Pregame Six Pack: Showdown with the Sooners

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Moments like this are earned. Big games, premiere Saturdays, they are a product of hard work off the field and fortune on the field. As Notre Dame prepares to play in their biggest game in a decade, and easily their most anticipated since Pete Carroll’s Trojans came to South Bend to battle first-year head coach Charlie Weis’ Fighting Irish, it’s worth remembering that as Herb Brooks once told us, “Great moments are born from great opportunities.”

The table is set for Notre Dame to walk into Norman, Oklahoma and surprise the college football world. It would certainly fit the bill of this improbable season, which has seen the Irish continue to win as this team searches for its offensive identity and matures before our eyes.

Brian Kelly isn’t under the impression that he has a great football team. But his team is ranked No. 5 in the country because they’ve defeated every team they lined up against, and on Saturday night, they’ll have their best opportunity to make another statement. But to beat the Sooners, Kelly knows it’s more about what his team does than anything Bob Stoops‘ squad can do.

“Our guys understand the importance of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday relative to their preparation. The good part for me it hasn’t been a lot about Oklahoma,” Kelly said. “My feeling is that when your team is focused on yourself more so than who you’re playing, that’s the kind of focus you want.”

The Irish have a great deal of respect for Oklahoma, but they also know they control their own destiny this Saturday evening. And that’s what makes this weekend so exciting.

As No. 5 Notre Dame prepares to take off for battle against No. 8 Oklahoma, let’s run through six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers miscellaneous musing before Saturday evening’s 8:00 p.m. ET game.

***

If Notre Dame is going to win, they’re going to have to play better in the red zone.

There are a lot of places Notre Dame’s offense needs to improve. But to win at Owen Field, the Irish absolutely need to cash in their opportunities in the red zone. Right now, Notre Dame doesn’t seem to have a red zone identity. The pieces are there — Tyler Eifert on the fade, Everett Golson‘s legs, a fairly stout power running game — but the results haven’t been.

With the exception of Golson’s interception against Michigan, turnovers haven’t been the biggest problem. Execution has been. Kelly spoke openly about the two areas holding this offense back, throwing the football efficiently and production in the red zone.

“We have to be better on third down throwing the football, and we have to be better in the red zone,” Kelly said. “And those are areas of emphasis, and if we’re better in those two areas, then our efficiency is going to jump up. I’m interested in being more efficient in terms of our passing game.”

A quick glance at the rankings and you’ll actually see Notre Dame’s third down conversion rate isn’t terrible at 48th. But looking at the Irish in the red zone, especially cashing in touchdowns instead of field goals, and that’s a different story.

The Irish are 89th in the country in scoring rate, putting points up only 26 of 34 times, good for 76.47 percent. Scoring touchdowns is much worse though, with Notre Dame only getting six points 16 times. Compare that to Oklahoma, who is leading the country scoring on 97 percent of their trips and converting almost 76 percent of them for touchdowns, essentially get seven points just as often as Notre Dame gets anything.

If the Irish are going to win, they’ll need to win the red zone. Their defense makes that victory always possible, but the offense is going to need to do its part.

“We have to realize the importance of getting down there and putting points on the board,” senior tackle Zack Martin said. “Ten points in four appearances last game is not good enough. That’s not going to beat Oklahoma.”

***

He may not be a terror in the box score, but Prince Shembo is a scary dude on the field.

One of the great stories on the season is the work Prince Shembo has done taking over for Darius Fleming at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position. The junior, who played out of position last year, has been a pass-rushing terror off the edge, while playing stout run defense for a guy many were worried was undersized for the position.

Shembo’s stats might not reflect his work on the field, with his 3.0 sacks modest compared to his impact on the game. But the North Carolina native’s relentless passion, whether it’s screaming about his stolen bike seat or swinging a sledgehammer on the sidelines, embodies the passion, but workmanlike attitude this Irish defense is all about.

