One game remains on Notre Dame’s regular season schedule, with those pivotal 60 minutes helping to determine if the Fighting Irish will be in contention for a national title or simply a quality bowl berth. Head coach Brian Kelly would obviously prefer the former scenario to the latter, but getting there requires putting away a pesky longtime rival in the Southern Cal Trojans.
In their last 11 visits to Los Angeles, the Irish have come away on the losing end on eight occasions. That includes their last two trips, which have seen the Irish defense disappear in allowing an average of 47 points per game. The struggling Trojans are 5-6 entering this contest and are desperately seeking a victory in order to remain in the bowl picture.
Below are some of the key matchups that will garner a good deal of focus:
QB Ian Book vs. Southern Cal Trojans
Book has sometimes forced his passes into opposing coverage, which led to a string of four interceptions in a three-game span. However, in each game this year, he’s managed to connect on better than 60 percent of his tosses and bounced back against Syracuse after a week off to throw for over 250 yards in just the first half.
Given that performance, Book is certainly capable of shredding the Trojan defense, though it’s entirely possible that there will be more of a focus on the Irish running game. One glaring absence that should benefit Notre Dame is Southern Cal linebacker Porter Gustin, who was lost for the season last month with a fractured ankle. Prior to that injury, he had already amassed 7.5 sacks in six games.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB JT Daniels
Holding Syracuse scoreless until the final 10 seconds of the game was the latest notch in the belt of an Irish defensive unit that’s held seven different opponents to 17 points or less. They’ve been opportunistic all season long, forcing 18 turnovers, including 12 picks.
Daniels is a true freshman whose baptism into collegiate action has predictably been spotty. His 13 touchdown passes have been marked by 10 interceptions, with seven of those picks coming in the last five contests. It’s telling that in the five losing games that he’s played in for Southern Cal, Daniels has thrown eight interceptions, while he’s only had a pair of errant tosses in his five wins.
RB Dexter Williams vs. MLB Cameron Smith
In his seven games this season, Williams is averaging 6.7 yards per carry and has broken off countless long runs, scoring 11 touchdowns in the process. There are some major holes in the Trojan run defense, which could set the stage for another huge game for the senior. He only gained 74 yards against Syracuse, largely because Book had a field day on the first half. The previous two times he’s been held under the century mark this season, he’s bounced back to average 172 yards in the next game.
Smith is Southern Cal’s top tackler with 69 stops and is coming off his second double-digit tackling effort. He hasn’t been all that successful getting into enemy backfields this season, with just 5.5 tackles-for-loss to his credit. Finding a way to neutralize him will likely allow Williams to collect large chunks of real estate.
MLB Te’von Coney vs. RB Aca’Cedric Ware
One constant for the Irish defense in 2018 is the sight of Coney bringing down an opposing ball carrier, He leads the team with 99 tackles, including 12 in the rout of Syracuse. His range is such that he can quickly get into enemy backfields, which will aid in potentially forcing a shift in play calling strategy.
Southern Cal football has become iconic because of its running game, with Ware the team’s leading rusher this season with 757 yards and six touchdowns to his credit. He’s averaging 6.8 yards per carry, but in four different games this year, he’s been ignored, gaining just 53 yards on 17 carries. Keeping a lid on Ware will force the Trojans to rely on their inconsistent freshman signal caller.
T Liam Eichenberg vs. DE Christian Rector
Eichenberg has been a solid pass defender all during the season. a factor that became much more prominent when Book entered the starting lineup. He has the size to open up holes for the running game as well, while also serving as a protector for Book’s blind side.
The Irish offensive tackles, whether that’s Eichenberg or Robert Hainsey, will once again face a player who focuses on the opposing weak side. As a result of Gustin’s injury, Rector serves as the Trojans’ top pass rusher and has nine stops behind the line of scrimmage to his credit. Yet he’s done most of his damage in just two games this year, so he is capable of being shut down.