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Our extensive game preview for USC vs. Notre Dame

The Trojans hope to dance past the Irish and into the upper echelon of the national rankings – as well as New Year’s Six bowl consideration.

Game 12: ‘And All the Rappers in the Top 10, Please Allow Me to Bump Thee’ 

The consensus No. 12 USC Trojans (8-3, 6-2 in the Pac-12) close out the regular season against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (4-7) on Saturday, Nov. 26, at 12:30 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ABC television audience. This is the 88th meeting in college football’s greatest intersectional rivalry, with the Irish holding a 46-36-5 edge after a 41-31 victory in South Bend, Ind., last season. Notre Dame has won four of the past six meetings – but the Trojans hold a 10-5 edge in the 21st century, including a 49-14 destruction in 2014, the most recent Coliseum meeting.

Last Saturday, USC dominated UCLA, 36-14, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The Trojans closed the game on a 29-0 run after the Bruins had capitalized on early USC errors to lead 14-7. Ronald Jones II scored a pair of first-half touchdowns and rushed for 121 yards, while little-used senior DeQuan Hampton caught two Sam Darnold TD passes. The Trojan defense held UCLA to just 55 yards rushing (48 in the first quarter) and to two-of-11 on third downs. Meanwhile, the Irish could not protect two 17-point first-half leads, falling to Virginia Tech, 34-31, at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame outgained the Hokies, 449-419, but the Irish only converted four-of-14 on third down.

USC Coach Clay Helton (14-7 in parts of three seasons) has engineered an incredible turnaround from the Trojans’ 1-3 September. If USC wins Saturday, there are various scenarios in which it is possible it would appear in a New Year’s Six bowl. Notre Dame headman Brian Kelly (230-87-2 in 26 seasons as a collegiate head coach; 59-30 at Notre Dame) is in his seventh – and most difficult – season helming the Irish. The great expectations of September – Notre Dame was on most preseason top-10 lists – turned sour by early October and the Irish haven’t been able to get back on track – though their seven losses have come by a combined total of 32 points.

Notre Dame Offense

Second-year offensive coordinator Mike Sanford – son of the long-time offensive coach who’s had stints at USC and across the college football landscape – was facing the possibility of rebuilding in 2016 with just three returning starters. The Irish have struggled for consistency, often looking like world-beaters in the first quarter, but – just as often – looking confused and easily controlled late in many of their close losses. Predictably, Notre Dame is middling in most national rankings: No. 61 in total offense (418.5 yards per game); No. 55 in scoring (31.3 points per game); No. 78 in rushing (164.2 yards per game); and No. 46 in passing (254.3 yards per game). They’ve been similarly average on third down and in the red zone, and have won the possession time battle in just four games. Notre Dame did solve an expected QB controversy early on, with sophomore DeShone Kizer taking full-time duties ahead of Malik Zaire. Kizer is big and athletic, though he did go through concussion testing after last Saturday’s loss before being cleared. He’s completed 59.3 percent of his passes for 2,705 yards with 24 TDs and eight interceptions. He’s also been a solid running threat, averaging 4.3 yards on 118 carries, with seven TDs (though Irish quarterbacks have been sacked 21 times). Zaire has appeared in seven games, rushing 20 times for an average of 1.7 yards, and completing just eight-of-18 passes.

Six-foot-five sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown has become Kizer’s go-to receiver, averaging 17 yards on a team-leading 51 catches. His eight touchdown grabs also lead the Irish. Junior Torii Hunter Jr. (yes, son of the former Gold Glove outfielder) had been steady (38 catches, 13.7, three scores) before missing the past two games with a knee injury. He’s listed atop the depth chart for Saturday, however. Sprightly sophomore C.J. Sanders has two TDs among his 24 catches (12.2 yards per) and has filled in admirably for Hunter. Freshman Kevin Stepherson averages 18.6 yards on his 23 grabs, with four scores. Junior tight end Durham Smythe also has four TDs – on just nine total catches.

The Irish were hopeful that junior Tarean Folston would bounce back from a 2015 ACL injury to carry the load at running back. He’s missed two games and is averaging 4.5 yards on 71 carries with two touchdowns (he also has seven receptions). He’s seen sophomore Josh Adams take over the starting job. Adams has rushed for 753 yards this season (5.3 per carry) with five TDs, while also catching 19 passes (one score). He’s averaged 6.5 per carry in ND’s past four games.

