The Notre Dame Fighting Irish come to the Coliseum on Saturday with playoff birth hopes and an unbeaten record. Will the struggling USC Trojans pull off what would be Clay Helton’s biggest upset victory of his career? For that to happen, the Trojans need to shut down the following players.
Quarterback Ian Book
At the start of the season, junior quarterback Ian Book was second string and backing up senior Brandon Wimbush. After lack luster performances from Wimbush through Notre Dame’s first three games, head coach Brian Kelly benched the senior in favor of Book.
The Irish have not looked back since and Book has led his team to an 11-0 record. Through eight games, Book has recorded 2,116 yards, 17 passing touchdowns, four rushing touchdowns and five interceptions. While the junior from El Dorado Hills, California is labeled as a pro-style passer, he can make a run for it if need be.
Book has 243 rush yards on the season, so needless to say it is imperative for USC’s chance at a win, for its pass rush to account for Book on the ground. With sack artist Porter Gustin out for the season, there has yet to be a Trojan who has stepped up to the plate to take on Gustin’s roll on defense. With only three games where Book has not rushed for 20 plus yards, USC can not afford to let him slip through its defensive line. If ever there was a time to create a pass rush it is now.
If Book has time he can beat you not only with his legs, but with his arm. This season his completion percentage has not dropped below 64 percent during a game, and for 2018 he is averaging a 72.6 completion percentage. Book has not had a game this season where he thrown for anything less than 260 yards.
Book is one of the best quarterbacks USC will have faced this season, behind Gardner Minshew of Washington Sate and Sam Ehlinger of Texas. If the Trojans want to potentially ruin Notre Dame’s playoff hopes, they will have to ruin Book’s performance first.
Running back Dexter Williams
If you want to know how impressive senior Dexter Williams is, just take a look at his stat sheet. After missing the first four games of the season due to a university imposed suspension, Williams has ran for 844 yards and 11 touchdowns. Yes, he is nearing 1,000 yards on the season after missing four games.
There has only been three instances where the running back from Orlando, Florida has not rushed for 120 plus yards. In the games against Syracuse, Northwestern, and Pittsburg, Williams rushed for a total of 161 yards. He recorded 161 alone against Stanford.
USC’s rush defense this year has been abysmal. It allowed UCLA’s Josh Kelley to run for a season best of 289 yards. If the Trojans want to secure a bowl birth, they cannot allow even 100 yards with Williams.
Williams’ longest play of the season came against Virginia Tech, where he broke free for a 97-yard touchdown run. Williams has the vision to see holes, even slits, he can take advantage of and unless USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast can dial up a solid game plan, the one-two combo of Book and Williams will eat the Trojans alive.
Defensive lineman Jerry Tillery
Senior Jerry Tillery is bound to be a very high draft pick after the season he has had with Notre Dame. The 6-foot-7, 305 pound defensive lineman has recorded a whopping seven sacks, five quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, and one blocked kick.
Everyone knows that USC freshman quarterback JT Daniels does not play well when having to run for his life, and unless the Trojan offensive line can block Tillery, Daniels will have another dismal performance.
Many USC fans may remember Tillery from Notre Dame’s last trip to the Coliseum in 2016, where he kicked the head of an injured Aca’Cedric Ware, and later stepped on the ankle of Zack Banner who was down on the field.
That's not going to help someone who just suffered a brain injury, Notre Dame pic.twitter.com/eQmt1BU47y— Deadspin (@Deadspin) November 26, 2016
Update: this is the same Notre Dame player who kicked Ware in the head pic.twitter.com/72CN5uXEqe— Deadspin (@Deadspin) November 26, 2016
A little more than half of Tillery’s tackles have been for a loss, and if the Trojans want to avenge the above plays and hand Notre Dame a loss of its own, they will have to account for a usually dominant Tillery.