less glamorous than usual Trojans have nonetheless surrendered just three plays in excess of 40 yards this season. Conversely, Notre Dame has earned its stripes thanks to big chunk plays, producing 10 in excess of 40 yards to date including seven courtesy senior running back C. J. Prosise.

Look for Prosise and senior receiver Will Fuller to both hit the Trojans defense for plays down the field Saturday night.

4 – Hopefully Nothing Special:  He can run and he can catch (as evidenced by a 16-yard untouched touchdown vs. the Irish last November). And he can cover and compete – just ask the myriad professional scouts that have dissected Adoree Jackson’s every move since he stepped on campus in Los Angeles.

Still, it’s Jackson’s third threat that has Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly on high alert this week.

“We know why he’s in the game offensively, right? He’s either gonna be featured or he is a decoy. It’s one or the other,” said Kelly. “Defensively he’s one of their corners. He got great makeup speed – certainly a guy that is a cover corner. He’s not a guy that’s going to be rolled up and look to tackle, but he’s a cover guy. We know his makeup in those two areas.

“It’s the special teams where he changes the game,” Kelly continued. “Considerably changes the game with his kickoff return and punt return ability. You have to game plan him there more so than in the other two areas. He’s an outstanding player as an offensive player and as a defensive corner, don’t get me wrong, but you really have to game plan him in ST.”

I have a hunch Jackson will be featured heavily on offense Saturday night as former offensive coordinator Clay Helton puts his stamp on the proceedings as interim head coach.

5 – Touchdown #2: It’s a statistic former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka would have deemed “Idiotic.” But its relevance should not be ignored. That is: if Notre Dame scores the second touchdown tomorrow night – not necessarily the first, though that’s clearly preferred as well – it will likely march onward to victory.

They’re 28-5 in such scenarios during the Kelly era.

While the first score buoys confidence, the second generally sets the tone for the rest of the contest. When trailing and scoring the second touchdown, a 7-0 (or 10-0) deficit is greatly mitigated by the second trip to pay dirt (tied at 7 or 10-7, etc.).

And when the team that takes a 7-0 lead likewise posts the second touchdown, well, it’s 14-0 and trouble is afoot for the trailing.

Touchdown No. 2 – something to watch Saturday night in South Bend.

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