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“Notre Dame is terrible, losers of four of their last six." “They have absolutely no chance of beating USC at the Coliseum on Saturday." These are probably thoughts among the USC fan base right now. If USC wants to finish 9-3, they need to be careful of falling into that trap. At 33rd overall in S&P+, Notre Dame is USC’s fourth best opponent this season behind Alabama (1st), Washington (6th), and Colorado (14th). The biggest loss Notre Dame has suffered this season is by 8 points to a bad Michigan State team. But at the same time, Notre Dame has only beaten one team higher than 90th in S&P+ and that’s Miami at 19th. So how does USC avoid a letdown on Saturday and finish the season off on a high note while hoping Utah can pull the upset in Boulder later in the day?
Let Sam sling it
Notre Dame has one of the worst pass defenses in FBS at 98th overall. That’s especially awful given the best passing offense the Fighting Irish have faced so far is 48th Virginia Tech. The Notre Dame defense also ranks 109th in success rate (preventing offenses from being efficient), 74th in preventing explosive plays, and 110th in adjusted sack rate (the ability to get to the QB weighted by opponent, situation, and number of pass attempts). Why is this good for USC? The Trojans rank second in the nation in Passing S&P+, seventh in success rate, a ghastly 103rd in explosiveness, and fifth in the country in adjusted sack rate. Darnold should have a field day picking apart the incredibly weak Notre Dame pass defense and it seems like he’ll have plenty of time in the pocket to do so. Now this doesn’t mean that USC should abandon the run entirely; rather, it should have even more confidence in the passing game come Saturday. Where the running game will excel will not be in generating explosive runs, but getting chunk plays and being efficient: USC’s rush offense ranks 33rd, while Notre Dame’s rush defense ranks 50th.
Where do the advantages lie for the Defense?
The USC defense now up to 15th in the country in S&P+ is still very weak at limiting explosive plays, which reared its ugly head very quickly in the game vs UCLA last week. However, it excels at limiting an opponent's efficiency at 13th in the country. Looking at the run game, the Trojans defense shouldn’t have any trouble at stopping the Notre Dame running attack, as it outranks Notre Dame in explosiveness (60th vs. 98th), efficiency(18th vs. 40th), and overall S&P+(8th vs 38th). The same holds true in the passing game for overall S&P+(10th vs. 50th) and efficiency (17th vs 47th); however, the numbers tilt in Notre Dame’s favor when you look at explosiveness (97th vs 43rd). While the defensive performance should be relatively strong, don’t be surprised if Equinameous St. Brown, who is averaging 10.8 yards per target and 17 yards per catch, breaks a big play.
An additional component to keep an eye out for is the struggling Notre Dame pass protection. That unit has yielded 19 sacks of quarterback Deshone Kizer leading to that 110th adjust sack rate ranking. USC’s pass rush also struggles there, only mustering a performance good enough for an adjusted sack rate ranking of 106th. While this might help Porter Gustin and company gain some quarterback sacks, it won’t necessarily improve their adjusted sack rate rating, given how poor of a job Notre Dame does protecting its signal-caller.
Don’t be surprised if this game gets out of hand, as long as the Trojans continue executing their game plan as they have in recent weeks. The offense should continue taking what the defense gives them, which appears to be quite a few yards and points via the pass game. The defense should continue to force the opposing offense to come up with big plays, as they’ll prevent them from getting multiple first downs.
(stats provided by footballstudyhall.com)
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Saman Djabbari graduated from USC in 2008 and is a weekly contributor to uscfootball.com and co-host of the Traveler Hates Thursdays' podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @samandjabbari.