Irish look to stay perfect against floundering Trojans
Notre Dame-USC ranks among the most historic college football rivalries, both in terms of longevity and its impact on the sport's landscape throughout generations. The 2018 installment has the potential to be a turning-point moment for both programs.
The Fighting Irish arrive in Los Angeles at 11-0, competing for a perfect regular season and, presumably, their first-ever berth into the College Football Playoff. With Notre Dame playing its most complete football of the Brian Kelly era, this team has the look of a viable national championship contender. The Irish's 30-year title drought may reach a conclusion in 2018, but Notre Dame cannot slip up against a desperate USC.
To deem the Trojans' 2018 a disappointment would be an understatement. Picked to repeat as Pac-12 South champion, USC is instead attempting to avoid its first sub-.500 finish in almost two decades, and possibly playing for the fate of head coach Clay Helton.
Despite their disparate positions on the season, Saturday's rivalry showdown at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum has immeasurable significance for both programs.
Notre Dame at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Book it
Notre Dame's offense came alive after the first month of the season, thanks in part to Ian Book taking over at quarterback. Book replaced the struggling Brandon Wimbush (who has since found a situational role in the offense), and his dual-threat ability gives an explosive dimension to the Notre Dame offense more comparable to Brian Kelly's Cincinnati teams than any of his previous Irish squads.
Book's ability as a rusher takes on particular importance this week against a USC defense that has struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks. In Week 1 against UNLV, Armani Rogers rushed for 97 yards and two touchdowns in a contest that set the tone for the season. The Trojans have not been as badly gashed by a running quarterback, but the ability of a quarterback to take off impacts the Trojans in other ways.
For example, Tyler Huntley of Utah ran for 33 yards and a touchdown against USC. Having to spy Huntley opened opportunities for Zack Moss, who averaged 5.4 yards per carry en route to 136 in total. The threat of the run also opened the field for the pass. UCLA had similar effectiveness last week, allowing unlikely ball-carrier Wilton Speight to break off a big touchdown run and crucial fourth-down conversion, while Joshua Kelley pounded for 289 yards.
With Book's ability to take off and run, it should keep USC from keying in on Dexter Williams; Williams should be primed for a big evening as a result.
2. Interception opportunities
The outstanding play of Notre Dame's secondary this season has contributed to a sub-60 percent completion rate for opponents and double the amount of interceptions (12) compared to touchdowns allowed (6). USC quarterback JT Daniels has put up some impressive numbers at times in his debut campaign, but also been prone to costly picks. He interceptions in both the Cal and UCLA games that led directly to game-winning scores.
With the greedy Jalen Elliott in Notre Dame's secondary, the high-reward deep shots from the USC offense take on a higher risk. Daniels is also likely to see significant pressure, a driving force in Notre Dame's takeaways. The veteran defensive front of Julian Okwara, Jerry Tillery, Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem may be the best unit the Trojans offensive line will have seen in 2018.
3. Line play
That experience and size on the Notre Dame defensive line provides the catalyst for all the success of the Fighting Irish defense. The line's responsibility for 25 tackles for loss pushes opposing offenses behind the chains when attempting to run the ball, and contributes to the takeaway numbers against the pass.
The USC offensive line has had its issues this season, most notably the botched snap exchanges between Daniels and center Toa Lobendahn. However, Austin Jackson and Chuma Edoga have progressed at tackle throughout the campaign, and Chris Brown's been solid at guard. But Saturday will test USC perhaps more than any other matchup this year, particularly with Edoga potentially sidelined.
On the flip side, the loss of Porter Gustin eliminated USC's most consistent pass-rush threat. That void's accentuated in a week USC takes on one of the best offensive lines in college football, despite considerable turnover from a year ago. Notre Dame's offensive front is up for the Joe Moore Award, given to the nation's premier line.
With this being arguably the best Notre Dame of the Brian Kelly era, and measurably USC's worst team in almost two decades, there's a clear mismatch heading into Saturday's contest. The various buzz surrounding the Trojans and the future of coach Clay Helton could make this the kind of game in which an initial hole turns into a huge blowout.
At the same time, the prospect of getting bowl eligible and spoiling a rival's big plans will keep USC fighting. The Trojans have struggled in 2018, but quitting has not been an issue. This would not be the week to start.
USC would need to come out and build a multiple-score by halftime to be able to realistically pull the upset. The Trojans have been excellent in first halves, and dismal in most second halves. Following that same trend, USC should hang around until intermission. Notre Dame's physicality on both lines, and the multifaceted play-making of the offense, will wear the Trojans down in the second.
Prediction: Notre Dame 41, USC 20