Two losses in the past three games has made Notre Dame’s Saturday night home matchup against the Southern Cal Trojans a crucial one. A win keeps the Irish alive for a major bowl, while a loss likely relegates them to one that will likely have them home by New Year’s Day. To get that victory, some key numbers need to change.
Southern Cal has also seen some issues surface recently with those blemishes ones that the Irish could exploit. Still, the wide array of talent on the Southern Cal roster offers assets that need their own careful scrutiny. Below are some of the key numbers that could make for a wild night under the Golden Dome.
Passing It Around
Sam Hartman has generally been the better-regarded quarterback entering any of Notre Dame’s previous contests this season. That changes on Saturday when Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman winner takes the field. Hartman breezed through the first four Irish games this year, throwing for 1,061 yards 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions. However, in the past three clashes, he’s only found the end zone three times and in the loss to Louisville, threw three interceptions and also fumbled twice. Yet, the Trojan defense has given up over 300 passing yards in a game in half of their 2023 contests, offering Hartamn and the receiving corps the chance to return to form.
Williams is again being talked about as a Heisman candidate and is coming off a clutch game-winning two-pointer last Saturday night against Arizona. He’s careful with his throws, completing 71.7 percent of his tosses and has only been picked off once. That’s resulted in 1,822 yards through the air and 22 touchdown passes. He does have the edge when it comes to mobility, Hartman’s clutch run against Duke notwithstanding. Last season, he rushed for 10 scores and this season has six on 3.3 yards per carry. What Williams also brings to the table is quickness in his movement, which helped him score last weekend’s game-winner. The Irish are ranked fourth in the NCAA in pass efficiency but need to deliver big plays on Saturday night.
Running Into Trouble
Getting the Notre Dame running game going again is imperative. That’s because last week, the Irish were limited to just 44 rushing yards on the night and promptly watched their season yards-per-carry average drop nearly a half-yard in just a few hours. Audric Estime has largely struggled during the past three games but he and his fellow runners have an opportunity to return to normal. In four of Southern Cal’s games this season, teams have run for an average of just over 200 yards per game.
Southern Cal was “Tailback U.” for decades and while that iconic nickname really hasn’t been relevant since the Reggie Bush era, they can still deliver on the ground. The latest standout is actually a transfer from South Carolina. MarShawn Lloyd has gained 519 yards. He’s the main cog in a unit that’s averaging six yards on every carry, which could be a major concern if the past two Irish games are any evidence. In those contests, Notre Dame defenders gave up an average of 187 yards per game and 4.68 yards per carry.
Getting Heat on the Subject
The effectiveness of each defense’s pass rush can potentially play a huge role in this clash, even if the end result isn’t a sack. The aforementioned pass efficiency ranking of Notre Dame is eons above Southern Cal’s embarrassing ranking of 89th among 130 teams. Yet, the Trojans do have 22 sacks to their credit this year, while Notre Dame’s line is off their most embarrassing performance when Hartman was sacked five times. With Southern Cal, it’s usually a sack or nothing, since they only have nine quarterback hurries.
The Irish numbers for sacks and quarterback hurries are largely the opposite at 11 and 27, respectively. Getting to Williams may be a challenge since the Trojan offensive line has only allowed 11 sacks this season. Plus, Freeman pointed out in his weekly press conference that even if Notre Dame gets pressure on Williams, they run the risk of watching him potentially take off with the ball.
The Battle for the First Half
Getting things done in the first half was a major factor in the Irish’s five wins this year, with the Irish outscoring their foes, 111-24. Tellingly, in their two losses, they’ve managed only a single first-half touchdown and given up 10 points. Southern Cal has also made its mark during the first two quarters, scoring 174 of its 311 points this year during that span. Notably, Arizona State and Arizona kept things close in the first half against the Trojans and made them work hard to get the win. In short, not waiting around to put points on the board early may be the best path to victory.