“Just do your assignment,” Shembo said this week. “If people try to do things they’ve never done before, that’s when the problems start. Just have confidence and do your job.”

That job will include dealing with Oklahoma’s jumbo quarterback package, anchored by the “Belldozer” sophomore quarterback Blake Bell. Shockingly, Bell doesn’t seem to worry Shembo too much.

“He’s a big guy. 6-6, 260. I squat 600. So we’re just going to go put our pads on and meet him in the hole,” Shembo said this week.

Whether Bell is 6-foot-6, 260 pounds or 6-foot-8, 340-pounds as nose tackle Louis Nix joked, don’t expect this defense to be intimidated, something Shembo credits to his teammates.

“We’ve got monsters on our team. Troy’s a monster, Eifert’s a monster,” Shembo told the Sun-Times. “The more you practice with monsters, the better. If I’ve got to fight a dragon every day — without getting killed, hopefully — I’ll know how to beat the dragon eventually.”

***

The war in the trenches should be won by Notre Dame.

We’re running out of superlatives for Notre Dame’s rush defense. By this time, we all know the unit hasn’t given up a touchdown on the ground yet. But let’s take a look at a team by team breakdown of how well the Irish have done shutting down their opponents compared to their performance against everybody else.

Navy Rushing Yards
Notre Dame: 149.0
Everybody Else: 251.3
102.3 yards below average

Purdue Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 90
Vs. Everyone Else: 169.5
79.5 yards below average

Michigan State Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 50
Vs. Everyone Else: 152.3
102.3 yards below average

Michigan Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 161
Vs. Everyone Else: 232.8
71.8 yards below average

Miami Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 85
Vs. Everyone Else: 132.9
47.9 yards below average

Stanford Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 147
Vs. Everybody Else: 170.5
23.5 yards below average

BYU Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 66
Vs. Everyone Else: 171.4
105.4 yards below average

It’s ridiculous to consider that Notre Dame’s worst comparative game against the run was against Miami, a game where the Irish throttled the ‘Canes 41-3. Saturday night, Notre Dame will certainly be tested at the line of scrimmage, and the Sooners’ running game is effective if not underutilized. The Sooners are averaging a gaudy 5.93 yards per carry, yet only running the ball 33 times a game.

(Edited to add Stanford’s rushing numbers, which detract from the above point, but are actually a bit more nuanced. Stanford has run for over 200 yards against USC, Arizona, and Cal, but their overall numbers are dragged down by 92 rush yards against Duke in a blowout win and 65 yards in their loss to Washington.)

The Irish won’t have the choice to walk away from the ground game, as they’ll need to establish the run early this weekend. And there’s reason to believe they can do it against the Sooners front, an undersized unit that might be the smallest front seven the Irish have faced since playing Navy.

If you’ve got 30 minutes, here’s a great breakdown of the battle in the trenches from the Solid Verbal’s Dan Rubenstein and Oregon offensive lineman Carson York, who is sitting out the season after undergoing right knee surgery. York’s unbiased opinion is favorable for the Irish, and he does a nice job of explaining the intricacies of things like the inside and outside zone running plays, staples of the Brian Kelly offense.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVZhi50WsPA&w=640&h=360%5D

***

He’ll be the best quarterback Notre Dame’s faced this year, but what Landry Jones is going to show up?

Make no mistake, Landry Jones is a talented quarterback. But he’s far from bulletproof in pressure situations. The senior quarterback has put together an impressive career in Norman, thrust into duty as a redshirt freshman after Sam Bradford went down with a shoulder injury. From there, the former Parade All-American has all but rewritten the Sooner record books, holding 13 Oklahoma passing records, including the all-time passing yardage mark.

But Jones, an All-Big 12 quarterback who returned for his senior season after a somewhat disappointing 2011 campaign, reignited some of the criticism he’s taken over the years for big game struggles after the Sooners’ disappointing loss to Kansas State.

The statuesque quarterback, who has yet to log a run for positive yardage on the season, fumbled twice, including one in the end zone recovered for a Wildcats touchdown, and threw an interception in the Sooners’ 24-19 loss.

