USC and Notre Dame are on their way towards writing another chapter in their historic rivalry. The Trojans are looking to play spoiler to the Irish’s College Football Playoffs hopes. We are joined by Patrick Sullivan of Notre Dame’s One Foot Down to discuss this Saturday’s game and get the view from the other side.
1- 11-0 and one game away from securing a spot in the CFP. What do you think went right for this Notre Dame team this season?
This year was really just a solid combination of fantastic defense, surprisingly balanced offense, and a favorable schedule.
Last year’s ND defense under defensive coordinator Mike Elko was pretty good, but the Irish lost Elko in the offseason to Texas A&M and his understudy, Clark Lea, was promoted to defensive coordinator. What Lea has done is simply improve upon what ND already had (lots of talented guys who had gained experience as freshmen during that awful 4-8 season in 2016), and it shows. The Irish defense is #3 in S&P+ and #2 in pass efficiency defense, and for the first time in a while ND has a strong pass rush and lots of speed on that side of the ball. They’ve been pretty dominant all season long.
Offensively, fans were expecting a less impressive version of last year’s dominant rushing offense, as Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, and Josh Adams had all moved on to the NFL. And in the early going with Brandon Wimbush at QB, it seemed that was what we were going to get -- until Ian Book took over against Wake Forest. Book’s precision and quick decision-making in the pocket breathed a new life into the offense, and then with the return of suspended running back Dexter Williams in Game 5, offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense all of a sudden was incredibly balanced, kept the chains moving, and was putting up lots more points.
Finally, the 2018 schedule looked rough on paper heading into the season, including games against Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State, and USC. However, besides Michigan, the rest of those teams have been pretty bad this year, and honestly the #2, 3, and 4 opponents on the schedule ended up being Northwestern, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse (not necessarily in that order). So, obviously, the schedule has been pretty damn easy, which has helped put that dominant defense and efficient offense into position to go undefeated.
2- With USC have a very disappointing season and this being a rivalry game, what are your expectations coming into the game?
I don’t think this one will be close in the end, but USC has enough athletes and enough to play for (chance to spoil ND’s CFP chances, a .500 record and bowl eligibility, trying to save their coach’s job) that they might surprise us and make some plays early on that make Irish fans sweat.
However, I think, as has been the case with nearly every opponent this season, the ND defensive and offensive fronts will wear down their opponent, the ND pass rush will force some mistakes by JT Daniels, and ultimately the Irish will win comfortably by double digits to secure their CFP spot and first undefeated regular season since 2012.
3- Who are some key Notre Dame players that USC fans should keep an eye on for this game?
On offense, the guys to watch out for are definitely Ian Book and Dexter Williams. Book obviously makes the offense hum and keeps things moving by completing those short-to-medium passes with fantastic accuracy to convert on 3rd downs. Williams has 844 rushing yards in just 7 games played this year, and is an absolute home run threat if he gets daylight. USC HAS to hit him at the line and not let him get into space if they want to slow him down. Additionally, watch out for Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, and Alize Mack, who are all huge targets for Book and tough match-ups for any DBs who don’t have the size and strength to successfully jam them at the line.
On defense, there are a BUNCH of guys to watch, but I’ll say Jerry Tillery, Julian Okwara, Te’von Coney, and Julian Love are the biggest names to know. Tillery is the man in the middle and is fantastic at stuffing the run and collapsing the pocket on passing downs (7 sacks on the season), while Okwara is essentially unblockable at defensive end, a great combination of length, athleticism, and speed who has 6 sacks and 21 QB hurries on the year, and who more often than that sets up his teammates for sacks and hurries.
Coney is a senior middle linebacker who, along with Tillery, decided to come back for his final season, and has been sensational in his final year, using his great strength and athleticism to run down ball carriers, put pressure on the QB, and even play well in coverage. He’s definitely earned himself a much higher draft pick in April 2019. Finally, Julian Love is a potential All-American at corner who is already ND’s all-time leader in passes broken up as a junior. He’s their best cover guy and will surely be hoping to continue his shut-down, big-play ways against the likes of Pittman Jr. and St. Brown and Vaughns in this one.
