It’s Trojans Week!
The Irish are about to embark on the toughest six game stretch in college football, where they’ll face five Top 25 ranked teams, and it all starts with a prime-time showdown against the USC Trojans in South Bend.
The series between the Fighting Irish and Trojans has had plenty of memorable games over the last ninety-plus years, and this season’s matchup has all the makings of another rivalry classic. It’s a series that has made, or broken, championship aspirations for both teams throughout the rivalry’s storied history, and with both teams sitting just outside the AP Top 25, and both sitting on one loss each, as well, the outcome of this game will, at the very least, break one team’s championship aspirations this season. The good news for the Irish is that this first game in the brutal back-half of the season comes after the team’s bye-week, so the Irish should be well rested. And, the Irish have been able to put their second week loss to Georgia behind them and win four straight in convincing fashion. So with the Irish gelling on both sides of the ball, there’s a real possibility that if the Irish are able to win out they’d have a strong enough argument to make the College Football Playoffs. But it all starts here, with a chance to reclaim the Jeweled Shillelagh, and crush the hopes and dreams of the Trojans, and their fans everywhere; it just doesn’t get any better than that!
The Fighting Irish come into the game with a record of 5-1, after winning four straight games, including three road games. Notre Dame is currently ranked No. 13 in the AP Top 25, after gaining five spots following their 33-10 win over North Carolina two weeks ago, and another three spots during their bye-week. The Trojans enter the game with a record of 6-1 following a close one point win over unranked Utah last week. USC is currently ranked No. 11, with their only loss coming against unranked Washington St. in Week 5.
The series between Notre Dame and USC dates back to 1926, when the Fighting Irish traveled to Southern California and defeated the Trojans 13-12. Games in the rivalry have produced record-setting attendance, and more than its fair share of memorable games, like The Green Jersey Game in 1977, a 49-19 Irish victory that helped propel them to the National Championship. Notre Dame and USC have split the last six games, but the Fighting Irish still hold a 44-36-5 series lead.
Players To Watch
Wimbush missed the game against North Carolina, after suffering a foot injury the week before against Miami (OH), but Notre Dame’s bye-week has given him plenty of time to heal, and he should be 100% for the game against USC. Wimbush has been fantastic in the run game, with a team leading 8 rushing TDs, but the Irish passing game has been hit or miss with Wimbush under center. Wimbush is ranked 107th in the nation in passing yards, with just 782, and he’s thrown for just 6 TDs in 5 games. Despite his struggles in the passing game, Wimbush will have an opportunity to get Notre Dame’s passing game back on track against a Trojan defense that gives up an average of just over 238 passing yards per game.
Adams ranks 10th in the nation (he dropped 4 spots due to the bye-week inactivity) in rushing yards, with 776 rushing yards, despite not playing in eight quarters worth of game time. Adams has shown an ability to grind out the tough yards, but it’s his ability to break off long runs that’s helped the Irish deliver the knock-out blow throughout the season; Adams has five caries of over 60 yards, four of which have gone for touchdowns, including two 73 yard touchdowns in his last two games. Adams now has 5 TDs to go along with his 776 rushing yards on just 86 carries.
The Irish are going to need play-makers on both sides of the ball, and for the Irish defense, there’s none better than Shaun Crawford. He’s come up with big plays in nearly every game this season, but none bigger than the forced fumble and recovery that killed a momentum building drive and kept Michigan St. out of the end zone. In addition to his team leading 2 INTs, 1 FF, and 2 FR, Crawford has 1.5 TFL and 1.5 Sacks on the season, as well.
Players To Watch
Sam Darnold (QB)
Darnold’s the best QB the Irish have faced so far this season, but he’s not without his flaws. He’s the 12th leading passer in the country with 2063 passing yards, and has 15 passing TDs, but he’s also prone to turning the ball over, with 9 INTs and 6 fumbles (4 lost) so far this season. Despite the turnovers, Darnold’s strong arm and ability to bounce back from mistakes, has helped lead the Trojans to a 6-1 record, and a two game lead in the PAC-12 South.
Cameron Smith (LB)
With the Trojan defensive line banged up, and missing their starting nose tackle, it’s going to be up to the Trojan linebackers to hold the Irish run game in check, and Smith will be key to that proposition. He was the Trojan’s leading tackler in 2016, and leads the team in tackles again this season with 62 (26 solo 36 assisted); he was also the team’s 2nd leading tackler in 2015. He also has .5 Sack, 1 INT, and 1 FR on the season.
Fighting Irish Keys To Victory
The Trojan’s QB, Darnold, can hurt opponents with his strong arm, but he’s also been prone to hurt his own team with turnovers, especially when he’s under pressure. Darnold’s given up the ball to opponents thirteen times (9 INTs and 4 Fumbles Lost), and the Irish have shown the ability to put pressure on opposing QBs, with 33 QBHs and 13 sacks, and have been very opportunistic in coming up with turnovers, 14 so far this season (6 INTs and 8 Fumble Recoveries). If Tillery, Okwara, and Morgan are able to apply consistent pressure on Darnold, and force him into making mistakes, the opportunistic Irish defense will be ready to make the Trojans pay for it.
Run The Damn Ball
I’d like nothing more than to see Wimbush develop into as good of a passing QB as he is a running QB, but at this point in the season that’s going to be an incremental improvement, and short of the Trojan defense stacking nine in the box, the Irish need to stick with a run game that’s not just working, but putting defenses on their heels as well. The Trojan defense, are ranked 61st in the country in rushing defense, giving up an average of 146.7 yards per game; Josh Adams alone has rushed for more than that in three games already this season, and before halftime in one of them, even.
Final Analysis: The Irish are well rested coming off a bye-week, while the Trojans are banged up, and coming off a game against Utah that came one failed two point conversion away from being their second loss of the season. The Irish are going to lean heavily on their run game, and I think it’s going to be too much for the Trojan defense to handle. I expect it to be a fairly high scoring game, but one that the Irish are going to win going away.
Final Score: Notre Dame 45 – USC 24