There is no doubting the historical appeal of the Notre Dame-USC rivalry, which dates back to 1926. But this weekend’s game carries a little extra juice than normal. No. 11 USC and No. 13 Notre Dame both enter highly ranked and with one loss, with Saturday’s game acting not only as a rivalry matchup but also as a College Football Playoff eliminator.
“It’s really neat to have the two teams where we are right now,” head coach Clay Helton said. “Nationally ranked, a big game with a lot on the line. It reminds me a lot of how our game versus Penn State was in the Rose Bowl. It’s two teams when they’re playing well, it’s great for the game.”
For USC, the question will be if it can turn in its first complete game against a ranked opponent since its Week 2 romping of Stanford. Against Utah last week, the Trojans fumbled three times in the first quarter and trailed by 14 at the half, while Utes running back Zach Moss gashed USC’s defense for 113 first half rushing yards. But in the second half, the team as a whole turned a switch. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold did not turn the ball over for the rest of the game, captaining three long scoring drives, while the defense gave up just one score.
“I look forward to putting a full game together, like we did in that second half,” Helton said. “Showing that type of football, that clean, hard-nosed attitude that those kids had … It’s going to be needed in this game.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Trojans as they play on the road in South Bend, Ind., will be containing an elite Fighting Irish rushing attack with a depleted defensive line. While Helton expects junior defensive lineman Rasheem Green to play through an ankle injury suffered against Utah, it was a rough week for the nose tackle position. Having already lost highly touted freshman Marlon Tuipulotu to season ending back surgery, junior Josh Fatu suffered a concussion after being involved in a car accident and redshirt senior Kenny Bigelow officially transitioned to a non-football role after two previous knee surgeries.
Now starting at nose tackle is Alaskan freshman Brandon Pili. In his first career start, Pili will be tasked with penetrating an experienced Irish offensive line and curtailing a ground attack led by junior running back Josh Adams and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Adams has rushed for 776 yards on nine yards per carry, while Wimbush has run for 402 yards and eight touchdowns in a dual threat role.
“[Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly] had DeShone Kizer the last couple of years and leaned on the passing game,” Helton said. “This year, you can tell he’s got two runners — one is the quarterback and one’s the big back. They’re spreading you out in three wide sets and running for 308 yards per game.”
Compounding Notre Dame’s revamped ground and pound offense, is a stout run defense that has given up just one rushing touchdown all year. In their 20-19 loss to Georgia, the Irish held both Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to under 100 yards. Junior tackles Chuma Edoga and Toa Lobendahn are expected to play through various injuries, but freshman running back Stephen Carr remains out with a foot injury. With the Irish secondary ranking No. 78 in passing yards allowed per game, Saturday’s clash may come down to Darnold’s arm.
In addition to the emergence of freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns as a threat over the past three games, USC’s deep tight end corps has done an excellent job of alleviating pressure on go-to slot man Deontay Burnett. Helton has confidence in four players, who will all play a significant number of snaps against Notre Dame.
“[Sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe] helped us for about 12 plays last week,” Helton said. “We look forward to that number increasing as he gets healthy and more confident …That position right now is really stockpiled when you look at it with a lot of great talent. Not only do you have Daniel but you have Tyler [Petite], who’s having his best year by far, you’ve got the emergence of Josh Falo, who’s made two touchdown catches in the last two games and then you’ve got Erik Krommenhoek, who’s done the dirty work.”
When USC heads to South Bend, Ind., for the 86th edition of a storied rivalry, more than the Jeweled Shillelagh hangs in the balance, as both schools fight to remain alive in the national title conversation.
“It’s the best intersectional rivalry in all of college sports today,” Helton said. “Everybody wants to win this so they can leave their mark in history.”