Notre Dame heads into their regular season finale with an unblemished record with a spot in the College Football Playoffs on the line. Forget any “Armageddon” theories you have heard or that ESPN has been peddling to make up for a lack of drama in the CFP Rankings the last month. A win and Notre Dame is in. Standing in their way is their arch rival USC. In most years, this would be one of the biggest games of the year. This year, however, the Trojans are limping to the finish line and they might be on the verge of firing their head coach.
A year ago, the high point in the Notre Dame season was a 49-14 beatdown of USC at home. A year later, the highlight of the regular season very well could be another blowout of the Trojans that propels the Irish into the playoffs.
What Doesn’t Worry Me This Week
Distractions/Hype. Distractions have not been a problem for this team so far this month. Notre Dame’s played three of their last four games away from Notre Dame Stadium and they haven’t missed a beat. They know what they are playing for and won’t be distracted by USC’s record. They know they have one more game to take care of business before they reach the playoffs.
USC’s Talent vs. Production. USC has a lot of talent on its roster. You have no doubt heard about all of the 4 and 5 star recruits in the starting lineup the Trojans will trot out there tomorrow. All of those stars however haven’t resulted in too many wins this year for USC for a number of reasons and after 11 games, all of those stars probably aren’t going to suddenly put it all together and play up to their capabilities.
Think back to the 2016 Fighting Irish coming into the USC game. Notre Dame had entirely too much talent to only be 4-7 heading into that game. The Irish played USC tight for a bit that Saturday afternoon, but there was a reason Notre Dame was 4-7 heading into the game and all of those reasons eventually showed their ugly heads that day as Notre Dame fell 45-27.
USC’s Run Defense. UCLA ran for 313 yards on USC last week including 289 on 40 carries by Bruin running back Joshua Kelley. That’s a 7.2 yards per carry average to a back averaging 5.7 yards per carry on the season. Dexter Williams enters tomorrow showdown averaging 6.7 yards a carry this season and 6.6 for his entire career. Injuries in the front seven have USC’s run defense vulnerable and Williams and Jafar Armstrong should be beneficiaries tomorrow. Both have the kind of speed and explosiveness to be able to exploit any breakdowns in the Trojan run defense.
JT Daniels. USC’s much ballyhooed freshman quarterback has not had a great start to his collegiate career. In 10 starts this season Daniels has thrown just 13 touchdown passes compared to 10 INTs. Seven of those 10 picks have come in the last five games he has started. On the season he is completing just 57.4% of his passes as well.
Daniels has an elite arm and better days are ahead of him. In fact, Clark Lea and the Notre Dame defense will have a lot of difficulties with him in the future. They shouldn’t have too much of a problem with him tomorrow though.
What Worries Me This Week
Injuries. Maybe getting ahead of myself a bit here, but injuries heading into the post-season (hopefully the playoffs) are a concern in a game like this where the Irish should be able to handle the Trojans relatively easily given all of their struggles. Notre Dame will ideally have much bigger things to play for after this one while the Trojans’ season will be over with a loss tomorrow. Stay healthy and get anyone who’s been nursing injuries (Kareem, Tranquil, Armstrong, etc) any additional rest possible.
Turnovers. One way for USC to make this a game is if Notre Dame turns the ball over early. The Irish have done this far too often in the last month for anyone’s liking. There was the fumble on the first drive of the Navy game by Miles Boykin, the botched exchange between Ian Book and Williams against Northwestern, and the interceptions by Brandon Wimbush against Florida State. Notre Dame has been able to avoid having these miscues from hurting them too much so far.
If Notre Dame turns the ball over early and sets USC up with favorable field position, the Trojans have enough playmakers to make the Irish pay. If Notre Dame protects the football and makes USC go the length of the field to score, the Trojan offense should have trouble sustaining drives against the Irish defense.
Amon Ra St. Brown. One way outside of turnovers that USC can avoid having to sustain long drives is to get some chunk plays. Notre Dame has been one of the best defenses in the country at preventing chunk plays, but they don’t have a favorable matchup with Amon Ra St. Brown versus the slot corner position. Notre Dame has had some issues stabilizing that position this season before Nick Coleman settled in over the last few weeks, but he doesn’t have the top end speed to keep up with St. Brown.
JT Daniels does look for St. Brown, his high school teammate, whenever he gets in trouble so there will be some chances for him to make plays tomorrow night. Notre Dame has to prevent St. Brown from burning them for huge gains.
My Own Overconfidence. Usually when I feel as confident as I do heading into this game, something happens. I just don’t see any way Notre Dame loses this game though. USC is playing for bowl eligibility, but let’s be honest, you don’t go to USC to play for bowl eligibility in game 12. You go there to play for a national championship. Notre Dame has everything to lose and USC really doesn’t have all that much to gain in the grand scheme of things.
After what this team went through two years ago and everything that potentially lies ahead of them, this junior and senior class is not going to let Notre Dame lose. I just don’t see USC having that same sense of urgency – especially after they were embarrassed last week by a terrible UCLA team.
Players to Watch this Week
- Ian Book – He’s had a lot of good games this season, but I have a feeling we are about to see a great one. Something along the lines of 300+ yards and 4 TD type performance. He’s had 2 TD in each of his last 5 games. He will have more than that tomorrow.
- Dexter Williams – Williams is going to have a big game as well. He needs 156 yards on the ground to reach 1,000 and while no one on the staff will admit it, they will be giving him every chance to reach it.
- Chris Finke – He was one of the few bright spots last time Notre Dame traveled to Troy. I think he’ll have another good game for the Irish as USC will forget about him.
- Nick Coleman – Notre Dame needs him to continue his late season surge this week to prevent St. Brown from having himself a game.
- Chase Claypool – He’s been ascending over the last month of the season and he could be the beneficiary of Book’s big game I feel coming.
- Julian Okwara – USC has been pretty good in pass protection this season but they have given up 25 sacks this year. Okwara could cap off his strong junior campaign with a 2.0 sack performance.
- Jerry Tillery – He won’t admit it either, but Tillery will be looking for some redemption tomorrow considering his performance in the Coliseum two years ago. Look for Tillery to have another big game for Notre Dame.
If you haven’t been able to tell by now, I think Notre Dame is going to win this game and win relatively easily. I just don’t see USC being able to slow down the Irish offense much and expect the Irish defense to take advantage of playing a freshman quarterback who has struggled of late. Notre Dame’s ability to get pressure with just the front four and drop seven into coverage specifically should help confuse the frosh and result in some early turnovers by the Trojan offense.
USC might keep it interesting for a little while, but Notre Dame will pull away in the end and by the 4th quarter the outcome will not be in doubt. Notre Dame has been making a statement so far this month and that statement continues tomorrow as the Irish secure their spot in the playoffs with a convincing win.
Notre Dame 42, USC 17