For just the 12th time in history, both the Trojans and Irish are unranked heading into the rivalry showdown. Which squad will close a tough regular season on a high note?
The USC Trojans (7-4, 6-3 Pac-12 South) wrap up the 2014 regular season by hosting the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (7-4) on Saturday, November 29 at 12:30 p.m. PST in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national FOX television audience. It’s the 86th meeting in college football’s greatest intersectional rivalry, with the Irish holding a 45-35-5 edge, thanks to victories in three of the past four battles. A year ago in South Bend, the Irish held off the Trojans in a sloppy 14-10 verdict, and in the previous Coliseum meeting (2012), then-No. 1 Notre Dame defeated USC 22-13, notching its second consecutive win over Troy in Los Angeles.
A week ago, the Trojans were outplayed, outcoached and out-desired by crosstown rival UCLA in a 38-20 defeat at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. After linebacker Anthony Sarao returned an interception for a 17-yard score on the Bruins’ opening drive to stake USC to an early lead, UCLA dominated the Trojans in every facet – outgaining USC 461-276, sacking quarterback Cody Kessler six times, and exposing the back end of the USC defense time and again. Meanwhile, the Irish suffered their third-consecutive setback, dropping a 31-28 decision to Louisville at Notre Dame Stadium. ND kicker Kyle Brindza missed a 32-yard field goal that would have tied the game with 51 seconds remaining in regulation.
Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (7-4 at USC, 41-33 career) is in his first season at USC after spending the past five years at Washington. Sarkisian spent seven years as a USC assistant under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08). In South Bend, Notre Dame headman Brian Kelly (215-76-2 in 24 seasons as a collegiate head coach, 44-19 at ND) is in his fifth season with the Irish. While the return of starting quarterback Everett Golson from academic issues that forced him to sit out 2013 has given the Irish offense a much needed boost, Golson’s also had his share of trouble with ball security. Those turnover issues plus a rash of losses on the defensive side of the ball have turned the Irish season sour in the past six weeks. Can Notre Dame recover and finish on a strong note against the Trojans?
Notre Dame Offense
First-year offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock has had some solid success with the Irish attack, even though Golson is working with a relatively young and inexperienced group of skill performers. Notre Dame’s numbers have improved impressively from the struggles of 2013, as the Irish – through 11 games – are scoring seven more points per game, gaining 42.5 more yards per game, and earning 4.5 more first downs per game than they did a season ago. Notre Dame has also improved in the red zone and in time of possession. Much of the credit goes to Golson, who has made ND much more explosive. He’s completing 61.1 percent of his throws, averaging 298.2 yards passing per game (the Irish rank 16th nationally in pass offense), and has thrown for 29 TDs. He’s also Notre Dame’s second-leading rusher, with 291 yards and a team-leading eight TDs on the ground – though he’s been sacked 23 times. The problem: turnovers. Golson has thrown 13 interceptions and lost seven fumbles – 20 of the Irish’s 24 total turnovers in 2014. Notre Dame’s turnover total ranks No. 108 nationally.
The Irish were faced with the graduation of 2013 leading receiver T.J. Jones before junior DeVaris Daniels – the top candidate to take over a leadership role – was ruled ineligible due to ongoing questions surrounding academics. But a crew of solid performers has stepped into the breach, led by Will Fuller. The speedy sophomore leads ND with 66 catches for 962 yards (14.6 average) and 14 TDs, which ranks second nationally. After Fuller, big target Corey Robinson, the sophomore son of former NBA superstar David Robinson, has five TDs among 37 grabs, while junior Chris Brown has 33 snags. Tight end Ben Koyack (28 catches, 10.5 per, two TDs) and slot receivers C.J. Prosise (24 catches, a team-leading 18.2 average, two TDs) and Amir Carlisle (19 catches, 14.4, three TDs) are also among Golson’s top targets. Carlisle, you may remember, was a Trojan reserve tailback in 2011.
Sophomore Tarean Folston has become the featured runner for the Irish. His 150 carries are more than twice as many as any other ND running back, and he’s averaging 5.3 yards per with five TDs. He’s fast and powerful – and also a threat as a pass catcher, with 14 grabs (11.8 yards per). Senior Cam McDaniel, an Irish captain, led the Irish in rushing a season ago, but has been less effective in 2014 (3.6 yards per carry on 73 tries, four TDs). Redshirt freshman Greg Bryant provides another rarely used option (45 carries, 4.6 yards per).