Jones talked about the struggles he had against Kansas State and the pressure he’s been putting on himself this season back in late September.

“It drives me nuts that we’re kind of underachieving right now,” Jones said after the loss. “I feel like, specifically for myself, I’ve definitely been underachieving this whole year. It’s one of those things that we played a good team in Kansas State and we made mistakes that put us into a position that we couldn’t win.”

Kansas State’s game plan was to flush Jones from the pocket, forcing the quarterback to make mistakes. With Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and an Irish pass rush that already has 19 sacks on the year, expect that to be the part of Bob Diaco‘s thought process as well.

Even with some uneven performances, Jones will still likely hear his name called relatively early in this spring’s NFL Draft. And creit Jones for taking advantage of games against Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas to get back in rhythm, putting the Sooners offense in peak form heading into Saturday night’s game, while taking the pressure off himself.

“It was like walking on eggshells, trying so hard to play perfect that I was getting in my own way,” Jones told SI.com. “You can’t play like that. You can’t play like that as an athlete. You just have to not think and just go out there and react and play the way you know you’re capable of playing.”

***

Can Big Game Bob Stoops live up to his name?

There’s no question Bob Stoops earned his reputation as a big game coach. Taking over the Oklahoma program after coordinating Steve Spurrier’s Florida defenses, Stoops quickly turned the Sooners around, going 7-5 in his first season in Norman before running the table in 2000, winning the Orange Bowl and the national championship in his second season.

In Stoops’ first four seasons, he was unparalleled in big games, going 18-2 against ranked opponents, winning an Orange Bowl, a Cotton Bowl and a Rose Bowl, and three Big 12 championships along the way.

Stoops’ home record of 78-4 at Owen Field is astonishing, but look a bit closer and that big game success is starting to erode after surprising slip-ups seem to pockmark the Sooners’ prolonged success. While Oklahoma is 10-point favorites against Notre Dame, this wouldn’t be the first game the Sooners have lost being decided favorites.

The Sooners were two-touchdown favorites when Bill Snyder and Kansas State ambushed them. Last year, the No. 3 Sooners were shocked in Norman by Tommy Tuberville’s Texas Tech team, a 28-point underdog pulling off a huge upset. In 2010, the same thing went down, with No. 1 Oklahoma being shocked by No. 11 Missouri, again, with Stoops’ squad a favorite in the polls and in Vegas. And who can forget 2009, when BYU knocked out Sam Bradford and shocked the No. 3 Sooners, a 22-point opening day favorite.

No coach was capable of keeping pace with the torrid start of Stoops’ career, but the Sooners have lost nine conference games since October of 2009, a number that raises a few eyebrows when you consider the rarefied air in which Stoops is still held (not to mention paid).

Notre Dame’s big-game cred certainly isn’t anywhere near what it once was, likely playing into Irish’s underdog role. But that skepticism might need to extend to both sidelines on Saturday.

***

The Irish will need an ordinary game plan and an extraordinary Everett Golson to walk out of Norman winners.

Make no mistake, this game will be decided by the play of sophomore quarterback Everett Golson. For Notre Dame to win, the Irish need Golson to play the best game of his young career, and do it in the most hostile environment and on the biggest stage he’s experienced. If that’s too much pressure to heap on the shoulders of the Irish’s inexperienced signal-caller, well… tough. This is the kind of football game a quarterback goes to Notre Dame to play in. And this is the type of game the Irish need Golson to break through in if they’re going to exit the weekend 8-0.

“I really liked the way he practiced. Confident, moving, running around, throwing the ball with authority,” Kelly said. “Again, we’re probably all at that stage of, ‘Okay, when’s it going to happen? When’s it all going to come together?’ I think we’re all waiting and it’s going to.

“It hasn’t yet, but he’s starting to put together multiple practices in a row where I leave practice and go, ‘When this thing comes together, it’s going to be pretty exciting.'”

