49-14. I hope you haven’t forgotten the self-destruction we witnessed last season when Notre Dame traveled to the Los Angeles Memorial Stadium. The Trojans scored 35 straight points before the Irish (5-1) mustered up the little confidence they had to score a meaningless touchdown. On both sides of the ball, Notre Dame was decimated with no remorse. Until Malik Zaire entered the game, Notre Dame looked as if they were all out of self-esteem and confidence. Zaire threw for 170 yards and a rushing touchdown to help the Irish avoid an embarrassing shutout loss.
Fast forward to this season and the scripts have flipped. Notre Dame can still win out and get an invite to a New Year’s Six bowl game while USC has lost all hope of making the College Football Playoffs despite starting off the year ranked in the top ten. To add insult to injury, the Trojans have suffered a tumultuous week with the departure of Steve Sarkisian. After losing to Washington, coach Sarkisian was given the boot amidst his trouble with alcohol. In a prime time scenario, this has all the makings of a college football classic.
The biggest news coming out of the opposing offensive line is that center Max Tuerk, the third highest rated senior center prospect, is out with an knee injury for the rest of the season. Tuerk is the undisputed leader of the offensive line, which makes it detrimental when he’s not in the lineup. Khaliel Rodgers can also play center, but he’s questionable for Saturday’s match up with a personal issue. The lack of depth and power on the USC offensive line makes them all the more vulnerable against a Notre Dame front seven that can hold its head high after successfully shutting down the best two option offenses in the country this season.
Even with Tuerk in the lineup, this offensive line has struggled mightily. Despite putting up 494.8 yards per game, the offensive line has had trouble keeping quarterback Cody Kessler upright. They’ve given up 13 sacks on the year, which is in the bottom third across the country. If Notre Dame can find a way to get pressure on Kessler, this offensive line is going to have its hands full Saturday.
Of all the conventional offenses Notre Dame has played this season, this will be the first time they’ll have to deal with multiple threats out of the backfield. The leading rusher for the Trojans is senior Tre Madden, who has 333 yards and four scores. The next leading rusher is true freshman Ronald Jones, who has accumulated 307 yards and three touchdowns. Junior running back Justin Davis carries the back end of the production with just 175 yards and two scores.
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Because of the struggling offensive line, the Trojan backfield doesn’t have the complete stat line that can showcase the dangers they present. The offense runs through Kessler, but there is no doubt in my mind that USC wants these running backs to pile up the yardage and take the load in putting up points. Forcing Kessler to win a game with the history between these two teams wouldn’t be smart. The team knows better than to not utilize a strong backfield. Ronald Jones, in particular, is the most dangerous of the three because of his elite speed. Before the season started, the four-star running back was receiving comparisons to Reggie Bush. If he’s being compared to arguably USC’s greatest running back, you best believe he’s going to be a threat on the field.
Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, Nelson Agholor and, now, Ju-Ju Smith. USC has been blessed with the number of elite wide receivers that have put on the cardinal red and gold. This receiving corp shredded the Notre Dame secondary last season. Eight different receivers contributed in the thrashing the Trojans gave the Irish. Of the eight receivers who caught a pass, five of them caught touchdowns. Agholor caught 12 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown. Smith, who is this year’s leading receiver, hauled in five passes for 48 yards.
This season, the receiving corp is just as deep, but it hasn’t been utilized as well as it was last season. Smith has 619 yards this season with 6 touchdown grabs, which accounts for about 43% of the production through the air. The next leading receiver, Steven Mitchell, is questionable for Saturday with an ankle injury. If he can’t go, Adoree Jackson, USC’s star cornerback, might have to go both ways and play receiver. Despite the injuries and lack of balance across the receiving corp, Notre Dame’s secondary is going to be challenged.
Cody Kessler was on many experts’ preseason Heisman watch list, and those experts are now wondering if he was worth the pick. If you look just at his stat line, he’s completed 105 of 151 passes for 1,453 yards and 15 touchdowns to just three interceptions. However, the offense hasn’t produced as well as the numbers say when it plays against legitimate competition. Kessler was able to launch five touchdown passes in a rout against Arizona State, but against Stanford and Washington, Kessler wasn’t able to convert when the team needed him to play like the nation’s best player.
Despite recent struggles, Kessler can still be considered one of the country’s best quarterbacks. Against Notre Dame last season, Kessler tore the secondary apart completing 80% of his passes for 372 yards and six touchdown passes. He received little to no pressure by Notre Dame’s defense last season, but without two of the offense’s key linemen, Kessler might have to prepare to move around in the pocket and make throws on the run. Even without his top linemen, Kessler still has the potential to win this game on his own. It wouldn’t be the most ideal way to win the game, but if the running game is non-existent, Kessler will no have no problem taking the weight of his team.