After coasting to an easy 52-0 rout of Bowling Green to improve their season record to 4-1, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will face a stiffer challenge as they stay home to renew a rivalry that dates back nearly a century. Their opponent will be the Southern Cal Trojans, who enter this contest with a 3-2 mark and are coming off a loss at Pac-12 rival Washington back on Sept. 28.
The Trojans will be coming into this clash refreshed after enjoying a bye week, something that allowed their injury-plagued squad to tend to their multiple health concerns. The Irish have won five of the last seven annual meetings between the schools, including the previous three times the game has been played at Notre Dame. Given the lack of competition they got in the Bowling Green matchup, the Irish might be able to claim they’re also coming off a bye.
Below are some of the key matchups to watch in this prime time battle:
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Kedon Slovis
During the past six quarters, the Irish defense has allowed a total of three points. Over the previous two games, Notre Dame’s pass rush has collected ten sacks and also notched plenty of hurries along the way, harassment that’s resulted in six turnovers. While the bulk of those numbers took place in the win over Virginia, it’s a clear sign that this side of the ball is clicking on all cylinders as the team gets set to reach the midway point of the regular season.
Southern Cal has already had three different signal callers start games behind center, due to a rough string of injuries. To begin, original starter J.T. Daniels was lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered in the season-opening win over Fresno State. That was followed by the insertion of true freshman Kedon Slovis, who was lost to a concussion three weeks later against Utah. Slovis has been medically cleared to return against the Irish.
OT Robert Hainsey/Liam Eichenberg vs. DE Drake Jackson
The Irish offensive line has allowed Ian Book to be sacked eight times this season, with this year’s edition of the Trojans averaging just under three sacks per game during their first five contests. Hainsey and Eichenberg have had their issues concerning false starts this season and will have to contend with a strong-side defender who knows how to make a stop behind the line.
That defender is another true freshman, Drake Jackson, who’s managed to rack up a trio of sacks and collect 5.5 tackles-for-loss with the Trojans. Jackson arrived this past spring as a highly-touted early arrival and has shown no sign that he’s awed by the collegiate game. He’s 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds and has used that height to notch three pass deflections, so keeping him in check is paramount, regardless of whether it’s the responsibility of Hainsey or Eichenberg.
CB Troy Pride Jr. vs. WR Michael Pittman Jr.
Thanks to the swarming Irish pass rush during the past two games, Pride’s job has been more relaxed of late. Opposing teams are more likely to target TaRiq Bracy while Shaun Crawford remains out, but Pride needs to play the ball better when his man is the target. Last season, Pride was able to make adjustments in his game at midseason and went on to flourish. The hope is that history repeats itself in this instance.
Pittman has become a favorite target for all of the Trojan quarterbacks, having already grabbed a team-high 35 passes this season after collecting 41 during all of last year. He’s reached the end zone four times this season and put together a monster game against Utah when he snagged ten receptions for 223 yards. At 6-foot-4, he’ll present a challenge to the smaller Pride and will likely serve as Southern Cal’s top deep threat in the game.
RB Tony Jones Jr. vs. MLB John Houston Jr.
Jones has managed to break the century mark three times this year for rushing yardage in a game, including each of the last two matchups. Against Bowling Green, he gained 102 yards on just seven carries, though the challenge will be tougher this week. The possibility also exists that he may once again share playing time with Jafar Armstrong.
Houston leads the Trojans with 45 tackles on the year and has been a steady, if unspectacular performer on the field over his three seasons as a starter. He has compiled a pair of double-digit tackle games this season, but Southern Cal is allowing opposing runners to pick up 4.51 yards on every carry.