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Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh – USC vs. Notre Dame Preview

It’s rivalry week.  The 3-2 Trojans of Souther California are coming to South Bend to take on the 4-1 and ninth ranked Fighting Irish this Saturday and as usual, it will be an exciting matchup.  What makes this rivalry so special?  Tradition, history, heart, and passion are just a few of the words that the Notre Dame players and coaching staff have used to answer that question.  After coming off a shutout against Bowling Green and playing their third game in a row at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish and the Trojans will battle it out in primetime on Saturday night. 

In a rivalry game, records don’t necessarily matter.  USC is always a tough opponent and will undoubtedly be bringing their A game to South Bend.  After coming off a bye week, the Trojans have had the benefit of the extra time to heal up and prepare to take on the Irish.  Under fourth year head coach Clay Helton, USC comes in with an explosive offense – one built on big plays down the field, and a defense that is stout up front but very young in the secondary.  USC has had a lot of movement at their quarterback position through their first five games, but it has recently been announced that true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis will be starting for the Trojans on Saturday after suffering a concussion in USC’s 30-23 win over Utah back on September 20th.  Slovis has had limited playing time this season after the Trojan’s first string quarterback, J.T. Daniels suffered a season ending knee injury, but he is talented nonetheless.  When asked about playing against a true freshman quarterback, many of the Notre Dame defenders were not lured into the trap of saying they were “licking their chops” at the chance to make plays, but rather pointed to the fact that Slovis is obviously very talented if he has put himself into the starting position at a program like USC.  Another advantage of being a true freshman quarterback is that opposing teams do not have as much film on you.  Now yes, experience is obviously important, but Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff will have their hands full scheming up a way to slow down the Trojans’ offense.  

As mentioned, USC’s air raid offense is prone to big plays down the field.  This attack is lead by the three headed monster of Trojan receivers – Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman, and Amon-Ra St. Brown (brother of former Notre Dame wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown).  These receivers are tall, none of them shorter than 6’1”, and very explosive.  Both Troy Pride and Alohi Gilman talked about how this trio is great at high-pointing the ball, making it even more difficult for safeties and corners to defend.  Defensively, this is a game where Shaun Crawford’s absence from the Notre Dame secondary will be felt.  The Irish are going to need another corner to step up in his place.  There have been multiple rumors floating around of moving freshman safety Kyle Hamilton to corner, but in my opinion that would be a mistake.  Hamilton’s range, athleticism, and instinct have allowed him to shine at safety this year and I would not want to put him in the position of having to overthink and learn a new position on the fly.  In order for the Notre Dame defense to continue to have success, I think Hamilton’s playing time will continue to ramp up as the season goes on, but I would not want to take him out of the safety position.  In order to contain the air raid attack, both Hamilton and Gilman will be tasked on keeping the plays in front of them.  As it has been shown, USC will be looking for those explosive, deep plays down the field and for Notre Dame to have success, both the corners and safeties will have to play physical, be disciplined, and not allow the plays to get over their heads.  I think it will be imperative for the Irish defense to throw multiple different looks, specifically zone coverages, at Slovis throughout the game and force him to make reads on the fly.  This is where his inexperience could come into play and if the Irish defense can force any turnovers, the offense will absolutely need to capitalize on those opportunities.

When Ian Book and the Irish offense are on the field, it will be interesting to see how the Trojans will defend.  Looking back at last year’s game, the USC corners really pressed the Irish receivers at the line of scrimmage and this seemed to effect Book’s reads and passing ability throughout the first half of that game.  After making adjustments at halftime, the Irish were able to scheme differently, but I will be curious to see how the Trojans approach it this year.  In his weekly meeting with the media, Brian Kelly commented on how this was one of the most talented defenses that he has seen at USC.  In a post-practice interview, Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet reiterated this point as well.  Although the Trojans are giving up an average of around 175 rushing yards per game, Notre Dame is going to need consistent output from the running backs to keep the defense honest and allow for more opportunities in the passing game.  Helping out with the Irish rushing attack, Jafar Armstrong has been listed as the number two running back on the depth chart, behind Tony Jones Jr.  This would be Armstrong’s first game back since the season opener against Louisville where he suffered an abdominal injury early in that game.  As the Irish continue to get back to full health offensively, I would not expect a “Cole Kmet-like” return game for Armstrong, but I do think that he can be used strategically to open up the offense and take some of the load off of Jones Jr.  USC is very young in the secondary as well, so if the Irish offensive line can allow adequate time for Book to go through his reads, this might be an area of the game that Notre Dame will look to exploit.  Not only will Book be looking to his trusted targets of Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet, but I am hoping that Michael Young and Javon McKinley will both prove to be impactful in the Irish passing game as well.

With a rival like USC coming in this weekend, the atmosphere in Notre Dame stadium needs to mimic that of the Notre Dame vs. Georgia game earlier this year.  We all saw how important and how much of a factor that was and I am hoping that the Irish faithful will be out in full force this weekend.  For anyone that is going to the game, remember that it is a GREEN OUT.  With a loud and intimidating atmosphere and the chance for some cold South Bend weather, it is now our turn as fans to help impact a game.  As this is scheduled to be one of Notre Dame’s biggest recruiting weekends as well, there will be a lot of talented athletes on campus.  With Notre Dame and USC battling over top recruits, a game-ready crowd and loud atmosphere will be all the more important.

The Irish are currently sitting as 11 point favorites going into Saturday’s matchup.  USC has too many athletes on their roster not to put up a decent amount of points, making them as dangerous as anyone.  If Notre Dame can contain the Trojans’ air raid offense and Book is able to get the Irish on the board early and often, Notre Dame should be able to win this game.  I am hoping for a loud atmosphere, a sea of green, and and a 38-24 Notre Dame victory.  I think it will be close, especially early, but the Irish will be able to make a few key plays to score when it matters.  It’s rivalry week and the jeweled shillelagh is on the line.  Go Irish.  Beat Trojans.

A look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Louisville: 3-2, beat Boston College 41-39

New Mexico: 2-3, lost to San Jose State 32-21

Georgia: 5-0, currently ranked #3, beat Tennessee, 43-14

Virginia: 4-1, currently ranked #20, coming off bye week

Bowling Green: 1-4, lost to Notre Dame 52-0

USC: 3-2, coming off bye week

Michigan: 4-1, currently ranked #16, beat Iowa 10-3

Virginia Tech: 3-2, beat Miami (FL) 42-35

Duke: 3-2, lost to Pittsburgh 33-30

Navy: 3-1, beat Air Force 34-25

Boston College: 3-3, lost to Louisville 41-39

Stanford: 3-3, beat Washington 23-13