The Irish also lost three key starters from their stellar 2015 offensive line. Only junior left tackle Mike McGlinchey and sophomore left guard Quenton Nelson returned. Both have started all 11 this season, and they’ve been joined by sophomores Alex Bars at right tackle and Sam Mustipher at center. At right guard, senior Mark Harrell seems to have overtaken junior Colin McGovern (who started eight of the first nine) in recent weeks. This group has struggled for consistency and cohesion.

Notre Dame Defense

When Kelly fired third-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder after the season’s fourth game, no one wondered why. At the time, Notre Dame ranked No. 103 in total defense, No. 100 in scoring defense, No. 98 in rushing defense, and No. 87 in pass defense. Since then, under interim DC Greg Hudson, the Irish have improved – but they’re still not forcing many turnovers (13, No. 99 nationally) or getting in opponents’ backfields (14 sacks, No. 115 nationally; 56 tackles for loss, No. 100).  Operating out of their 4-3 set, they have climbed up the rankings in each of the major categories: total defense (375.8 yards per game, No. 41); scoring defense (26.3 points per game, No. 55); rushing defense (180.2 yards per game, No. 76); and pass defense (195.6 yards per game, No. 29).

Senior defensive end Isaac Rochell is the leader up front, with 52 tackles (seven for loss) and one of the line’s three total sacks. At the other end, junior Andrew Trumbetti (24 tackles) has started six, while sophomore Jonathan Bonner (one start, nine tackles) can rotate in at either spot. Inside, sophomore Jerry Tillery has established himself in 2016 with 34 tackles (three for loss). Senior nose tackle Jarron Jones (38 tackles, two sacks, one interception) returned after missing almost all of 2015 with a knee injury. He split time early on with junior Daniel Cage (10 tackles), who’s missed the past three with a concussion and is questionable for Saturday.

It’s the linebackers who are expected to be the playmakers in ND’s defensive scheme. Hence, it’s no surprise that four of Notre Dame’s five top tacklers are in this group. Junior Nyles Morgan leads the Irish with 87 stops and four sacks. Senior James Onwualu has been Notre Dame’s best linebacker, however, with a team-leading 10.5 tackles for loss (among 70 overall) from one outside spot. Junior Greer Martini (54 tackles, three sacks) and sophomore Te’von Coney (60 stops) have split time at the other outside spot, though Martini is capable of sliding inside, as well. Redshirt freshman Asmar Bilal (25 tackles, one sack) provides depth.

Cornerback Cole Luke must feel like an uncle to his secondary mates. The senior has 44 tackles and is the only Irish player with two interceptions in 2016. Freshman Julian Love (36 tackles, three pass break-ups) has seized the other corner spot, but classmates Donte Vaughn (22 tackles, team-leading six PBUs) and Troy Pride Jr. (eight stops), as well as sophomore Nick Coleman (17 tackles), have seen time as reserves or in the nickel. At safety, sophomore Drue Tranquill (73 tackles, two for loss, one INT) and freshman Devin Studstill (35 stops) have formed a solid duo of late. Senior Avery Sebastian (17 tackles), sophomore Nicco Fertitta (15 stops, and freshman Jalen Elliott (12 tackles) may also see time.

Notre Dame Special Teams

Sophomore Justin Yoon handles the placekicking duties. He’s made 13-of-16 field goals (long of 40, with one blocked) and 41-of-43 PATs. He has 24 touchbacks on 55 kickoffs, as the Irish rank 73rd nationally in kick return defense. Classmate Tyler Newsome handles punts. He averages 42.5 yards per boot, but he’s had two blocked, while the Irish allow 13.9 yards per punt return, No. 121 nationally. Sanders has been dazzling on kickoff returns (25.3 average, two touchdowns) and solid on punt returns (12.5 yards per). Redshirt freshman wideout Chris Finke is a less explosive option.

USC Offensive Gameplan

Grinding. Dominating. Demoralizing. Every word applies to USC’s crushingly efficient effort against the UCLA defense. The Trojans nearly doubled UCLA’s total yards (527 to 266), tripled the Bruins’ first down total (31 to 10), and nearly tripled UCLA’s time of possession (43:47 to 16:13). While two big plays – Jones’ 60-yard TD jaunt and Hampton’s 31-yard TD snag – turned the tide in the second quarter, the Darnold-led performance was epitomized by an 18-play, nine-plus-minute field goal drive that bridging the third and fourth quarters. USC’s efficiency (the Trojans were 12-of-21 on third down against what was the 17th-best third-down defense in the nation) seemed akin to a series of slow drips leading to an eventual flood.

