The Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team takes on the visiting University of Southern California Trojans tomorrow under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium in the “Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.” Notre Dame comes in with a 5-1 record and ranked 14th in the AP Poll, having just dispatched Navy 41-24. USC enters the contest amidst turmoil and distraction, sitting at 3-2, unranked, and having just fired their head coach, Steve Sarkisian. Offensive Coordinator Clay Helton has been named interim head coach until a replacement can be hired by USC Athletic Director Pat Haden.
USC lost to unranked Washington 17-12 at home last Thursday night in a shocker that proved to be Sarkisian’s final game with the program. Now, the Trojans come in looking to salvage a season teetering on the brink of devastation, hoping to ride some extremely talented playmakers to a win over their hated rivals from South Bend instead of folding under the circus of embarrassment that this season has been so far.
Sep 19, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (9) scores on a 54-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter against the Stanford Cardinal at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Senior QB Cody Kessler has had a strong year overall (poor showing against Washington notwithstanding), passing for 1,453 yards, 15 TD, and just 3 INT, earning him the 4th-best passer rating in the country. He’ll look to find numerous talented targets up against a still-questionable ND secondary, but specifically he will try to find sophomore JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Trojans’ star wideout. Smith-Schuster is an impressive blend of speed and size, and he has really impressed this season, compiling 619 yards (10th-best in the nation), 6 TD (tied for 9th in the nation), and an 18.8 yards-per-catch average. Irish cornerbacks Cole Luke and KeiVarae Russell will have their work cut out for them, and safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield will be key in helping over the top if Smith-Schuster or fellow sophomore burner Adoree’ Jackson (19.6 yards per catch) beat the corners deep.
USC boasts a strong rushing game as well, averaging 178 yards per game on the ground. Redshirt senior Tre Madden has run for 350 yards and 4 TD so far this season, and true freshman Ronald Jones II, a former ND recruiting target, has added 311 yards and 3 TD. In defending both the running and passing game, the Notre Dame defensive line will be key, as senior captain Sheldon Day and junior Isaac Rochell especially need to get penetration so as to disrupt the running game and force Kessler to hurry throws. Kessler was able to camp out in the pocket last year against a depleted Irish defense, and that led to the absolute skewering he put ND through in that 49-14 rout. As always, junior captain linebacker Jaylon Smith will need to play a great game in all facets, providing strong run support, covering receivers, and providing effective blitzes when called upon in order to get to Kessler before he can find receivers for big plays.
On the flip side, USC’s defense is 22nd in the nation in scoring, only allowing 17.4 points per game. However, that number is skewed by games against anemic offenses from Arkansas State, Idaho, and Washington, and their per-game averages in yards allowed (158 rushing, 230 passing) point to the Notre Dame offense being able to perform at a similar level to what they’ve done all season. USC’s best defensive player is junior linebacker Su’a Cravens, an athletic freak similar to Jaylon Smith in terms of speed and strength. Cornerbacks Adoree Jackson and Iman “Biggie” Marshall and safety Chris Hawkins are all very strong defensive backs, providing a great test for Will Fuller, Chris Brown, and the rest of the Irish receivers.
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Sep 26, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer (14) celebrates after a touchdown in the first quarter agains the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 62-27. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Freshman linebacker Cameron Smith leads USC in tackles with 42, so the Notre Dame offensive line will need to get to the second level of the defense to seal off Smith and Cravens and create creases for RBs C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams to run through. QB DeShone Kizer should not have any more problems against this defense than he has against others, and his calm demeanor should serve him well in this must-win game in prime time. He will need to be smart with the football, however, as Jackson, Marshall, Hawkins, and Cravens are all playmakers who can turn a bad pass into a pick-six with ease.
Overall, I see this as a very close, exciting game between two teams that actually look pretty similar to me. Both have high-powered offenses with big-play receivers (Fuller and Smith-Schuster), strong running games (the ND offensive line and Prosise do hold an advantage here, however), and defenses that have great athletes but certainly aren’t perfect. If the Irish defense can come out strong instead of flat like they have the past few games, and Notre Dame contains Jackson in the return game and Smith-Schuster in the passing game, I think they will win. However, as a Notre Dame fan, I predict it will not be easy (it never is), the Trojans will get some big plays, and the game will be put in Kizer’s steady hands for a final, game-winning drive and any semblance of a College Football Playoff chance on the line. And just like against Clemson, Kizer will come through, and this time, the Irish won’t need any two-point conversion. Freshman kicker Justin Yoon will drive the extra point home, and Notre Dame will emerge victorious as USC is sent reeling into a game against 4th-ranked Utah next week.
|Editor Andrew Hall
|Notre Dame 31, USC 27
|Editor Joshua Vowles
|Notre Dame 34, USC 26
|Staff Writer Manny De Jesus
|Notre Dame 31, USC 27
|Staff Writer Walt Kosin
|Notre Dame 28, USC 24
|Staff Writer Chase Eyrich
|Notre Dame 31, USC 24
|Staff Writer Pat Sullivan
|Notre Dame 35, USC 34