Feeling no ill-effects from the concussion that kept him from playing against BYU, Golson should feel more confident in his job than ever, after watching Tommy Rees falter when taken out of a supporting role and tested as a leading man. And after nursing a variety of maladies to start the season, Kelly believes the week off will be an added blessing for his quarterback.

“As I look back on it, it was the right thing to do,” Kelly said of sitting Golson out. “To really give him that week to kind of give over the hump.”

It may be a bit premature to announce that Golson is indeed over that hump, with the Sooners’ defense likely playing into that evaluation. But with some time to step back and catch his breath, Golson will be armed with a conservative game plan that this staff will ask him to execute efficiently, and if his natural talents help make some big plays, so be it.

After struggling in his first appearance under the Notre Dame microscope, Golson gets a rare mulligan Saturday night. For the Irish to win, he’ll need to take advantage of it.

No. 15 Notre Dame vs No. 6 USC: TV, Time, Preview & Prediction

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Every so often, Marcus Freeman’s honesty emphasizes how young he is. It is not just that the first-time head coach was only at Notre Dame as its defensive coordinator for one season before being promoted, but he is also just 36 years old.

Freeman has assuredly watched a few Notre Dame vs. USC games, but he was a sophomore at Ohio State when the most famous game of Freeman’s life occurred, the Trojans topping the Irish courtesy of the infamous Bush Push in 2005. The Buckeyes were wrapping up a win against Michigan State as this rivalry kicked off, coming back from an early 10-0 deficit.

So Freeman turned to a Notre Dame expert this week for some insights into this rivalry. 

“I spent some time [Monday] morning actually talking to [Irish offensive coordinator Tommy] Rees,” Freeman said. “He’s been out there twice, once or twice as a player and then once as a coach. I know he was out there in 2018.

“I played out there in 2008 when I was at Ohio State, but to be a part of this rivalry for the last game of the year, and there’s a lot on the line for both teams.”

Rees has, in fact, enjoyed two trips to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum capping unbeaten regular seasons, not to mention a win out west in his third career start in 2010. If ever there were moments for USC to stymie Notre Dame dreams, it was in 2012 or 2018. Instead, the Irish clinched championship chances on the road, certainly a sweeter venue to do so at than Stanford’s Farm.

All of which brings us to today, when No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) can do what USC did not on those occasions, upset the No. 6 Trojans (10-1) and halt their Playoff hopes.

TV: ABC has the broadcast tonight with its top booth on the call, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit. The latter will fly out from the College GameDay set in Columbus, Ohio, a bit of an irony given Notre Dame started its season with that booth and that set in Columbus, Ohio.

TIME: 7:30 ET, with the West Coast’s sunset coming only minutes after kickoff tonight.

PREVIEW: The Irish have played some talented quarterbacks this season, most notably Heisman frontrunner CJ Stroud to open the season and North Carolina sophomore sensation Drake Maye later in September. Notre Dame kept them both in check.

But neither was playing as well as Trojans star Caleb Williams of late.

“He is a talented quarterback,” Freeman said, sounding nearly exasperated. “We have faced some really good quarterbacks this season, and he is one of the best I’ve seen. His arm strength is one thing. His decision-making is another, his ability to extend plays.

“He’s one of the few guys I’ve seen just continuously break tackles. Yeah, he can make people miss, but he breaks tackles. Guys have their hands on him and he continues to stay up and that can be devastating to a defense. That can make you try to do something outside of what your responsibility is on defense. I want to make a play, I’m going to try to rush around this guy instead of staying in my lane. You have to stay in your rush lanes, but you can’t play cautious.”

If any Notre Dame unit should be disciplined enough to toe that line, it is the Irish defensive front-seven. With the exception of junior defensive end Rylie Mills, every starter up front for Notre Dame is a senior, and Mills may not even technically start. Among the linebacker rotation, the only action from a non-senior may be sophomore Prine Kollie’s limited snaps.

