Nobody is sure how many starters will return for USC on Saturday, and even if they do, how many will be 100 percent?
The Injuries have hurt USC, but they haven't had a ton of injuries in their front seven until recently. Former Irish recruit Brian Cushing should return, which will help this unit, but they haven't been the dominant unit we've seen in the previous four or five seasons. In fact, think of the Notre Dame pass rush this season. Now understand that the Trojans have just one more sack than Notre Dame on the year.
The Trojans are also banged up in the secondary with a number of players out for the year, and a few more questionable for this game. They have been average this year against the pass, but most teams have been throwing while playing from behind. The Trojans have just five interceptions on the season, so they're not making a ton of plays on pass defense.
USC is ranked very high against the rush, allowing just 66 yards per game, but again, most teams have had to abandon the run early and were forced to throw the football. Still, this unit is stout and stingy when giving up yards or big plays. Teams have scored seven touchdowns on the ground thus far against this unit.
If there was ever a game for misdirection plays, this is it. I've watched USC play a number of times, and while they're very fast, they over-pursue, and they're not a disciplined defense. They will give up plays.
The Trojan offensive line is very beat up heading into this game. Their rushing efficiency has really dropped because of it, as has their pass protection. Last week they had 146 yards rushing and averaged 3.4 yards per carry against Arizona. While not huge numbers, enough to win.
They only rushed for 95 yards against Stanford, and just 2.5 yards per rush.
They amassed just 100 yards and 3.0 yards per carry against Washington.
How much success the Trojans have rushing against Notre Dame will likely depend on which players return along the offensive line. If Notre Dame can make USC one-dimensional, and make the Trojans beat them through the air, they'd have a good chance to win on Saturday.
In the last three games, USC quarterbacks have completed just 58 percent of their passes and have thrown 8 interceptions.
The Trojans also have surrendered 8 sacks and numerous quarterback hurries over the past three games.
The USC offense has converted just 37 percent of their third down opportunities over the last three games.
This is not nearly the dominant USC offense we've seen the previous years. This is a very average unit, but they're also very dangerous as they have skill players who can change the game in a single play. The Irish must keep USC in front of them and make them drive the field. That means a lot of zone coverage on Saturday from the Irish—not something the Irish do well.
The name of the game this week for the Irish defense will be to limit the big plays, keep the ball in front of them, and force USC into field goals instead of touchdowns. If they can do that, they have a great chance to win on Saturday.
The Trojans are pretty average on special teams. They rank in the 70s for the most part on all special teams but net punting (No. 100) and kickoff return defense (No. 27). They're 8-of-9 on field goals this season. They do have speedy return players, so the Irish have to do a great job of shutting them down early before they get going.
USC has committed 29 penalties in the last three games. More important, USC is -1 in turnover margin—something you rarely see from a Pete Carroll-coached team.
The Trojans won a hard-fought battle against Arizona last week after losing a tough game to Stanford the previous week.
The Irish lost a tough game against Boston College last Saturday. The thing that concerns me most is how this team will handle adversity when they're down in this game. All the losing has to take its toll at some point. The Irish have to avoid the "here we go again" mentality to have any chance to win on Saturday. Leadership has to step up during the down times. Watch for that on the field and the sidelines.
USC has plenty of talent, but they play undisciplined football. This is a team that will beat itself if you're patient and get some breaks. Notre Dame will have to eliminate mental mistakes and protect the football.
Mike Frank Prediction: I think the Irish make a game of it. USC is definitely more talented, but they also make a lot of mistakes. I'm not sold on the USC offense, but their defense will be tough to score on.
The Irish will need some turnovers to win, and I do think they'll get a few. Unfortunately, I don't think they'll play well enough to win.
USC: 27 Notre Dame: 21