Notre Dame’s offensive line has been stable throughout 2014, especially after a couple of minor shifts prior to a Sept. 27 game against Syracuse. However, they’ve struggled to protect Golson at times and the Irish rushing attack is off a bit from its 2013 performance – even with a stronger passing threat. The starting five includes: sophomore LT Ronnie Stanley; junior LG Nick Martin (a captain); junior C Matt Hegarty; sophomore RG Steve Elmer; and senior RT Christian Lombard, who has started 30 games for the Irish.
Notre Dame Defense
First-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (who took over for Bob Diaco, now the head coach at Connecticut) has seen his Irish defense decimated by injury. Only four players have started all 11 games on defense – and one of those, starting nose tackle Jarron Jones, suffered a season-ending foot injury a week ago. Notre Dame’s defense played well early on under VanGorder, who worked for Rex Ryan with the New York Jets a season ago and has split time between college and the NFL for much of the past 15 years. The Irish play with a lot of multiple looks, so though they are listed as a traditional 4-3, it’s not rare to see them with three down linemen, or in various nickel or dime packages. All of the injuries have led to some very youthful lineups of late — nine different true freshmen have played on defense for the Irish this season — and, accordingly, Notre Dame has allowed at least 30 points in six straight games (242 total over those six, an average of 40.3).
Up front, with Jones out for the year and stellar junior captain and defensive tackle Sheldon Day (38 stops, 7.5 for loss) also ruled out this week, the Irish are low on depth and experience at the tackle spots. At one tackle, senior Justin Utupo (17 stops) will be backed by freshman Jay Hayes (who was slated to redshirt until injuries forced him into the rotation last week). At nose tackle redshirt freshman Jacob Matsuka (six tackles in five games in 2014) will take the helm, while reserve freshman Daniel Cage (10 games, three tackles) is also questionable due to injury. The news is slightly better at the end spots, where sophomore Isaac Rochell (36 stops, 7.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks) and junior Romeo Okwara (a team leading four sacks among 27 tackles) are ready to go. Freshman Andrew Trumbetti is also a factor off the edge.
Perhaps Notre Dame’s most crushing injury in 2014 was losing junior middle linebacker Joe Schmidt during the Navy game on Nov. 1. Before suffering a season-ending ankle injury, Schmidt led the team with 65 stops. He was replaced for much of the past three games by freshman Nyles Morgan (32 stops), who has shown signs of his inexperience. Morgan will miss the first half of Saturday’s action after being ejected for targeting in the second half against Louisville. His replacement is another freshman, Greer Martini, who has 21 tackles on the season. The big positive at linebacker: sophomore Butkus Award finalist Jaylon Smith. The weaksider is Notre Dame’s top playmaker, with 89 tackles (7.5 for loss) two sacks and a forced fumble. On the strong side, sophomore (and converted receiver) James Onwualu (20 tackles) is a starter, but also the first Irish LB off the field in nickel sets.
Injuries have also wracked the Irish secondary. At one corner, ND has nursed senior Cody Riggs through a foot injury in recent weeks and hopes to get about 30 plays out of him Saturday. He has 33 tackles and one interception. At the other corner, sophomore Cole Luke has been outstanding for a player thrown into the fire after two-year starter Kei’Varae Russell was suspended as part of the academics issue. He has 40 tackles and is tied for the team lead with four picks. At one safety spot, junior Matthias Farley (43 tackles, 3.5 sacks, four interceptions) and sophomore Max Redfield (49 tackles) have been the statistical leaders. But captain Austin Collinsworth (11 stops), who has been held back by a shoulder injury suffered against North Carolina in early October, appears slated to start – merely because he can help the young linebackers line up the Irish defense. Don’t be shocked to see plenty of Farley and Redfield in coverage spots, especially in nickel and dime sets. Junior Elijah Shumate (51 tackles) patrols the other safety position.
Notre Dame Special Teams
Brindza handles the kicking and punting duties for the Irish. After a stellar career, a series of problems with holders seems to have given Brindza a case of the yips. He’s just 13-of-22 on field goals this season and has missed five of his past eight tries, including crucial misses in Notre Dame’s last two losses. He’s been excellent on kickoffs (46 touchbacks in 73 tries) and solid as a punter (41.8 yards per). Carlisle is the top Irish kick returner, but has been merely serviceable (averaging 22.1 yards). Bryant, the third-string running back, has taken over for the hobbled Riggs on punt returns and is averaging an impressive 13.6 yards on seven chances.
