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It’s Rivalry Week: USC vs. Notre Dame

Following the come from behind victory over Virginia Tech, Notre Dame has made it to the halfway point in this 2021 college football season with a 5-1 record.  The games have been far from pretty, but Coach Kelly has managed to squeak out a lot of favorable outcomes up to this point.  Coming off a bye week, the Virginia Tech matchup feels like it was years ago – I don’t know about you, but weekends with no Irish football go by so much slower. 

Against the Hokies, we saw that Jack Coan was the quarterback that Kelly deemed as “their guy” for the starting role.  Freshman Tyler Buchner came in and sparked the offense for two quarters but also made some typical freshman mistakes along the way.  Jonathan Doerer’s leg saved the Irish, kicking the game winning field goal in the waning seconds of the game with a laser pointed at him.  It wasn’t easy, but the Irish emerged victorious.

Looking ahead to Saturday’s primetime matchup against the Trojans of USC, the Irish are about a one touchdown favorite as both programs are coming off bye weeks.  Saturday will mark the 92nd meeting between these rival programs in which Brian Kelly is 7-3 in games played against the Trojans.  Kelly announced that Jack Coan will remain the starter at quarterback, but as has been the case in the first six games of the year, I fully expect to see some sort of combination of Buchner and/or Pyne get playing time as well.  Buchner’s significant playing time and reps against Virginia Tech in a hostile environment will undoubtedly show their value as he progresses through his collegiate career as well. 

USC is coming in with a 3-3 record, but I truly believe they are a better team than their record and stats may show.  The Trojans are currently tied with the Irish for consecutive road victories (at 8), but I think that streak will be snapped on Saturday.  USC will be led by Junior quarterback Kedon Slovis and Junior wide receiver Drake London.  London is the Trojans’ main threat on offense – a 6-foot 5-inch playmaker that has already put up 832 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns through the Trojans first six games.  London is not only a matchup nightmare due to his size, but he was also a member of the Trojan basketball team as a freshman, showing his true athletic ability.  USC’s air-raid offense will test the Notre Dame secondary with a lot, and I mean a lot of down field passing.  They do have quite a few athletes on the offensive side of the ball and are averaging just over 32 points per game.  The games in which the Trojans have won, this offense is putting up points in the high-30s to low-40s, and the games in which they have lost, the offense is held to point totals in the 20s.  With the amount that USC throws the ball, if Notre Dame is going to have success and come out with another victory, the Irish defensive line will have to continue to live in the backfield, creating havoc and forcing off-timing throws and poor decisions.  When the Trojans have sufficient time to throw the ball, they have the capability to put up a lot of points.

On the other side of the ball, USC’s defense has been less than stellar, giving up an average of around 28 points per game, finding it very difficult to stop teams in the red zone.  Notre Dame’s red zone efficiency has slowly been improving and will need to continue to take a step forward on Saturday.  With tight end Michael Mayer and running back Chris Tyree expected to be fully healthy and back in the lineup, the Irish offensive line will need to provide enough time for Coan to get the ball to these playmakers.  USC’s best defensive lineman, Drake Jackson was last seen in a walking boot following the Trojans loss to Utah but is expected to be back to (almost) full health and ready to play against the Irish.  If the Irish offensive line can continue to make improvements, similar to what they put on display in the last game against Virginia Tech, this will not only give Coan, or whoever happens to be in at quarterback during the game, ample time to throw, but should also help Williams and Tyree put up some increased numbers on the ground.  With the way that USC’s defense has been playing through the first half of their season paired with the relative improvement of Notre Dame’s offensive line, I’m expecting that the Irish backs will be able to put up better numbers this week – in turn, opening up the passing game and giving success to the Irish offense.

With the colder fall weather coming to South Bend, I will be very interested to see how (or if) this will affect the Trojan players.  If Notre Dame can put up points early, will the combination of weather, point deficit, and a lackluster season simply be too much for USC to overcome?  We will soon find out.  I expect the Irish defense to have their hands full, but Notre Dame’s discipline and execution will be the key to their success on Saturday.  I am predicting the Irish to come out with their sixth win of the season with a 31-21 victory. 

Go Irish.  Beat Trojans.

A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Florida State: 2-4 overall, coming off bye week

Toledo: 3-4 overall, lost to Central Michigan 26-23 (OT)

Purdue: 4-2 overall, beat Iowa 24-7

Wisconsin: 3-3 overall, beat Army 20-14 

Cincinnati: 6-0 overall, beat UCF 56-21

Virginia Tech: 3-3 overall, lost to Pittsburgh 28-7

USC: 3-3 overall, coming off bye week

North Carolina: 4-3 overall, beat Miami (FL) 45-42

Navy: 1-5 overall, lost to Memphis 35-17

Virginia: 5-2 overall, beat Duke 48-0

Georgia Tech: 3-3 overall, coming off bye week

Stanford: 3-4 overall, lost to Washington St. 34-31