Per usual, the 91st meeting betweenUSC and Notre Dame is loaded with intrigue, though the significance is different for each team. The one-loss Irish still harbor College Football Playoff dreams and a loss removes them from any final four conversations. With USC this week and Michigan following an open date, Notre Dame will face their two toughest remaining challenges in consecutive games.
For USC head coach Clay Helton, it's a matter of survival. It is clear that the USC administration would love to go in a different direction and a third loss of the season — especially one to archrival Notre Dame — would add more fuel to an already warm fire. In reality, USC is 2-1 in Pac-12 play without a division loss, so a conference title would still be theirs for the taking even with a loss to the Irish on Saturday.
Notre Dame lost eight straight games in this series prior to the arrival of Brian Kelly. But the current Irish head coach has won six of his nine games versus the Trojans.
USC at Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Notre Dame -11
When USC Has the Ball
Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis has been cleared to play and will start against the Irish after missing the Washington game due to a concussion suffered against Utah. In the win over the Utes, Matt Fink was solid in relief but he struggled in the loss at Washington, so Slovis' return is welcomed. In four games, he has completed 78 percent of his passes and he will again be wise to utilize the talented receiving group of Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, and Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Of the 17 Slovis passes that have not been caught by USC receivers, four have resulted in interceptions. Three came against BYU, who often dropped eight men into coverage to disrupt passing lanes. Notre Dame is a team — led by Julian Okawara and Khalid Kareem on the ends — that can apply pressure from base sets. The Trojan offense under coordinator Graham Harrell likes to get the ball out quickly, so they have allowed only six sacks on the year. The Irish's goal will be to take away the first option and make Slovis hold the ball longer, giving their defensive line more time to get into the backfield.
USC is 91st in rushing offense and Notre Dame's rush defense has been very strong over the past three weeks. But the Trojans did show a spark with 212 rushing yards in Seattle. Vavae Malepeai is the team's leading rusher, but it was junior Stephen Carr that led the way with 94 yards on seven carries against the Huskies. Former Notre Dame commit Markese Stepp also had 62 yards on the ground. USC doesn't have to run for 200 yards this week, but the Trojans have to have some type of running presence.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Much like the Trojans, Notre Dame has relied heavily on their short passing game early in the season. While some have criticized the play of quarterback Ian Book, his 169.23 quarterback rating is good for 16th in America, one spot ahead of Slovis. The USC defense ranks 78th against the pass, but their best performance of the year was in their most recent game, holding Jacob Eason and Washington to 180 yards. However...
Washington averaged 5.7 yards per carry so passing became less important. Fresno State, Utah, and Washington have all averaged over five yards per carry, which is the main reason why the Trojans are 89th in rushing defense. On the whole, Notre Dame hasn't been great at running the ball, but the Irish have gone over five yards per carry three times including each of the past two weeks.
USC is going to have to pick which element of the Notre Dame offense they want to stop. I'm guessing the Trojans don't want Book and his receivers having their way, so they will give the Irish some running opportunities. If Tony Jones Jr. and possibly Jafar Armstrong — who will return this week after missing most of the season with a groin injury — can punish the USC defense, it may not matter what strategy the Trojans employ.
When analyzing this game, there is one statistic that jumps out: Notre Dame is No. 2 nationally with a plus-10 turnover margin while USC is 122nd at minus-seven. If those trends continue on Saturday night, the Irish should roll to an easy victory. Notre Dame will try to get after Kedon Slovis with as few rushers as possible in an effort to force him into mistakes. I think USC will value the ball more in this game and it will be tight deep into the second half. But the Irish's depth along the defensive line will come into play late and Notre Dame will beat the Trojans for the third year in a row.
Prediction: Notre Dame 31, USC 21
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.