The stakes are high on Saturday night, as USC travels to South Bend to take on Notre Dame in a key game for both teams in the race to earn a spot in the CFB Playoff. While it’s only Week 8 and the rankings from the committee won’t start until Oct. 31, the Trojans and Fighting Irish both have one loss. Another defeat will end the CFB Playoff hopes for either team. Essentially, Saturday night’s game is an elimination game in the hunt to reach the playoff or play for the national championship.
After a disappointing 4-8 record in 2016, Brian Kelly entered 2017 squarely on the hot seat. But talk of a coaching change or hot seat has quieted in South Bend, especially as Notre Dame is off to a 5-1 start. The Fighting Irish started the season by beating Temple 49-16 but lost to Georgia by one point (20-19) in Week 2. Kelly’s team rebounded by beating Boston College, Michigan State, Miami (Ohio) and North Carolina by comfortable margins to reach 5-1 and the bye last Saturday. Kelly’s decision to revamp his coordinators has made a significant difference on this team and is a big reason why the Fighting Irish are positioned for a run at 10 wins. However, the second-half schedule won’t be easy. In addition to Saturday’s game versus USC, Notre Dame still has to play NC State, Wake Forest, Miami, Navy and Stanford.
USC entered 2017 with aspirations of winning a national championship. The Trojans closed 2016 on a nine-game winning streak and ranked as one of the favorites to reach the CFB Playoff in the preseason. USC started 4-0 with wins over Western Michigan, Stanford, Texas and California but stumbled at Washington State (30-27) on Sept. 29. The Trojans have won their last two (Oregon State and Utah) and head into the second half of the year needing to win out to keep their national title hopes alive.
Notre Dame holds a 46-37-5 series edge over USC. The Fighting Irish also have wins in four out of the last seven matchups against the Trojans. Notre Dame won the last meeting in South Bend 41-31 in 2015.
USC at Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Notre Dame -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. USC QB Sam Darnold Against Notre Dame’s Defense
USC’s offense is averaging 34.4 points a game through the first seven contests of 2017. That’s exactly the number the Trojans averaged in 13 games last season. While the production on the scoring average has been the same, the Trojans haven’t been firing on all cylinders on offense. One big reason for that is turnovers. USC has already lost 16 turnovers after only losing 20 all of last season. The offensive line has struggled and dealt with injuries. Also, the supporting cast at receiver is not as strong as last year’s group.
Despite the concerns on offense, USC can still put up points in a hurry with quarterback Sam Darnold leading the way. In addition to the issues mentioned above, Darnold is also a factor in the uneven play on offense. The sophomore’s completion percentage has dipped from 67.2 to 62.7 and the interceptions (nine through seven games) already match the total from all of 2016. Darnold’s favorite receiver has been Deontay Burnett (49 catches), with Steven Mitchell (23) and rising star freshman Tyler Vaughns (25) rounding out the key targets. Darnold and the passing game isn’t the only weapon for USC. Running back Ronald Jones is among the best in the nation at his position, rushing for 640 yards and eight touchdowns on just 102 attempts this fall. Coordinator Tee Martin would be wise to get Jones the ball more often. The junior has only topped 20 carries just once in a game in 2017.
With the firepower on USC’s sideline and Darnold able to score every time he gets the ball, this will be a good test for Notre Dame’s defense. New coordinator Mike Elko has this unit playing at a high level, as the Fighting Irish have not allowed an opponent to score more than 20 points in 2017. This group is also limiting teams to just 4.8 yards per play, has given up just two plays of 40 or more yards and generated 14 takeaways. Elko won’t have linebacker Greer Martini (39 stops) available due to injury, but the linebacker unit is still in good shape with Nyles Morgan (44) and Te’von Coney (42) in place. Elko would certainly like to see more production out of a pass rush that has generated just 13 sacks in six games, but Jerry Tillery and Daelin Hayes will be a handful for USC’s offensive line.
As the stats indicate, USC’s offense isn’t that big of a problem, but it’s certainly not playing at the level it did at the end of last season. On the flipside, Notre Dame’s defense is clearly improved under Elko’s watch. Will this group continue to progress and make life difficult for Darnold on Saturday night? Or will the Trojans firepower and balance on offense be too much for the Fighting Irish to handle?
