USC's transformation under head coach Lincoln Riley has pretty much gone according to plan with a spot in next week's Pac-12 Championship Game already secure and the Trojans in position to get into the College Football Playoff. However, standing between them and those goals is a home date with historic rival Notre Dame, a team that has gotten its act together after a rough start under first-year head coach Marcus Freeman.
USC (10-1, 8-1 Pac-12) enters the weekend ranked sixth in the College Football Playoff rankings with two more games to impress the selection committee. Notre Dame's record (8-3) may not be what Fighting Irish fans had hoped for prior to this season, but the team has won eight of nine after starting 0-2, including convincing victories over Clemson and North Carolina, the two teams that will play in next week's ACC Championship Game. As a result, the Irish have climbed to 15th in the playoff rankings, which is a good thing for the Trojans' résumé, provided they win.
There's also the fact that Notre Dame has defeated USC four straight times to increase its lead in this rivalry series to 48-36-5. But those four wins came with Brian Kelly calling the shots for the Irish (and Clay Helton leading the Trojans), and now it's Freeman in charge. This is it for Notre Dame until the bowl invites are handed out while USC has more business to attend to next Friday in Las Vegas, but the Trojans know they can't get caught looking ahead if they want any shot of playing for the national title. In other words, it's pretty much business as usual for this rivalry.
No. 15 Notre Dame at No. 6 USC
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
An early season-ending injury to Tyler Buchner thrust Drew Pyne into the starting quarterback role, and the sophomore has made the most of his opportunity. He's put up solid numbers (61.8 percent completion rate, 19 TDs, 5 INTs), but most importantly, he's 8-1 as the starter. He doesn't post prolific passing numbers (170.3 ypg), but he's been what this offense has needed to find stability and turn things around after starting 0-2.
Pyne has faced some good defenses (namely Clemson), but he also hasn't been asked to do a lot and is still relatively inexperienced. USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch would be wise to try and exploit Pyne's youthfulness by dialing up the pressure and hope his unit can continue to be opportunistic. The Trojans have generated 24 takeaways this season (fifth in the FBS), including 18 interceptions, the most of any team in the country. The problem is that the rest of the numbers (257.8 passing ypg allowed, 17 TDs) aren't that great, as USC has been surviving with a "bend extremely far, but don't break" strategy.
One player the Trojans definitely need to account for is tight end Michael Mayer. The Irish's leading receiver (59 rec., 711 yds., 7 TDs) and one of the best in the nation at his position, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Mayer is particularly a handful in the red zone. Outside of Jayden Thomas (3), no other Irish player has more than two touchdown catches, so Pyne clearly looks for his tight end when he gets close to the end zone.
The other part of the equation for Notre Dame's offense is the ground game, which also found its footing once Pyne took over at quarterback. During its current five-game winning streak, the Irish have run for 220-plus yards in each contest except against Navy (66 yds. on 34 carries). Audric Estime (782 yds., 11 TDs) and Logan Diggs (698, 2) have been the primary ground gainers, but Pyne (119, 2) can make things happen with his legs too.
The Trojans haven't stopped teams on the ground either (147.2 rushing ypg allowed, 21 TDs), but not many can keep up with USC's explosive offense. So the key for Grinch and his charges is to limit Notre Dame's big plays, force some turnovers, and make the Irish settle for field goals instead of touchdowns when they get in the red zone.
When USC Has the Ball
If it seems like this particular section is shorter than the others, that's because it is. USC's offense has been prodigious throughout 2022. Even with the heart of the team, Travis Dye, going down with a season-ending leg injury at the worst possible time, fellow running back (and intra-conference transfer) Austin Jones found a way to pick up Dye's contributions and added a little of his own. That's really been the story of this USC team. Riley has found a way to make sure everyone on this offense has their day in the sun, contributes, and feels good about what they bring to the table.
USC just needs to stay the course on offense. The Heisman Trophy campaign is in full motion for quarterback Caleb Williams, who is considered by some (The Athletic) as the clear-cut front-runner. But just like his team, Williams has two more chances to impress the voters, the first coming against a Notre Dame defense that has improved as the season's gone on. During the five-game winning streak, the Irish have held teams to 18.2 points and 280.4 yards per contest. And these numbers are inflated quite a bit by the 32 points and 363 yards (255 rushing) given up to Navy a couple of weeks ago. Along those lines, quality of competition faced certainly is a factor, as this will by far be the most potent offense Notre Dame's D has faced since the season-opening loss to Ohio State when the Buckeyes scored 21 points and totaled 395 yards.
Besides racking up the numbers (3,480 passing yards, 33 TDs), Williams and the entire Trojans offense have done an excellent job of protecting the ball. Even though USC is averaging 43 points and 513 yards per game (third and second in the nation, respectively), there have been just four turnovers (3 INTs). Creating takeaways is not the Irish's strong suit in the first place (13 total), but one thing this defense can do is get to the quarterback (33 sacks), so that's something to keep an eye on. The Trojans have given up 21 sacks, but Williams also is 16th in the country in pass attempts (385 in 11 games).
USC has come too far for anything else. Riley will have the Trojans focused on Notre Dame and only Notre Dame. The Pac-12 Championship Game is next week, and next week doesn't matter this week. The Trojans don't need any extra reminders, though. Notre Dame week comes with its own set of expectations and everyone from Williams to the student assistants knows their responsibilities during this week. Williams followed Riley here to win the biggest games on the biggest stages, and a completely sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against your biggest rival certainly qualifies.
Even with their good, but not great, season, the Irish are going to be a tough out. Freeman will know that he can wipe out the filth of the Marshall loss with the savory victory of a Trojan defeat. Whether or not Notre Dame can deliver said defeat is an entirely different matter. USC will be ready for absolute war against the Irish and Freeman should expect nothing but Riley's best. The Trojans know this is the path to taking that next step and they appear ready to take it.
Prediction: USC 38, Notre Dame 26
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— Written by Kane Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.
*Price as of publication.