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USC Trojans vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish Preview and Prediction

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There’s always a lot of drama when USC meets Notre Dame. They are two of college football’s most historic programs and the game often has national ramifications. Also, there a number of recruits every year that are considering both schools.

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Related: 15 Facts About the Notre Dame vs. USC Rivalry You May Not Know

However, the main talking point on this Saturday’s game is something totally different. Monday afternoon, USC coach Steve Sarkisian was fired after showing up at the football facility intoxicated on Sunday. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton will be taking over on an interim basis.

The Trojans are coming off a 17-12 loss to Washington where many flaws were exposed. Meanwhile, Notre Dame rebounded from their loss to Clemson by defeating Navy 41-24. The first half was not pretty for the Irish, but they outscored the Middies 17-3 after the break.

At 5-1, Notre Dame is ranked No. 14 in the AP Poll and a win over the Trojans could push them into the top 10. USC finds itself at 3-2 with both losses coming to Pac-12 opponents. That puts the Men of Troy in an early conference hole. But with games remaining against all of their Southern Division rivals, hope is not entirely lost.

The Trojans and the Irish have played 86 times since 1926 and Notre Dame leads the series by a 45-36-5 margin.

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USC at Notre Dame

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV Channel: NBC

Spread: Notre Dame -4.5

Three Things to Watch

1. How Will USC Respond to Clay Helton?

Projecting how the Trojans will play on Saturday night is a total crapshoot. Sometimes in situations like this, a team will bond together and their play is elevated. When Lane Kiffin was fired during the 2013 season, a 3-2 USC squad went 7-2 the rest of the way and ended the season with Helton guiding the team to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. However, the dysfunction caused by the turmoil could create an uneasiness that affects focus. And while the Kiffin dismissal was bizarre, it was nothing compared to the Sarkisian situation. No one can tell where the USC team is mentally right now. We’ll find out on Saturday night.

2. Protecting Cody Kessler

Washington used a variety of pressure packages and was in Kessler’s face all night long. The Huskies sacked the USC quarterback five times and forced two interceptions. They held him to just 156 yards passing and without a touchdown pass. If there is one thing that Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder loves to do is blitz the opposing quarterback. USC ran the ball well against Washington. However, it is unlikely the Trojans will have the same success running the ball as well against the bigger, more physical Irish front. Also, center Max Tuerk, the unquestioned leader of the USC offensive line, injured his knee against Washington and is lost for the season. USC has a lot of great receivers that could have success against the Notre Dame secondary. Kessler just has to have time to get them the ball.

3. Notre Dame Remaining Balanced on Offense

USC ranks 64th in rush defense and 74th in pass defense. Myles Gaskin ran for 134 yards against the Trojans on Thursday night. Stanford’s Kevin Hogan threw for 279 in the Cardinal’s 41-31 win at the Coliseum in September. So the Trojan defense can be exploited either by land or by air. Notre Dame has run well with C.J. Prosise, and quarterback DeShone Kizer can beat teams throwing the ball. The Irish would like to be equally effective running and passing. Most likely, USC will look to take Prosise away and make the younger Kizer win the game. If Notre Dame’s offensive line can open some lanes for Prosise, the Notre Dame offense will be tough for USC to stop.

Final Analysis

Notre Dame’s secondary has had some rough patches this year and USC’s Juju Smith-Schuster and Adoree Jackson could pose problems for ND’s back end. But USC’s offensive line had trouble keeping Washington at bay and Notre Dame will also be sending pressure from different angles at Kessler. The Trojans have been up and down defensively this season, so it’s hard to gauge which unit will show up. That is true for the entire USC team that is now faced with their head coach’s sudden firing. The Trojans will have trouble with the Notre Dame defensive front but will hit a big play or two to Smith-Schuster, and running backs Tre Madden and Ronald Jones will have their moments. But the Irish will tough out yardage with Prosise while Kizer will find receivers Will Fuller and Chris Brown when necessary. Notre Dame’s grinding will beat USC’s flash.

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Prediction: Notre Dame 28, USC 20

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.