2. Notre Dame’s Rushing Attack
Notre Dame has only one finish (2015) inside of the top 30 nationally in rushing offense since 2008. But not only are the Fighting Irish on track for a top 30 rank in 2017, this offense is poised to finish among the top 10 – maybe even the top five. New coordinator Chip Long and coach Brian Kelly built the 2017 version of Notre Dame’s offense around a deep backfield and a strong offensive line. Up front, guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey are poised to push for postseason All-America honors. Nelson and McGlinchey are part of a line that’s paved the way for rushers to average 6.9 yards per carry through six games. Josh Adams rushed for 776 yards and five touchdowns in the first six matchups but was limited due 86 carries due to ankle injuries. Adams’ 9.02 yards per carry average ranks sixth nationally and is second among players with at least 80 carries this year. The off week came at a good time for Adams, as the junior was able to get closer to full strength. In addition to Adams, the Fighting Irish can utilize Dexter Williams (214), Deon McIntosh (230 yards) and Tony Jones (102) in the backfield rotation. However, Williams is also dealing with injuries and is not expected to be 100 percent on Saturday night. In addition to the options at running back, quarterback Brandon Wimbush has rushed for 402 yards and eight scores on 68 carries this season. His mobility is another aspect USC will have to account for on Saturday night.
With a standout offensive line and a deep stable of backs available, Notre Dame is going to pound away at USC’s defensive front. The Trojans rank fifth in the Pac-12 in rush defense (146.7 ypg) and are giving up 4.1 yards per carry. This unit has limited the big plays on the ground, as USC has surrendered just two rushes of 40 or more yards. But the line will be shorthanded on Saturday night. Senior tackle Josh Fatu is out due to suffering a concussion in a car accident. Fatu ranks second on the team with seven tackles for a loss and anchors the interior from the nose tackle spot. With Fatu out, freshman Brandon Pili is expected to start in the middle. He’s flanked by standouts Rasheem Green and Christian Rector off the edges, with standout linebackers Uchenna Nwosu and Cameron Smith anchoring the second level.
With Fatu sidelined, how will USC’s run defense hold up against the Notre Dame offensive line and deep stable of backs? Will Nelson and McGlinchey clear the way for another big performance for Adams? This matchup is likely to decide which team wins on Saturday night.
3. Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush
A foot injury sidelined Wimbush in the Week 6 victory over North Carolina. Freshman Ian Book got the nod in Wimbush’s place and completed 17 of 31 throws for 146 yards and a touchdown and added 45 yards on the ground. While Book has proven himself to be a reliable option, Wimbush is healthy and back in the starting lineup for Saturday’s game. The sophomore was projected as a breakout player this fall but is still finding his rhythm in his first year as the starter. Through five games, Wimbush has passed for 782 yards and six touchdowns and ranks second on the team with 402 yards on the ground. However, his completion percentage is just 52.3 and has only exceeded 200 passing yards once in five starts.
Of course, with a power rushing attack in place, Wimbush doesn’t need to throw for 300 or 400 yards every week for Notre Dame’s offense to thrive. But with the presence of Green, Rector, Smith and Nwosu in USC’s front seven, the ground attack may not find as much running room as in previous weeks. Is this the week Wimbush delivers a breakout performance? The sophomore has plenty of weapons available at his disposal in the passing game. Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown leads the team with 211 receiving yards, with tight end Alize Mack (17 grabs) coming in second. In addition to St. Brown and Mack, Chase Claypool and tight end Durham Smythe have combined for 18 receptions so far in 2017.
USC will counter Wimbush and the Notre Dame passing offense with a secondary ranked 36th nationally in pass efficiency defense. The Trojans have allowed five plays of 40 yards or more and surrendered 10 scores through the air. This secondary hasn’t faced the a gauntlet stretch of signal-callers but only one team (Washington State) has passed for more than 310 yards on the Trojans this year. Helping out USC’s secondary is a pass rush that has generated 22 sacks so far, so Wimbush could be under pressure a lot when he drops back to throw.
As mentioned previously, Wimbush has been an effective runner and a foot injury suffered against Miami (Ohio) is not expected to hinder him in this matchup. Expect Long and Kelly to get Wimbush his share of opportunities on the ground, but the sophomore is going to need to hit a few shots through the air. Since the loss to Georgia, Wimbush has not topped more than 25 attempts in each of his last three games. Will that change on Saturday night? Can USC force Notre Dame out of his comfort zone on offense and throw 35-40 times?
Considering the potential implications on the CFB Playoff and the rivalry between these two programs, Saturday night in South Bend shouldn’t lack for drama. USC has an edge at quarterback with Sam Darnold, and running back Ronald Jones will test a stingy Notre Dame rush defense. While the Trojans have the firepower to pull off the upset in South Bend, the Fighting Irish should be able to find just enough running room on the ground, with Wimbush hitting a couple of key passes in the second half, while the defense forces a key turnover in the second half to push Notre Dame to a four-point win.