1) After a 6-0 start and high national ranking with talks of making the college football playoff, the Fighting Irish have lost four of the last five. What went wrong? It seems like ever since that offensive pass interference call in the Florida State game not much has gone right.
Defensively, it's been attrition. The front seven lost middle linebacker Joe Schmidt during the second half of a Nov. 1 win over Navy and has been rudderless since, surrendering 41 (the Irish offense gave up an additional 14 points) to Arizona State, 43 points to Northwestern, and 31 to Louisville.
Along the way, Notre Dame lost a standout cornerback in Cody Riggs (about 30 snaps over the last three games -- all losses -- as he battles a foot injury), its best overall football player in defensive tackle Sheldon Day, and will play USC without starting nose tackle Jarron Jones as well. Already a youth-filled two-deep defensively, the Irish will feature four true freshmen, a redshirt-freshman, a fifth-year senior with one start, and a junior on its defensive line two-deep. Behind them, a freshman middle linebacker making his first start, and two true sophomores -- one of which was a wide receiver last year.
So yeah, Javorius Allen should find some room to roam.
On the offensive side of scrimmage, Notre Dame turned it over a combined nine times in losses to ASU and Northwestern, with two defensive touchdowns the result against the Sun Devils. As important, the Irish turned it over twice at the Northwestern 1-yard line.
As head coach Brian Kelly said, "Turnovers always hurt, but ours are catastrophic."
They also can't hold or kick a field goal as the result of an ill-advised switch from holder Hunter Smith (three dropped snaps, though two in a rain storm vs. Stanford) to redshirt-freshman QB Malik Zaire. The result, along with more bad holds, is that formerly clutch kicker Kyle Brindza is a mental shell of his former self.
2) Injuries appear to be mounting for Notre Dame. Who are some of the key players who are either coming back from injury or questionable for the USC game?
It's mostly on defense where the aforementioned Riggs is in a walking boot this week. He'll try to play Saturday but will be limited at cornerback. (Gotta love a kid with a gimpy foot vs. Nelson Agholor!) Day is out (starting DT), Jones is out (starting NT), and new starting safety Drue Tranquill is out (torn ACL suffered vs. Louisville -- he finished the game, actually). Backup NT Daniel Cage is also questionable, which would matter less if the starter wasn't out.
As a result of the defensive line injuries, true freshman Jay Hayes had his redshirt pulled -- for Game 11.
Fifth-year senior captain Austin Collinsworth will start for the second straight game at safety. He's playing with a shoulder injury, dislocated in mid-October vs. North Carolina. Collinsworth's presence is apparently necessary to align a defense wrought with freshmen and sophomores, but the gritty veteran can't use his left arm to tackle with any semblance of power. (He's playing over 9-game starter Max Redfield, much to the chagrin of Irish fans.)
Conversely, the offense has remained intact and will have to score between 35 and 50 to win Saturday in the Coliseum.
3) Arizona State brought pressure on Everett Golson (blitzing 73% of the time) and forced him into numerous turnovers. How has Golson responded since then and what do you expect from him when he makes his way into the Coliseum?
Blitzed or not, Golson will fumble Saturday, of that I'm certain (he's fumbled 11 times and lost 7). He'll also likely throw an interception (13 over the last 8 games, after zero in his opening three) but those are a bit more forgivable as Kelly has put the onus of the offense on his shoulders and Golson attacks downfield.
He should have been benched (temporarily) multiple times for his carelessness with the football, but invariably he brings the Irish back from holes he's helped create, so perhaps Kelly's stubbornness has been rewarded, albeit in defeat.
A prime example of good Golson vs. bad Golson was present in Game Four against Syracuse: Five turnovers including one Pick Six…but he completed 25 consecutive passes for 319 yards and three scores during one stretch.
It's been both fascinating and frustrating to watch him operate…mostly the latter.
4) USC had a chance for extra motivation on Saturday in its other rivalry game against UCLA. But the Trojans fell flat and didn't look fired up in the least. Do you think the ability to end the season on a high note against a rival will be a motivating factor for the Fighting Irish and help the team step up its level of play?
Notre Dame did one thing well vs. Louisville: to a man, they competed. They just weren't good enough to stop the Cardinals running game or execute offensively when it mattered. (You can blame the kicker, but Notre Dame had 1st-and -Goal at the Louisville 10-yard line to win the game and lost yards instead before botching a 32-yard kick.)
There's no lack of fight in Notre Dame right now. They played poorly vs. Northwestern but could have won (definitely deserved to lose). They played sloppily vs. ASU but fought back from 34-3 to make it 34-31 with under five minutes remaining.
Last week, the spirit was more than willing but the bodies were unable. (Though the defense should be credited for turning Louisville back at the goal line to give the offense a chance to win/tie in the final five minutes.)
They'll play hard for 60 minutes vs. USC -- it's the only reason the game might be close -- which in turn would give the Irish a chance to steal a win, as they're overdue for a late-game break.
5) Notre Dame is playing a lot of young players right now. Any guys you are surprised with how they are playing, either positively or negatively?
Of the 10 true freshmen that play regularly this season, early enrollee Andrew Trumbetti has likely been the most consistent. He's not officially a starter at DE, but they get more out of him in his platoon with Romeo Okwara than they do the latter.
Tranquill (out for the season) was very good as a dime package linebacker before starting at safety for two games where he was a bad fit. Five-star freshmen middle linebacker Nyles Morgan struggled mightily over the last three games -- he's suspended for the first half against the Trojans for a second-half targeting ejection vs. Louisville, so Irish fans will get to see true freshman Greer Martini in his stead.
Notre Dame's true sophomores have shined this season led by speedster Will Fuller who emerged as a playmaking force (14 touchdowns). He's aided by classmates Corey Robinson (red zone weapon) and starting running back Tarean Folston, the team's most improved offensive player from August through today.
Defensively, true sophomores Isaac Rochell (DE), Jaylon Smith (WLB) and Cole Luke (CB) have shined, especially Luke who replaced suspended starter Keivarae Russell. Luke was fantastic vs. both Jaelen Strong of ASU and Louisville's DeVante Parker.
The Luke/Agholor matchup will be a great one -- no Irish fan would have uttered those words in September.
An amazing number to wrap-up this point: 34 of Notre Dame's 40 regular contributors are set to return for 2015, including all but three full-time starters (TE, RT, LCB).
Ryan Abraham has been the publisher of USCFootball.com since 1996. You can follow him on Twitter at @InsideTroy or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org .