USC Offensive Gameplan
What was that? Physical blunders and baffling coaching decisions certainly didn’t help the Trojans’ cause against a fired-up UCLA defense. And yet, there USC was – down 17-14 and driving late in the second quarter before more Bruins’ pressure forced a rushed Kessler pass that was ruled (by Pac-12 field and replay officials) an interception by UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks. From that point forward, the game was all Bruins – and Kessler found himself running for his life.
How exactly a UCLA defense that was languishing near the bottom of the conference with 16 total sacks entering the game got to Kessler six times, I’m not sure. How the Trojans decided to pass on points on an early fourth down inside the UCLA red zone remains unclear – especially after USC gave fullback Soma Vainuku his first carry in months on third-and-two. And what of Nelson Agholor’s struggles? The normally sure-handed junior muffed a first-quarter punt, leading to UCLA’s first TD, and then dropped what looked like a sure TD pass later in the quarter, killing more USC momentum.
How can the battered and confused USC offense get well? Saturday’s Notre Dame defense could be a key ingredient. Also, remember: Saturday’s tilt will be the first in the Coliseum since 2008 where USC has the services of its regular starting quarterback. The big question: should USC run hard at the Irish’s nearly neutered defensive middle? Or will the Trojans attack a Notre Dame secondary that – even before its struggles in the past six weeks – wasn’t exactly filled with world-beaters? After the confused mess of last week’s scheme, expect the Trojans to go back to what had been working in previous games – using the pass to set up the run. The Trojans’ outside speed remains vastly superior to ND’s, and Agholor, George Farmer and Juju Smith could make some big plays. This would leave things wide open for Javorius “Buck” Allen, who must be champing at the bit to run downhill on the Irish front seven.
USC Defensive Gameplan
After Sarao’s early interception and a solid stop on the Bruins’ next possession, Agholor’s fumble seemed to take the early steam out of the USC defense. As the Trojans settled back into coverage – clearly fearing Brett Hundley’s rushing ability – UCLA picked them apart out of the zone-read, passing and running effectively from sideline to sideline. Then, when USC was perfectly primed, Hundley would strike down the middle – and the heart of the Trojan defense was, quite simply, unprepared. Time and again, safeties Leon McQuay, John Plattenburg and Gerald Bowman found themselves woefully out of position and unable to stop Bruin scoring plays.
The good news is that the Trojans escaped the Rose Bowl as a fairly healthy group on defense. The bad news is that Golson provides USC with yet another challenge that the Trojans haven’t succeeded much against in recent years – a solid passer with outstanding running capabilities. Not only that, but the Irish receiving corps compares favorably with the Bruins’ group – versatile, with both size and speed. The Irish will put up points in this game.
How many? USC’s keys to keeping that number down are: account for Folston in the ground game; and, most importantly, get after Golson. During Notre Dame’s recent struggles, the Irish haven’t been able run the football consistently against their three most capable opponents – totaling just 297 rushing yards against Florida State, Arizona State and Louisville. What’s more, they’re averaging just 2.9 yards per carry in those contests. And while Golson is capable with his legs, he isn’t as enamored of running as Hundley and his decision-making skills in the pocket have led to more than a few coverage sacks in 2014. Additionally, he’s been a turnover machine, as noted above. Slow Folston and hit Golson early and often.
The taste in Trojan fans’ mouths after last week’s shellacking at the hands of the Bruins is bitter. Yes, the Trojans are currently at the nadir of NCAA sanctions’ effects on their depth. And, yes, USC’s 42 wins since the start of its sanctions era remain impressive when compared historically against other programs that took similar hits (Alabama and Miami in the 1990s). But USC fans expected more from the team a week ago – fair or not – and definitely expected more from a coaching staff whose job is not only to prepare the team physically, but mentally as well. USC, for a second-straight year, appeared to lose interest against the Bruins well before the final gun.
Now, they get the Irish, who have bounced back from USC’s eight-game winning streak from 2001-08 to take three of the past four contests in this historic series. Kelly has stabilized the Notre Dame program during his five seasons and returned intrigue to the rivalry. And though the Irish have been beaten four times in their past five outings in 2014 – and suffered one injury after another on defense – Notre Dame has competed for 60 minutes (and more) in each of those games. There has been no quit in the Irish.
Will the Trojans see Saturday as an opportunity to prove themselves after last week’s disappointment? Or will they struggle again. We should have the answer pretty early on. The Trojans have been one of America’s best first-quarter teams – while the Irish have struggled in the opening stanza. USC needs to keep that front-runner mentality going this week. If the Trojans get an early jump, the Irish won’t quit, but it will be awful tough for them to complete a comeback with their defense’s physical limitations.
USC 38, Notre Dame 28
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).