The Notre Dame Fighting Irish and USC Trojans renew their rivalry amidst disappointing seasons for both programs. Both teams are 4-2, yet expectations were bigger for two teams full of talented players. They will face off on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend on NBC.
The Trojans appeared rejuvenated last week under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, earning a 38-31 victory over Arizona. It's the 85th meeting in the series, with the Irish holding a 44-35-5 edge, including wins in two of the past three games. Last season, the Irish completed a perfect regular season with a 22-13 victory against the Matt Barkley-less Trojans in the Coliseum.
Three Things to Watch
Tre Madden & Company vs. McDaniel-Atkinson III
Both teams like to run the football and both do it well. The Trojans boast a four-headed monster of Madden, Justin Davis, Javorius Allen and Silas Redd. Madden leads the team with 611 yards, while Davis has six touchdowns and Allen averages 5.8 yards per carry. The four backs average a staggering 5.6 yards per carry. Notre Dame's running backs are no slouches either. Atkinson has been a home run threat for the Irish. He has a game-breaking 80-yard touchdown against Oklahoma, a game in which he rushed for 148 yards on 14 carries. Cam McDaniel is the Irish's tough, inside runner. He piled up 82 rushing yards against Arizona State, picking up key first downs all along the way. Whatever rushing attack can dictate tempo and keep pressure of their inconsistent quarterbacks will likely see their team come out victorious.
Health of Marqise Lee and Morgan Breslin
USC was without its best offensive and defensive player last week, as Lee missed due to a knee injury and Breslin sat out due to a hip problem. Both remain questionable for this week, but if they can play, it would be a huge boost for the Trojans. Lee will be able to give Cody Kessler an option opposite Nelson Agholor against a questionable Irish secondary. Breslin is the Trojans' best pass rusher and a key presence to get consistent pressure versus a tough Irish offensive line.
Kessler or Rees?
Both quarterbacks weren't the first option for these programs in the offseason; however, both have been forced into significant action this season. Kessler finally edged out Max Wittek a few weeks into the season, while Rees is playing because of the suspension of Everett Golson. Both quarterbacks have had their troubles with turnovers; however, each has played well at times. Kessler threw for a season-high 297 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. USC will try to lean on its strong running game, which averages five yards a rush, but could struggle against Notre Dame's stingy front seven. This is a major reason that opposing teams throw the ball 57 percent of plays against Notre Dame. If this is the case, Kessler could be asked to make more plays than usual. Rees has been the definition of inconsistent as he has three games with a combined six interceptions and three games without any. He must protect the ball for Notre Dame to stay in control of this game.
Key Players: TJ Jones and Davaris Daniels, WR, Notre Dame
With all the talk about USC's wide receivers, many forgot the talented corps that Notre Dame has. Jones has 33 catches for 481 yards and four touchdowns, while Daniels has 25 catches for 385 yards and four touchdowns. Both are big play threats as Jones averages 14.6 yards per catch and Daniels averages 15.4 yards per reception. Jones is coming off an eight-catch 135-yard game against Arizona State in which he caught an eight-yard touchdown.
Even though USC looked much more loose under Ed Orgeron, they aren't as complete a team as the fighting Irish. The Irish have all the skill players the Trojans do, but Notre Dame also has a talented front seven on defense led by Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix. I think Notre Dame stuffs the USC running game and forces Kessler to beat them, which is bad news for Trojans fans.
Prediction: Notre Dame 24, USC 17