The Notre Dame Fighting Irish get back on the field on Saturday night to renew a longtime series that was temporarily interrupted last year by the pandemic. Prior to 2020, the USC Trojans had faced the Irish every year since 1946, with Notre Dame holding the most recent advantage in the rivalry.
Part of the reason for that Irish success stems from the turmoil on USC’s sidelines that’s continued this season. Clay Helton started the season as head coach of the Trojans but was fired after two games and replaced by Donte Williams. After six games, Southern Cal has a 3-3 record, with inconsistent play helping to explain that mediocre mark. Oddly, they’ve won both of their road games this season and have struggled at home with a 1-3 record.
Below are some of the key matchups for Saturday’s prime time matchup:
QB Jack Coan vs. Southern Cal Defense
Coan’s season has seen plenty of highs and lows, with the signal-caller coming off a high of re-entering against Virginia Tecg to deliver a dramatic comeback win. Coan had been replaced in the game because of the team’s scuffling offense and needs to develop more consistency in his game.
The Trojans’ defense has been even more inconsistent when it comes to the opposition scoring this year. In Southern Cal’s three victories, they’ve allowed just under 12 points a game, while their three losses have seen them give up an average of 43 points per contest. In those three defeats, the Trojans have allowed nine touchdowns through the air.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Kedon Slovis
The Irish defense allowed their second-fewest points of the season against Virginia Tech, but still needed late heroics to pick up the win. An issue in that contest was the costly defensive penalties that led to a pair of Tech touchdowns. Notre Dame defenders have collected 16 sacks on the year, but Isaiah Foskey has more than one-third of those, which means others also need to deliver pressure to Slovis.
Slovis is no stranger to the Irish, having faced them as a true freshman two years ago. In that game, he looked effective, throwing for 255 yards and two scores. He’s got the mobility to move out of the pocket, though he hasn’t been as prolific when it comes to throwing for scores this season. He’s coming off a 401-yard effort against Utah and has multiple targets at his disposal.
OT Josh Lugg/Joe Alt vs. OLB Drake Jackson
The beleaguered Notre Dame offensive line has lessened their struggles in preventing sacks, allowing only two in each of the last two games. Lugg has gotten more consistent in recent weeks, though he’ll be put to the test in this game. Carmody is recovered from his early-season ankle trouble but will backup freshman Joe Alt and fill in at tight end.
Jackson is a force from his strong side position and has the quickness to cause problems if he’s not held in check. He’s an excellent pass rusher and has the speed to stop runners before they hit the line. As a potential high draft pick next April, Jackon can improve his stock with a strong performance against the Irish.
CB Cam Hart vs. WR Drake London
Hart has had his moments this season, most notably the pick-six against Wisconsin. However, he struggled the following week against Cincinnati’s Alec Pierce and will face another tall receiver in London, who’s by far the most popular passing target for the Trojans. Hart has four pass deflections to his credit, but will especially need to keep an eye on London when he goes in motion.
London has 64 catches on the season, with the next-closest Trojans receiver only having 22. A key reason for London’s popularity is his large size at 6-foot-5, coupled with his athleticism. He’s not necessarily a deep threat but can make things happen after the catch and his name figures should be heard often on Saturday night.
RB Kyren Williams vs. MLB Kana’i Mauga
Williams delivered a solid performance against Virginia Tech, though a monster game in 2021 has yet to happen. It could in this game, considering that teams that have beaten Southern Cal this year have shredded them on the ground. In the Trojans’ three defeats, they’ve allowed an average of 214 rushing yards, compared to 82 in their three victories.
Mauga currently leads Southern Cal with 36 tackles on the year and is tied with Jackson in tackles-for-loss with four on the season. He’s sturdy and quick but has also been part of a defense that’s fallen apart in the Trojans’ three losses. Given Southern Cal’s problems containing opposition runners, Mauga will be under the gun all night against the Irish running game.