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USC Football 2016: Previewing a struggling Notre Dame

Don’t let the 4-7 record fool you

Notre Dame v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

By any measure Notre Dame is having a dreadful season. Back in August they had several players in trouble with the law that resulted in a player dismissal and other “internal” punishments. Then they started out the season losing to Texas, a team with a 5-6 record who may or may not be about to fire their coach. They did beat Nevada the following week but then lost to Michigan State a team with a 3-8 record and followed up with a loss to 4-7 Duke at home. After that brutal start Notre Dame fired their defensive coordinator.

Things really did not improve for the Irish from there as their defense continued to struggle and the offense was not consistent enough to continue putting up enough points to keep outscoring opponents. Last week Notre Dame blew a 3-score lead against Virginia Tech losing their 7th game and bowl eligibility in the process. That could have been the low point of the season until this morning when they were hit with NCAA sanctions that included fines, 1 year probation, and vacating wins from the 2012 season.

It may be difficult to imagine Notre Dame heading into their final game of the season with anything resembling a positive or upset-minded attitude. After the season they’ve had, one could hardly blame them for just wanting to get it over with. Do not be surprised, however, if the Irish players come into this game wanting to salvage whatever they can from this year, and ending the rival Trojans’ winning streak may be just the thing.

The Irish are loaded with talent boasting a roster that does not even begin to reflect their current record. Many place the blame for this on poor coaching and bad defense. On defense the Irish have struggled when they play against an offense with a pulse and not in a hurricane. They are averaging 26.3 points allowed per game which is the 55th best in the nation (UCLA is 56th at 26.7). This is a defense that has given up 50 points against Texas, 38 points against Duke, 33 to Syracuse, and 34 to Virginia Tech.

Notre Dame Defense

The only times this season that the Irish defense has looked good were against Army, when they played Stanford without Christian McCaffrey and against NC State in the infamous hurricane game when the weather was so awful that no offensive touchdowns were scored and both teams combined to gain all of about 300 yards. In short, the USC Trojans should have no problem scoring points on this Notre Dame defense.

Notre Dame’s rushing defense ranks 76th in yards allowed per game. Clay Helton will once again look to have a balanced offense so expect to see monster days from Ronald Jones II and possibly Justin Davis. For comparison purposes Rojo put up 121 yards and 2 touchdowns on UCLA who has a better run defense than Notre Dame. Continuously moving the chains with the ground game also keeps the high-powered Notre Dame offense off the field.

By the numbers Notre Dame’s pass defense actually looks solid but that is because they have played two option offenses, the aforementioned hurricane game, and against Stanford when the Cardinal had no passing offense or Christian McCaffrey. In at least 4 of their 11 games to date the Irish played against teams that could not pass the ball. When you look at their numbers against teams that actually could pass their stats drop way down. The Irish are 97th in completion percentage and 86 in yards per attempt on defense. With a red hot Sam Darnold using almost every receiving target at his disposal the Trojans should have a great day throwing the ball even if Juju Smith-Schuster is unable to contribute much because of injury.

Notre Dame offense

If Notre Dame is going to have any realistic shot of winning this game it will be on offense. Notre Dame almost has the look and feel of a Big 12 team with a high-scoring offense but not much of a defense that frequently puts them in shootouts. Irish QB DeShone Kizer is an elite NFL-caliber talent that is near the top in quite a few 2017 mock drafts. Kizer can move the ball with his arm and his legs. The USC defense will have to get pressure on him while not losing containment. Clay Helton and Clancy Pendergast have placed a heavy emphasis on getting opposing quarterbacks off their spot but Kizer has done a great job this season making big plays happen even when you get him off his spot.

Keeping containment will help prevent Kizer from keeping plays and drives alive with his legs but Notre Dame also has a solid rushing attack led by Josh Adams. Adams is averaging 5.3 yards per rush which is good but still below both Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis. Adams has only 5 rushing touchdowns on the year, however his quarterback Kizer has 7 rushing touchdowns. Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams have also contributed significant yards for the Irish as well. Ultimately though, this offense lives and dies with DeShone Kizer.

Bottom line is that Adoree’ Jackson, Iman Marshall and the rest of the secondary will have to cover guys like Equanimeous St. Brown and Torii Hunter Jr. from whistle to whistle because Kizer can improvise and create big plays under duress. Meanwhile the Trojans’ defensive front seven will need to get penetration causing havoc in the backfield while not losing containment on Kizer. In short, if you take away Kizer, you can take away the Irish offense.

Paths to Victory:

For USC the path to a victory is pretty simple: Keep doing what you’re doing. They’ve won 7 straight including a thumping of crosstown rival UCLA. USC has plenty of weapons to win this game so the Trojans just need to continue to keep their poise, do their jobs, and work Helton’s system and they should be just fine. The same caveats still apply, they have to reduce the interceptions and penalties. During this 7 game run USC has had their problems in these areas but they have yet to play a team in the previous two months that has been able to really make them pay for these mistakes.

Notre Dame has a more narrow path to victory but a path is there. First they are going to need to mentally be ready to have their best game of the season which will be a big hurdle given how awful of a year it has been for them. Secondly Notre Dame is going to need to force mistakes. Trojans’ qb Sam Darnold has thrown plenty of interceptions this season and the Trojans’ offensive line has struggled mightily in the penalty department. Notre Dame has to turn these into drive killers and touchdowns. Then the Irish offense will need to have a great game and come up clutch in big spots. The Trojans have consistently shut down high-scoring offenses like Washington, Cal, and Oregon in the last 7 games, the Irish cannot join that list if they want to win.

Things to keep an eye on

Finally it should be pointed out that while Notre Dame’s record is dreadful all 7 of their losses have been by 8 points or fewer. That effectively means all of Notre Dame’s losses have come down to a single possession. As a result If you are USC you want to be very careful with your possessions. You never know when a poor decision by a young but talented QB could be the extra possession the Irish need or maybe a decision to kick on 4th down inside the Irish 35 could be it. The Trojans should protect their possessions, help their defense out, and not let this game turn into a shootout that is the most efficient path to beating Notre Dame.

The Young Trojans poise and resolve may be tested again on Saturday. The explosive Irish offense playing with nothing to lose may result in Notre Dame taking an early lead on the Trojans much like the Bruins did last week. In this event, if USC maintains their poise and goes back to work they should be just fine.

Notre Dame at USC kicks off Saturday at 12:30pst on ABC and Watch ESPN.

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USC [Roast Beef on Waffled Mac ‘n’ Cheese: waffled mac and cheese, roast beef, kimchi sauerkraut, gojuchang]