Counting Down the 2021 Notre Dame Football Schedule: #4 USC

To get the second half of the 2021 Notre Dame football schedule underway, the Fighting Irish will resume their longstanding rivalry against the Southern California Trojans on October 23. By virtue of the schedule, the Irish will be coming off a bye week as they face their longtime foe after last year’s pandemic-induced cancellation. That absence in 2020 was a historic one since it marked the first time since World War II that the two teams had failed to meet.

Southern Cal head coach Clay Helton has compiled a 45-23 record (including a pair of interim stints), with the second of those interim stints starting off with a game against Notre Dame in 2015. He and the Trojans are coming off a 5-1 mark during last year’s chaotic season. Despite a worthy record, the Trojans opted out of a bowl game but figure again to make this year’s battle against the Irish notable.

Southern Cal Offense: Fixing That Line

Kedon Slovis is back for his third season behind center after throwing for 1,921 yards and seven scores last season. Keeping him healthy is paramount for any success the Trojans expect to have, which means that he needs better protection than he got last season. While he had seven picks in 2020, he also showed his calm in leading a trio of fourth-quarter comebacks. If Slovis does go down, the Trojans will be forced to insert either Jaxson Dart and Miller Moss, both of whom possess no experience at the collegiate level.

The running back position has usually been a source of strength for Southern Cal, but the Trojans lost both Stephen Carr and Markese Stepp to the transfer portal. They do have Keontay Ingram arriving from Texas via that same path and will also get back their leading rusher from last season, Vavae Malepai.

Some of the receiving weapons that Slovis will have at his disposal include two targets that will be hard to miss in 6-foot-5 Drake London and 6-foot-3 Bru McCoy. K.D. Nixon from Colorado and Tahj Washington from Memphis are a pair of graduate transfers who can also contribute, while tight end Erik Krommenhoek figures to do more blocking than receiving.

The line allowed 2.5 sacks per game, which means that fixing that issue is vital to the Trojans’ 2021 fortunes. Southern Cal didn’t lose much up front, with a mix of tackles Jalen McKenzie, Courtland Ford and Jonah Monheim likely to team with center Brent Nailon, as well as guards Alijah Vera-Tucker and Justin Dedich in this department.

Southern Cal Defense: Forcing the Issue

On this unit, the Trojans’ front line will have back defensive end Nick Figueroa, who led the team last year in both sacks with 3.5 and tackles-for-loss with seven. He had shoulder surgery, so freshman Korey Foreman could challenge either him or Tuli Tuipulotu on the other side. Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher is has yet to be tested collegiately, but is likely to play on the nose.

At outside linebacker, Drake Jackson makes like hectic for opposing quarterbacks and is virtually another defensive end. Kana’i Mauga delivers hard hits both behind and past the line of scrimmage and can play the pass from his Rover spot. In the middle, Ralen Goforth isn’t flashy but comes off a 38-tackle season in which he collected three tackles-for-loss and two pass deflections.

The secondary is the strength of the Southern Cal defense, though replacing Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Talanoa Hufanga at safety will be a challenge. Chris Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stuart ready to man the corners, with freshman Ceyair Wright also looking to make an impact. At strong safety, Texas transfer Xavien Alford is likely to supplant Chase Williams, while a big year from 6-foot-4 free safety Isaiah Pola-Malo could make him wealthy in next year’s NFL draft.

Southern Cal Special Teams: More of the Same

Parker Lewis brings back his strong leg after a 2020 campaign where he nailed all 23 of his extra points and hit on six of his nine field goal attempts, including a 48-yarder. He’ll also handle kickoffs, while Ben Griffith is also hoping for a repeat performance after a 46.4 average on his punts. Gary Bryant Jr. may do double duty when it comes to kick and punt returns.

The Last Time Notre Dame Faced Southern Cal

In October 2019, the Irish had problems putting away the Trojans before coming away with the 30-27 victory. Notre Dame had a two-touchdown lead at the half, but Southern Cal got within three points on two occasions during the fourth quarter. The main offensive weapons were Tony Jones, who finished with 176 yards on the chilly evening, and kicker Jonathan Doerer, who had three long field goals, including a 52-yarder.

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