But in the secondary, the Irish may have a concern.

“We got to cover those wideouts and continue to mix up the coverage we play against [Williams],” Freeman said. “Continue to do your job, stay in your rush lanes. If you have an opportunity to bring him down, bring him down and bring your feet and don’t dive.”

Notre Dame likely will not have senior cornerback Cam Hart tonight, dealing with yet another shoulder injury. Northwestern safety transfer Brandon Joseph should be back from a high-ankle sprain, but losing Hart against the Trojans’ bounty of receiving weapons may leave freshman Jaden Mickey and/or junior Clarence Lewis in uncomfortable depths.

In that respect, it could be reminiscent of the last time the Irish visited Los Angeles, something only the fifth- and sixth-year players have done. Then a freshman, cornerback Tariq Bracy was repeatedly targeted by USC quarterback JT Daniels. It got to a point that the entire press box would point to Bracy before the snap whenever he was in single coverage.

Of course, Notre Dame won, anyway, sealing a Playoff berth, not what is at stake for the Irish tonight but instead now a Trojans hope.

PREDICTION: Game flow is less an abstract concept than a box score often indicates. It was supposed to be a Notre Dame strength all season, with Rees’ opening game scripts an asset in 2021. Eight of the 13 Irish opening drives last year resulted in quality possessions, but only six of 11 have this season. More notably, that six of 11 trend was an early-season struggle, Notre Dame failing to put together a quality possession on its opening drive in three straight games to end September. Since then, Rees has directed a quality possession to open five of seven games, including each of the last two.

If that streak reaches three, then the Irish may spring the upset tonight as 4.5-point underdogs, as of Saturday morning.

That is an obvious claim: If you score early and possibly take a lead on the scoreboard, you have a better chance at winning.

But the thought goes beyond that. Notre Dame’s greatest strength matches USC’s greatest weakness: a dominant rush game of late meeting the worst rush defense in the country. The Irish want to lean into the ground game just as they did against then-No. 16 Syracuse and then-No. 4 Clemson. To do so, they need to remain in range of Williams’ explosive offense.

Rees’ early-season struggles early in games appear to be behind him. And that is reason enough to think Notre Dame will win yet again in Los Angeles.

Notre Dame 27, USC 24.
(Spread: 2-9; Over/Under: 3-8; Straight-up: 6-5)

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame’s seniors set a ‘foundation’ for Freeman’s tenure, prove it with Boston College rout
Notre Dame finally adds a QB to its recruiting class of 2023, landing former Pitt commit Kenny Minchey
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Irish hopes of a Cotton Bowl appearance hinge on Tennessee comparison
And In That Corner … Playoff-hopeful USC gives Notre Dame a chance to be spoiler
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s season of development to be tested, and perhaps proven, on ground at USC

OUTSIDE READING
Can Caleb Williams have another Heisman moment? What to watch for in USC-Notre Dame
Ranking (and picking) this weekend’s spiciest rivalry games
Five current most compelling Notre Dame-vs.-USC recruiting battles
 Notre Dame vs USC Odds, Picks and Predictions: Fighting Irish Keep Caleb and Co. Under Check
Here are 9 chaos CFB scenarios you may (or may not) root for this weekend

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s season of development to be tested, and perhaps proven, on ground at USC

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Notre Dame did not have four-year starting offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson to open the season at Ohio State. Sophomore running back Audric Estimé had never been the lead back for a Saturday afternoon, and he wouldn’t be in that role for another couple weeks. And the Irish special teams had not become a game-wrecking unit just yet in that 21-10 loss.

Patterson has started every game since then, every bit the leader expected as a two-time captain. Estimé has rebounded from a game-costing fumble to Stanford by taking 57 carries for an average of 6.1 yards per rush the last four weeks. And Notre Dame’s punt block unit has gotten to seven boots this year, the rare big-play that almost feels usual by now.