4- This years Notre Dame team draws a lot of comparisons to the 2012 ND team. Do you see a lot of similarities from this team to 2012?
I see some similarities, like how both teams were certainly led by upperclassmen-heavy, stifling defenses. However, even on defense, I think the 2018 team, despite with less star power like that brought by Manti Te’o and Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, is much more complete and has more total talent (and a better coordinator) than 2012.
On the other side of the ball, the 2018 ND team’s offense is LIGHT YEARS better than the 2012 unit, which was led by a redshirt freshman Everett Golson and found almost all of its success either on the ground or through tossing the ball up for Tyler Eifert. This year’s offense can really beat you in various ways and is much more efficient and dangerous. I will say, though, the QB situation has a similarity in that this year’s team features a backup (Wimbush) who can be called upon to come in and win games. Tommy Rees was the same kind of player in backing up Golson in 2012.
5- Notre Dame hasn’t won at the LA Coliseum since 2012. Has it become a “House of Horrors” for the Irish lately?
You could say that for sure. I was there in 2014 for that debacle of a game (it wasn’t fun), and obviously that 4-8 team in 2016 got stomped at the Coliseum in the season finale as well. 2012 was the last time ND even won the last game of its season, actually, having lost at Stanford in 2017, 2015, and 2013.
I think that losing streak in season finales in California ends this weekend. This ND team is different and much more complete, and this USC team is not a huge threat, despite the individual talent they do still have at some positions. The “House of Horrors” feeling should dissipate after this one.
6- Who are some USC players that Notre Dame fans been keeping their eye on for this game?
For me, it’s definitely the receivers who can break off big plays, like Amon-Ra St. Brown and Michael Pittman Jr. For as good as ND’s defense -- especially the pass defense -- has been, I am always worried about Daniels getting a little more time than ND would like to give him, and his raw throwing ability taking over to find one of those fast USC receivers streaking behind the Irish safeties.
Defensively, Iman Marshall scares me a bit, just because I know how talented he is and that Ian Book will occasionally try to fit a ball into too small of a window, leading to an interception. Hopefully Book will play a clean, productive game and keep the ball out of the USC DBs’ hands.
7- Its Black Friday and you have to buys a gift for 4 Notre Dame players? Who are you buying for? what are you getting them? And why?
Because they’re NCAA student-athletes, I am legally unable to purchase gifts for any current ND players. So, I’ve chosen 4 former ND players to purchase gifts for:
- Brady Quinn: I would buy him some Crest White Strips so he can continue to manage that dazzling smile of his in the broadcasting booth
- Golden Tate: I would buy him maple bars, since he clearly wanted those back in 2010 and was unable to legally procure any
- Tom Rees: New sneakers -- not sure if he has any evasion/knees to the chest planned for the South Bend Police, but if he does, he will need some new P.F. Flyers so that he can run faster and jump higher
- Tom Zbikowski: I’d buy my good friend Tom some Sock ‘Em Boppers, because he’s a boxer and those things rule
- Bonus - Jimmy Clausen: I’d buy Jimmy a sensible haircut, those spikes he had were HORRIBLE
8- Who are your 4 most hated USC players of all time and why?
- Player: OJ Simpson; Reason: Murder
- Player: Brian Cushing ; Reason: Roid Rage
- Player: Dwayne Jarrett ; Reason: That 4th-and-2 catch in 2005. Goddamnit.
- Player: Matt Leinart; Reason: I don’t need to explain this.
Honorable Mention: Chris Galippo, Taylor Mays, Rey Mauluga, Lendale White, Mark Sanchez (in college -- his butt fumble will forever endear the pro version to me)
Please note that I am 27 years old, so guys like Anthony Davis and what they did to past ND teams probably would be hated by me, but I never saw them play.
9-Let’s get a prediction. Who wins and give us a final score
Notre Dame will pull away in the 3rd quarter after a not-super-high-scoring first half that includes some nice plays from St. Brown, Pittman Jr., and co. that keep USC in it. In the second half, Dexter Williams will break loose a couple times, Book will throw (pun unintended) a couple nice drives together, and the ND defense will clamp down on the run and put lots of pressure on Daniels.
Notre Dame 41, USC 23