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Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. USC Trojans Preview and Prediction

Clay Helton

Clay Helton

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The biggest news regarding this year’s Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh may be that Notre Dame will enter the game with the prospect of having to vacate wins from two seasons. After being popped for an academic cheating scandal, the Fighting Irish could have their 2012 (undefeated regular season) and ’13 seasons wiped from the record books. That’s a total of 21 wins and a BCS National Championship Game appearance at risk, although Notre Dame has said it will appeal what it deems “excessive” penalties. Then again, that BCS title game appearance (42-14 loss to Alabama on Jan. 7, 2013) isn’t exactly something Irish supporters want to be reminded about. As to what all of this “noise” means for this game, it’s simply this: Brian Kelly and his team have been slightly humiliated this week, which can make for a dangerous opponent.

The Irish are 4-7 on the year and won’t be playing in a bowl, but they still have enough talent to beat an 8-3 USC team. The Trojans have completely turned things around since starting the season 1-3. A big part of that revitalization was the introduction of Sam Darnold as the starting quarterback. Even though Notre Dame has a losing record, it hasn’t lost any of its games by more than eight points. In fact, the Irish have lost just three games (Michigan State, NC State, Stanford) by more than a field goal.

So now the Trojans, a Colorado loss away from a possible Pac-12 Championship Game berth, are poised with the task of defeating their No. 1 rival, but they will have the added advantage of a home crowd. Should USC get the job done, it would represent a great turnaround for head coach Clay Helton. After the poor start, many people thought Helton might not last the season, given the 50/50 nature of his hire with the USC support base.

Now it’s starting to look like the only thing that was holding Helton back was quarterback play. Darnold has breathed such life into this offense that the College Football Playoff Selection Committee placed the Trojans 12th in their latest rankings that came out on Tuesday night. With a win over Notre Dame and a little help, USC could move into the top 10 next week.

On the flip side, Notre Dame has had an abysmal year by its lofty standards and the added scandals have people questioning whether or not Kelly is the right man for the job anymore at Notre Dame. Should Kelly be humiliated by the Trojans, it’s possible to see athletic director Jack Swarbrick going another direction at head coach. From a media perspective, Kelly’s job seems safe, but it wouldn’t be unrealistic for the Notre Dame decision-makers to come to a different conclusion after this game.

Notre Dame at USC

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: USC -17

Three Things to Watch

1. Get Ronald Jones II Going Early
The Trojans enter this game ranked 39th in the FBS in rushing offense. By contrast, the Fighting Irish are No. 76 in rushing defense. This presents an ideal chance for USC to get the Whataburger-loving Jones going early. He is closing on a 1,000-yard season (needs just 107 yards) thanks to his 6.3 yards per carry.

But Jones will have to split the carries with senior Justin Davis and fellow sophomore Aca’Cedric Ware, the latter finally showing why he was so highly regarded coming out of high school. Jones is still the workhorse for USC in more ways than one and Notre Dame has given up its fair share of yards on the ground. The Irish are allowing 180 rushing yards per game and have surrendered 22 touchdowns. Army, Navy, Duke, Michigan State and Texas all finished with more than 200 rushing yards with the Midshipmen racking up 320 in beating Notre Dame for the first time since 2010.

2. Sam Darnold Must Continue to Flourish
True to my word, this one stayed here until the end of the season. Darnold has the chance to cap off his first season with back-to-back wins over the Trojans’ biggest rivals. As it stands, Darnold has had an impressive freshman campaign. Among his positional peers, Darnold is the nation’s most efficient passer (162.4), has the highest completion percentage (68.3), and the most touchdowns (24). When compared to every quarterback, he is third in the nation in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating behind only Baker Mayfield and Heisman Trophy front-runner Lamar Jackson.

With a win over Notre Dame, Darnold would finish the regular season 9-1 as the starter. That’s the kind of stat that gets you on a Heisman watch list the following season. This is Darnold’s time and he has made the most of it. All that’s left for the freshman to do is put one final nail in the Irish’s miserable season.

3. Other Receivers Must Be Ready
With Juju Smith-Schuster dealing with two different injuries; there is no guarantee on how much of an impact he will have. Because of that, Darreus Rogers, Deontay Burnett, Steven Mitchell Jr., and Daniel Imatorbhebhe must be ready to lend Darnold a helping hand. This also may be the perfect opportunity to sneak in a target or two for three-way weapon Adoree’ Jackson, who has yet to record a reception this season. In fact, USC RT Zach Banner has more receiving yards than Jackson in 2016.

Final Analysis

USC has been on a roll lately and it’s no surprise that the Trojans were picked to win this game by a very large margin, the largest in nearly 10 meetings. That said, Notre Dame is a team capable of matching USC with creativity and firepower. The Trojans are going to have to be very careful not to overlook this game. Notre Dame’s 4-7 record is probably the most deceiving in the land, since the Fighting Irish’s largest margin of defeat this season has been eight points. They can win, they just aren’t, and that makes for a dangerous opponent.

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These two teams rarely play up to their records. Even when Notre Dame was on its way to finishing the 2012 regular season 12-0, USC had an opportunity to win that game at the end. Anything can happen and it usually does between the Irish and the Trojans. Still, this is a year that USC seems to have reclaimed from the ashes. USC is playing for a possible conference championship game berth, while Notre Dame is playing for pride.

Prediction: USC 42, Notre Dame 38

— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California.