But those signs of progress have not come against an opponent as talented as the Buckeyes. No. 6 USC (10-1) may yet be a few steps behind Ohio State, but it is cut from the same cloth: An explosive aerial offense supplementing a defense in transition. So as No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) returns to a likely similar gameplan, the Trojans (7:30 ET; ABC) will be the measuring stick of how far the Irish have come.

“We have to continue to prepare, prepare, prepare, and that is what is the answer to the test,” head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “I don’t know any other way. It isn’t to come up with trick plays. It isn’t trying to confuse them.

“It’s prepare and continue to get better at the things we do really, really well.”

Run the ball. That’s what Notre Dame does really, really well. And here is the twist this weekend: USC is worse at defending the run than anyone else in the country.

Remember when the Irish found an early lead against Syracuse and then completely and successfully abandoned the pass in the second half in order to just wear down the Orange front? USC is worse against the run than Syracuse.

Teams do not expose that Trojans’ weakness as often because USC’s offense creates a worrisome lead, usually spurred by its defense forcing a couple turnovers. But on a per-rush grade, the Trojans’ rush defense can be considered the worst in the country.

“Expected points added” is not a complex version of analytics: When factoring in down, distance, time and score, a team has an expected points total on a possession. Every play changes that total. When teams rush against USC, they add 0.294 points to their expected points total on each snap, on average.

That is last in the country. At 0.134 expected points added per rush against, Syracuse ranks No. 116.

More traditional numbers show the same problem while lessening the Trojans deficit because of their scoreboard-testing offense.

USC: 147.2 rushing yards against per game, No. 67 in the country.
Syracuse: 155.6 rushing yards against per game, No. 77 in the country.

USC: 4.57 yards per rush against, No. 102 in the country.
Syracuse: 3.94 yards per rush against, No. 57 in the country.

Notre Dame’s ground-and-pound approach starred in the second half against the Orange, to the extent that the Irish attempted just five passes after halftime, completing one for 11 yards. And yet, Notre Dame grew its lead. That was an extreme approach, albeit a successful one.

It was less successful in Columbus, the Irish throwing eight passes after halftime, completing just two for 49 yards. That day’s failure sparked some outward existential crisis, but Notre Dame never wavered from this offensive identity.

“The growth in our offense, the growth in me as a head coach from the first game of the year has been tremendous,” Freeman said. “I’m not trying to say that’s a compliment. I’ve grown a lot from that moment, but it’s a compliment to our offense, not for me.

“I think back to that game and all I wanted to do was run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle. And we had some success doing it. We didn’t run the ball that game and early in the year as we’re doing now.”

Freeman went on to insist a well-rounded offense will be crucial Saturday, but the reality is less complicated: If Notre Dame’s rushing development is as strong as it has seemed of late, then the Irish should notch a road win against a top-10 team.

That would mean Notre Dame’s plodding offense can match the Trojans’ high-flying one by leaning on Estimé, Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree. They would, in effect, reduce USC’s chances at scoring. Syracuse head coach Dino Babers compared Notre Dame to a triple-option offense in that respect.

It would be a proof of concept Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees can build on this offseason. One season’s development elevating the Irish from false hope at Ohio State to Playoff spoiler against their biggest rival.

“There’s a different feeling about this one, and I can feel it amongst our program and our players,” Freeman said. “I knew it last year, but this year being at the end of the year at USC, you can really feel it.”

It might be a different feeling, but it should be the same — but better — Irish offense as seen on Labor Day weekend.

And In That Corner … Playoff-hopeful USC gives Notre Dame a chance to be spoiler

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The last few years of And In That Corner … previews of Notre Dame’s meeting USC spent extensive time on the job status of former Trojans head coach Clay Helton. Finally, that storyline is far in the past and everything else about No. 6 USC (10-1) is intriguing.

To catch up on all that has changed for the Trojans — maybe the only program in the country that can match the Irish for amounts of drastic changes in the last 52 weeks — let’s chat with Adam Grosbard of the Orange County Register before kickoff on Saturday night at 7:30 ET on ABC.

