After falling to Louisville on Saturday night, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are now left to pick up the pieces of their shattered title hopes. Doing so will require them to defeat the USC Trojans at Notre Dame in a renewal of their iconic rivalry, with the Irish seeking their sixth straight home victory in the series.
The Trojans narrowly missed joining Notre Dame in the loss column on Saturday night by winning a triple-overtime thriller over the Arizona Wildcats. The razor-thin 43-41 victory did cost them a spot in the weekly AP polls but still keeps this talented squad in the thick of competition for a postseason playoff berth.
Below is a list of the key matchups to watch for on Saturday night:
QB Sam Hartman vs. Southern Cal Defense
Hartman endured his worst game since transferring to Notre Dame during the offseason. He threw his first three interceptions of the season in the 33-20 loss at Louisville and also fumbled twice. He has the potential to have a big night, given the holes that the Trojans are dealing with when it comes to keeping opponents from scoring.
If the Trojans have an Achilles heel in their bid for a national title, it’s the team’s suspect defense that can break down at times. They’ve given up 110 points in their last three games, which is similar to their three losses last year. Then, they allowed just over 45 points per game. USC’s defense has given up a whopping 1,070 yards in its last two games, 674 of that coming through the air.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Caleb Williams
Williams has the mobility to get out of the pocket, which should be a major cause of concern for the Irish defense. The reason is became both Duke and Louisville found holes in the Notre Dame run defense. A team with the type of depth that USC possesses means that simply focusing on just one or two of Williams’ targets is a strategy likely to end in failure.
In just six games this season, Williams has already thrown for over 2,000 yards and generally avoids making mistakes, He’s tossed 22 touchdown passes in 2023 and been picked off only once in 166 attempts, all of this AFTER he won last year’s Heisman. Six different Trojan receivers have at least 10 catches this far, but he also has other options available.
CB Benjamin Morrison vs. WR Brenden Rice
Morrison’s numbers aren’t as prolific as during his fantastic freshman season in 2022. Yet, he continues to deliver for the Irish in the secondary with five pass deflections on the year. One indication of his importance is that he’s usually matched up against an opponent’s top receiver. That resulted in him delivering a solid performance against future NFL top pick Marvin Harrison Jr. in the Ohio State loss.
Rice and Tahj Washington are actually listed on the Trojan depth chart as reserves. That’s clearly a misnomer since the duo leads the team’s receiving unit with virtually identical numbers. In Rice’s case, the one-time Colorado wideout is averaging 20.7 yards on his 21 catches, seven of which have resulted in touchdowns.
T Joe Alt/Blake Fisher vs. DE Solomon Byrd
Alt and Fisher will both do battle with Byrd at some point and the duo are hoping for a better performance than what took place at Louisville. A combination of sacks, quarterback hurries and a weak running game was a deadly recipe that led to the Irish loss. Both Alt and Fisher are likely first-round NFL picks in the future, and good games in this instance would certainly add polish to their resumes.
Byrd is in his second season with the Trojans after starting his collegiate career with three years at Wyoming. Playing the strong side, Byrd is USC’s leading pass rusher this season with five sacks after collecting four in 2022. He can also get into the backfield to disrupt running plays, so making sure that his name isn’t called often on Saturday night would go a long way toward an Irish victory.
MLB J.D. Bertrand vs. RB MarShawn Lloyd
Bertrand and the Irish run defense have struggled to contain the opposing running game the past two weeks. Against Duke, a trio of runners led the way toward 189 yards on the ground and against Louisville, Jordan Jawhar gained 143 of the 185 yards for the Cardinals. Bertrand’s leadership will again be tested to stop the 4.7 yards per carry opponents have gained in the last eight quarters.
In his first season at USC after transferring from South Carolina, Lloyd has fit in well in the Trojans’ backfield. He leads the team in rushing with 519 yards and is averaging 7.7 yards on every carry. He’s scored four of touchdowns on the ground, though he hasn’t been much of a passing option with just five receptions this season. He’s only broken the 100-yard threshold once this year, but can obviously pick up chunks of yardage at a time.