While Jones and Justin Davis led USC to a 260-yard rushing day, Darnold’s mastery of the offense, his vision as both passer and runner, and his fearlessness remain the keys to the Trojans’ 2016 turnaround. Since he took over the starting job in game five, USC is scoring 15 more points per game, gaining 181 more yards per game, and converting 52 percent of third downs (compared to 39.6 percent in the first four). Suffice it to say that while many – this reporter included – hinted that the shift to Darnold from Max Browne reeked of desperation by Helton, they – we – have been proven wrong.

So what about the matchup with the Irish defense? Honestly, Notre Dame is in some trouble. It seems that any opponent’s best hope against USC at this point is to get into the USC backfield early and hope pressure on Darnold leads to turnovers (he’s thrown two interceptions in each of the past two games). The problem? Notre Dame is ineffective in getting (let alone maintaining) pressure or forcing turnovers. Meanwhile, USC is ninth nationally in sacks allowed and No. 12 in tackles-for-loss allowed. That’s not a good recipe for the Irish. While the numbers might point to USC establishing the run, Notre Dame’s decent pass defense numbers have been boosted by a schedule full of teams that are much more interested in running the football. Don’t be surprised to see USC look for some early openings in the downfield passing game – capitalizing on its advantage in team speed – then turning to the tandem of Jones and Davis.

USC Defensive Gameplan

The story was the same for the Trojan defense in Pasadena. After one early breakdown that allowed a 56-yard Jordan Lasley touchdown catch just 90 seconds into the game, USC put the Bruins on lockdown (the Bruins’ second-quarter TD “drive” was nine yards after a Fabian Moreau interception set them up with a first-and-goal). In the second and third quarters combined, UCLA was limited to fewer than 50 yards and a single first down. This defense is playing with a ruthless confidence. What’s ruthless confidence, you ask? Witness Chris Hawkins’ big hit to stop UCLA’s last-gasp, fourth-and-four effort early in the fourth quarter – and his beeline, without celebration, directly to the Trojan bench.

However, the Irish will present a much more complete threat on offense than the Bruins – and that’s thanks, mainly, to Kizer. He’s a solid passer, if a little wild at times, and a physical runner. When he’s on, he not only gets St. Brown involved downfield, but he also opens up running lanes for Adams and Folston. When he struggles, Notre Dame can go long stretches without threatening.

It’s pretty clear, then, that job one for the USC defense is to take away Kizer’s legs and force him to look to his young group of receivers. USC’s defense has allowed just 95.9 rushing yards per game during the Trojans’ seven-game winning streak. There’s no reason to expect them not to keep the Irish running backs in check – unless Kizer gashes them on the ground. Getting the picture? If you make life tough on Kizer, you make life tough on the Irish.

The Pick

With the Irish a disappointing 4-7 and the NCAA decision on Notre Dame’s recent academic scandal landing this week, the pressure on Kelly is at its highest point since his hiring in 2009. Notre Dame began this season – perhaps undeservedly, given the fact that it had just seven returning starters – as a consensus top-10 pick. Much like USC, a troubled September shattered those misconceptions. Unlike the Trojans, the Irish have been unable to find a foothold to turn things around.

Much has been made this week about Notre Dame’s seven losses by eight points or fewer, including four by a field goal and one (to Navy) by a single point. But, look more closely at four of the teams they’ve lost to: 3-8 Michigan State; 4-7 Duke; 5-6 N.C. State; and 5-6 Texas. For that matter, among their wins, only one has come against a team with at least seven wins: Miami, which has won three in a row since their loss to the Irish dropped them to 4-4. While the closeness of the losses has certainly been frustrating to the Irish and their fans, it’s not like they’ve been coming up just short against a bunch of outstanding teams.

Expect Notre Dame to come out extremely fired up, as this Thanksgiving weekend trip may be as close to a bowl as it will get this year. Don’t even be surprised to see the Irish take an early lead. However, unless the Trojans lose their way after becoming more dominant each week during the past two months, they should eventually gain control of the game. Darnold and his bevy of skill position options are easily the most impressive offensive group that Notre Dame’s seen this season. Unless the Irish can turn this one into a shootout – which would go against any reasonable estimation of a USC defense that might be playing even better football than the well-chronicled Trojan offense – it’s unlikely Notre Dame will have to suffer through another close loss.

USC 41, Notre Dame 21

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 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 thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)


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