DF: Brian Kelly’s favorite axiom that Marcus Freeman has leaned into a bit is that “Winning is hard.” It is. And anytime a team has must-win after must-win after must-win, it can wear out the 18- to 23-year-olds. USC may be at that risk, coming off that back-and-forth 48-45 win at UCLA last week and with the Pac-12 title game awaiting in a week. Though only one game into that three-game stretch, do you sense any version of the high-wire act wearing out the Trojans?

AG: Not really, though it would be tough for anyone on the outside to sense that prior to Saturday’s game. USC has had opportunities to overlook games all season. Fresno State before Oregon State, Arizona State before Washington State and Utah, Colorado before UCLA. The Trojans never allowed themselves to get caught looking. It’s hard to look past a rival like No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3), especially when the team understands it’s two wins away from the College Football Playoff. And defensive tackle and captain Tuli Tuipulotu described this season as “the revenge tour” for returning Trojans — they are well aware no player on the roster has ever beaten Notre Dame while at USC.

This whole season has been a high-wire act for USC. It may be 10-1, but four of those wins came by one score, barely escaping at Oregon State and Arizona before that UCLA close call, not to mention giving up 35 points to Cal. Both Arizona and Cal needed late touchdowns to make the scores that close, but even two-possession wins against the bottom half of the Pac 12 should be concerning for a Playoff contender. What has it been about the Trojans that leads to such drama this year?

In a word, defense. The unit has generated headlines by creating turnovers, but it also has been extremely shaky at tackling and basic coverage. The defense had the furthest to go after the Clay Helton era, and it’s nowhere near a final product and likely won’t be for at least another year. But USC scores enough and creates enough turnovers to win in spite of its shortcomings.

Obviously, the story at USC is the offense. If quarterback Caleb Williams stars Saturday, he could find himself as the Heisman frontrunner on Sunday. The offseason headlines were about him and Pittsburgh transfer Jordan Addison, but the Trojans pulled in two transfer running backs, as well, in Travis Dye from Oregon and Austin Jones from Stanford. Dye is now out for the season. How much has that changed USC’s offense?

It really hasn’t at all, surprisingly. Dye was a tremendous weapon for USC, but Austin Jones stepped right into his shoes with 25 touches for 177 yards and two touchdowns against UCLA. Jones was a workhorse back at Stanford for a while before falling out of favor. He is a patient veteran back who doesn’t try to do too much. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas that USC misses Dye. The senior back was unstoppable in third-and-short, and Jones does not match Dye’s ability as a pass blocker.

Defensively, the Trojans are playing with fire. They force 2.2 turnovers per game, mostly picking off opposing quarterbacks (18 interceptions in 11 games). Let’s set aside the absurd turnover margin of +20, and focus on the defensive chaos. Only Washington State has avoided giving up the ball against USC this season. UCLA can point to four turnovers as to how it lost. What are the Trojans doing to force all these turnovers? There must be more to it than luck, even if 13 of 17 fumbles, including their own, going their way is a bit fortuitous.

I’m honestly not sure this is explicable, because there certainly is luck involved. But I respect defensive coordinator Alex Grinch‘s simple philosophy that the ball doesn’t know that it’s supposed to go to the offense, and the ball doesn’t know about the law of averages.

To me, those may be the two keys this weekend. Can Notre Dame turn USC’s offense one-dimensional — for all Caleb Williams’ deserved hype, any offense that averages 5.34 yards per rush will struggle to adjust if it can no longer rely on the ground game — and avoid gifting the Trojans’ defense a few more turnovers? If yes and yes, then an upset may be brewing. What would you pinpoint as a third key?

Can USC get some tackles for loss? That’s been an under-the-radar part of the USC defense this year, but USC averages more than six tackles for loss per game and just fewer three sacks per game. That’s how the Trojans’ defense has gotten off the field in its better games, by creating third-and-long situations for opposing offenses. Notre Dame conversely has been very good about preventing negative plays, so that will be an area to watch for me.

