Getting the second half of the 2017 season started for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish brings with it the knowledge that the path ahead is fraught with plenty of potential land mines that can detonate the team’s 5-1 start. To begin, the visiting 6-1 Southern Cal Trojans come to South Bend to renew a rivalry that dates back to the Knute Rockne era. This starts a three-game home stretch for Notre Dame.
The Trojans arrive with two consecutive wins after having suffered their only defeat of the campaign at Washington State, though they escaped with a one-point comeback win last Saturday against Utah. Like the Irish, Southern Cal remains in the thick of contention for a playoff berth and can’t afford any more stumbles. The intensity of this game will play out in some key on-field matchups
Listed below are some of those battles to watch:
Notre Dame Pass Defense vs. Sam Darnold
Darnold came into the 2017 season as a potential top overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, something that still has the potential to occur. That’s evident from some of his statistics that show things like 2,063 yards passing and a completion percentage of nearly 63 percent. On the negative side, he’s thrown nine interceptions and had major fumbling problems against Utah with three in the first half.
Those nine picks undoubtedly caught the attention of the invigorated Notre Dame pass defense that’s already snagged six errant passes from opposing quarterbacks. That includes a pick-six that helped spark the rout of Michigan State and while that number seems low, it’s important to remember that during last season’s 4-8 disaster, the Irish only tallied eight picks all season.
Darnold knows how to spread the ball, having completed passes to 16 different Trojan receivers, so pretty much any Southern Cal skill position player that takes the field on Saturday will be a target. The improved pass rush that Notre Dame displayed during the first half of this year could help make life more difficult for him.
Julian Love vs. Deontay Burnett
Love has been one of the beneficiaries of the team’s improved pass rush, though his own play has also taken a positive jump this season. While he has just one interception, he made it count with a pick-six against Michigan State. More impressive are his nine pass deflections and eight breakups, both team-highs.
Despite his slight build of 6-feet and 170 pounds, Burnett has been Darnold’s main target. Last year, he didn’t get his first start until the eighth game, but snagged a game-tying catch in the Rose Bowl. This year, he’s hauled in 49 catches for 126 yards. While not necessarily a deep threat, he has a knack for picking up yardage after the catch.
The Trojans will be going to the air during Saturday’s game, so Love’s ability to stick with Burnett and bring him down after any receptions is imperative. Given the wide array of other options at Darnold’s disposal, even shutting down Burnett doesn’t guarantee that Southern Cal’s passing attack will be held in check.
Notre Dame Offensive Line vs. Southern Cal Defensive Line
Ordinarily, this matchup might boil down to a single position battle. The problem for the Irish is that there are multiple dangers up front on the Trojan defense, which puts all five Notre Dame linemen on notice. How they perform will help determine if Brandon Wimbush is under siege all night and whether Josh Adams can get through the gaping holes he’s enjoyed all season.
Finding a way to neutralize the trio of Christian Rector, Josh Fatu and Rasheem Green would be a huge boost to the hopes of the Irish. The chief reason is that these three players have combined for 15.5 sacks on the year and 21.5 tackles-for-loss.
Having garnered a lot of positive press as a unit so far, the pressure on Notre Dame’s offensive line now ramps up. This is a good opportunity to see if their improvement is for real or a mirage.
Nyles Morgan vs. Ronald Jones
Morgan continues to sit atop the Irish tacklers list . During the course of this season, he’s faced a number of standout runners and has been able to hold his own. The fact that opposing rushers have only made it into the end zone once in Notre Dame’s first six games is one indication of the overall improvement of the team’s run defense.
Jones has crossed the goal line eight times in 2017, collecting 640 yards on 102 carries. Those numbers continue the level of production that was evident in the previous two campaigns and he’s also a passing option for Darnold. While many such tosses are of the short-yardage variety, he broke off a 56-yard touchdown run against Texas earlier this season.
The second part of this three-game homestand welcomes the North Carolina State Wolfpack to South Bend for the first time ever. Even if it happens to be drizzling during this contest, that’ll be a marked improvement over the monsoon-like conditions the two teams played in last season.
The Irish inexplicably tried to establish a passing game in those conditions, which contributed heavily to the team’s three turnovers. That futility, coupled with a fourth quarter special teams miscue that turned a blocked punt into a touchdown, served as the culprits in the 10-3 loss.