Coming off their bye week, the 3-2 Trojans will look to rebound from a sloppy loss at Washington against a talented Notre Dame team currently ranked No. 9 in the country.
This year’s edition of the storied rivalry looks once again like an unbalanced affair between a potential College Football Playoff contender in the Fighting Irish and an unranked and unsettled USC, but there’s a lot at stake for both teams going into the matchup. The Trojans desperately need to avoid a second straight loss, and the Irish will need a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Add in the fervor of one of college football’s best rivalries, and you’ve got a recipe for an interesting Saturday.
USC Offense vs Notre Dame Defense
The return of freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis gives USC’s offense a massive boost. As the passing performance against Washington showed, Slovis’ ability to make quick reads and deliver an accurate ball are integral to the success of the Trojan offense against capable defenses.
Though the freshman still has plenty of issues to work through, he’s a talented and intelligent passer, and with an array of weapons at his disposal, he should be poised to produce against a Notre Dame defense that may be vulnerable against the pass. Although they’ve been statistically stout for most of the season, the Irish have been shredded through the air against solid opponents like Virginia and Georgia.
The loss of graduate cornerback Shaun Crawford only makes matters worse for the Irish in that area, especially against a Trojan offense with so many dangerous weapons in the passing game. Senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. currently leads the Trojans in receiving, and a favorable matchup could set him up for a big night.
Notre Dame’s pass rush is perhaps the unit’s greatest strength, spearheaded by star senior edge rusher Julian Okwara, but the Trojans have been strong in pass protection all season long. Dominating through the air is likely USC’s best chance to win this game; the pass game will have to produce at a high level for the Trojans to pull out a win.
The ground game looks a little more dicey, as the up-and-down USC rushing attack will be pitted against a Notre Dame defense that has shut down the run games of two opponents over the past three weeks. It’ll be a tall task for the Trojans to be as productive on the ground as they were against the Huskies.
Notre Dame Offense vs USC Defense
Senior quarterback Ian Book has been fantastic for the Fighting Irish thus far. Book can do it all — he’s a smart passer with a strong arm, great awareness and dangerous mobility. He’s been the engine that drives the Notre Dame offense, and he’s done it with incredible efficiency, throwing for 13 touchdowns to only two interceptions and posting a 65.5 completion percentage.
Much like Washington, the tight end position plays a big role for the Fighting Irish, so the Trojans will be tested in the passing game across the middle. Luckily for USC, its young secondary has been solid and steadily improving over the past few contests, and the return of sophomores safety Talanoa Hufanga and cornerback Olaijah Griffin will provide a significant boost to the unit. So long as the Trojans generate pressure consistently, they’re primed to be able to counter the Notre Dame passing game.
On the ground, the Irish have been solid all year, but the return of junior running back Jafar Armstrong could shake things up significantly. Armstrong is an explosive playmaker, but he has missed almost the entire season due to an abdominal injury suffered Week 1. Armstrong will suit up this Saturday, and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has said he hopes for the back to play around 20 snaps this week. USC has often been vulnerable on the ground this year, and a strong day from Armstrong and company could be too much for the USC defense to bear.
Prediction: 35-28, Notre Dame
Despite the apparent disparity between the unranked Trojans and No. 9 Fighting Irish, these teams match up fairly well against each other. Notre Dame is still the better team on paper, but this Trojan squad is plenty capable of going toe-to-toe with them.
USC should be motivated to avoid back-to-back losses and a slide to 3-3; I wouldn’t be shocked if the Trojans pull off the road upset against their rivals. This could be a much more intense game than many assume. Nonetheless, home field advantage in South Bend is huge, and the Irish should be able to hang on for a victory if they execute properly.