The Trojans’ season is all but over after dropping to a 5-6 record following their defeat at the Rose Bowl to UCLA Saturday. The only avenue left to a .500 record and a potential bowl berth is a victory against Notre Dame Saturday at the Coliseum, a prospect that seems about as unlikely as Alabama head coach Nick Saban being announced the Trojans’ new coach.
Notre Dame will roll into the Coliseum with an undefeated record, after steamrolling previously No. 12-ranked Syracuse 36-3. The Fighting Irish are better than the Trojans in every phase of the game, which makes it hard to see USC walking out of the Coliseum with a win Saturday.
A win, however, would regain a bowl berth seemingly out of thin air and bring back some of the enthusiasm that’s been leaking out of the program all year. It’s not something to bet on, but at least something the Trojan faithful can hope for.
USC offense vs. Notre Dame defense
The Trojan passing game can only go so far as freshman quarterback JT Daniels can take it, and that’s far from comforting. Daniels has hardly evolved from the player he was at the start of the season — he makes the same mistakes he made back in September with regularity, failing to progress through reads or make good decisions and often finding himself unable to get the right amount of force behind his throws.
However, the good is still there -— Daniels shows tremendous accuracy at times as well as a gunslinger mentality that’s hard to come by, but his inconsistency makes it impossible to trust an offense under his leadership.
Last week, he got off to a blistering start, putting throw after throw on the money before tossing a bad interception straight to a UCLA cornerback after failing to make any reads on the coverage.
Plays such as that kill the flow of the offense, demoralize the defense and can turn the tide of a football game, as they have so many times this year for the Trojans. Daniels has capable weapons in the passing game in players like wide receivers junior Michael Pittman and freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, who have steadily performed at high levels when given the opportunity.
Pittman was excellent in his return from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the previous game, catching seven balls for 106 yards, as was St. Brown with his six receptions, 98 yards and score on the day.
Daniels might have a tough time getting the ball to them, however; Notre Dame features what’s likely the most imposing secondary the Trojans have seen all year.
Cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr. have been a thorn in the side of opposing quarterbacks all season, with a combined 23 pass defenses and three interceptions. Safeties Drue Tranquil and Jalen Elliott are both physical enforcers on the back end, combining for 125 tackles so far. Elliott has been fantastic in coverage as well, with six passes defensed and a team-leading four interceptions (more than the whole USC defense).
If the Trojans want to make this game a close one, it will likely take a lot from the running game. USC has been good at running the ball of late — running backs senior Aca’Cedric Ware and redshirt sophomore Vavae Malepeai are both averaging around five yards a carry in the last three weeks.
The issue has been the lack of volume in the run game, a mistake that likely cost them a win against UCLA, as the running backs only carried the ball 21 times against one of the country’s worst rush defenses. Though the Irish aren’t a poor run defending team by any means, they aren’t as strong stopping the run as they are in pass defense. Against Syracuse last week, they gave up 186 yards on 29 carries — USC would be more than happy to find that kind of success. Defensive linemen Jerry Tillery and linebacker Te’von Coney won’t make it an easy task, but if the Trojans want to get anything going on offense, they must find a way to establish the ground game.
Notre Dame offense vs. USC defense
The Notre Dame offense has run like a well-oiled machine all year long, leaning on a balanced attack that averages 257.7 pass yards and 197.2 rush yards per game.
Quarterback Ian Book has been tremendous for the Fighting Irish, completing 72.6 percent of his passes at a rate of 8.8 yards per attempt to go with 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions. His top two options in the receiving game, wide receivers Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool, have been forces outside the numbers, with 1,288 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns between them.
Boykin and Claypool are perhaps the most physically imposing receiver duo in college football, as both stand at 6-foot-4 and over 225 pounds. They could be a matchup nightmare for the Trojans, who won’t have a cornerback over 6-foot-1 in for the game.
The USC secondary has been inconsistent at best against the pass all year. It has been routinely shredded by teams with even a decent passing offense — even Oregon State threw for 301 yards against them. Defending the run will be no easy task either, as Notre Dame’s running back committee has rushed for 1,598 yards on an astounding yards per carry average of 5.8.
The unit is led by Dexter Williams, who has racked up 11 rushing touchdowns to go with his 844 yards on the ground, with Tony Jones and Jafar Armstrong rotating in.
If last week was any indication, the Trojans aren’t in any position to slow them down very much come Saturday. They allowed UCLA running back Joshua Kelley to gash them all day long last Saturday, resulting in 289 ground yards and two touchdowns for the redshirt junior.
Though the Trojans had been stout against the run the previous two weeks, they’ve allowed for huge games on the ground by multiple running backs throughout the season, such as Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin or Utah’s Zack Moss. It’s hard to see a way for the Trojans to slow down the Notre Dame offense — they’re too well rounded and USC is simply too flawed on that side of the ball.
Prediction: 52-14, Notre Dame
The gap between these two teams is far worse than it was last year, when the Irish beat the Trojans 49-14. This Notre Dame squad will likely make the College Football Playoff, while USC will probably fail to make a bowl game for the first time in nearly two decades.
On either side of the ball, it’s tough to see the Trojans making a dent against the Irish in this matchup. Although there’s much of an avenue for the Trojans to flip the expected result, expect the seniors to play at a higher level than we’ve seen all year in what’s likely their final game in a Trojan uniform. That might make this game a bit more exciting than the expected blowout.