Before I get to asking you for a prediction, let’s jump back to November and to August. First of all, last November, when Lincoln Riley took the USC job less than 24 hours after the Oklahoma season ended, how shocked were you?

The night before the Riley hire was announced, a leak came out that Matt Campbell was staying at Iowa State. At that point, I was honestly wondering if USC was about to end up with Jack Del Rio as coach. So to say I was shocked when the Riley news dropped would be an understatement.

And in August, what did you expect from the Trojans this season?

In one sense, this team is exactly what I expected: A superb offense that needs to outscore a bad defense. What I did not expect was how quickly the offense would come together, or how many turnovers USC would force. Because without turnovers, you’re probably looking at a respectable 8-3 team right now, which was more in line with my expectations.

Now then, a prediction. USC is favored by 5.5, as of late Wednesday night. How do you see Saturday night playing out?

I’m expecting a lot of points, possibly a game that comes down to who has the ball last. In those games, I usually pick the team with the better quarterback so in this case I’m picking USC and Caleb Williams.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Irish hopes of a Cotton Bowl appearance hinge on Tennessee comparison

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This all depends on No. 15 Notre Dame beating No. 6 USC on Saturday night (7:30 ET; ABC). If the Irish lose, then this entire conditional scenario goes out the window.

It’s conceivable, Notre Dame (8-3) winning. Its current five-game winning streak has been impressive enough to earn back some of the respect the Irish lost with their 3-3 start. The Trojans (10-1) are only 5.5-point favorites, a piece of worthwhile context as we delve into this wonder, can Notre Dame make the Cotton Bowl?

Whether it is preferable to play in the Cotton Bowl against the AAC champion or in the Holiday Bowl against a strong Pac-12 opponent, as an example, is a different debate. The fact of the matter is, the Irish would have no say in that debate. Either they finish the season ranked high enough by the Playoff selection committee to be required to play in the Cotton Bowl or they don’t.

That ranking will come down to how Notre Dame compares to the current Nos. 9-14 after Tuesday night’s poll update.

Map out a Playoff scenario any way you’d like — “If LSU beats Georgia …,” “If TCU loses …,” — the conclusion remains rather consistent: Beating USC may not be enough for the Irish; to jump all six teams directly in front of them, the Irish may need to dominate the Trojans.

Some of those scenarios include Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl (with TCU in the Playoff) and some slide Tennessee into the Orange Bowl (requiring two SEC teams in the Playoff), but otherwise, the question is how Notre Dame compares to Oregon, Tennessee, Penn State, Kansas State, Washington and Utah.

If this thought process has changed drastically in a week, thank the Volunteers’ blowout loss at South Carolina. Suddenly, it is not a sure thing Tennessee would remain ahead of the Irish no matter what they do this week. That opens up the board.

Yet, the Volunteers may still be the hurdle the Irish cannot clear.

No. 9 Oregon — at Oregon State (3:30 ET; ABC) — Good wins: vs. UCLA, vs. Utah — Bad losses: None.
No. 10 Tennessee — at Vanderbilt (7:30 ET; SECN) — Good wins: at LSU, vs. Alabama — Bad losses: at South Carolina.
No. 11 Penn State — vs. Michigan State (4 ET; FS1) — Good wins: None — Bad losses: None
No. 12 Kansas State — vs. Kansas (8 ET; FOX) — Good wins: vs. Oklahoma State — Bad losses: vs. Tulane.
No. 13 Washington — at Washington State (10:30 ET; ESPN) — Good wins: at Oregon — Bad losses: at Arizona State.
No. 14 Utah — at Colorado (4 ET; P12N) — Good wins: vs. USC  — Bad losses: None.
No. 15 Notre Dame — at USC (7:30 ET; ABC) — Good wins: vs. Clemson, hypothetically at USC — Bad losses: vs. Marshall, vs Stanford.

Note: Oregon and Kansas State are likely to play in conference title games. Kansas State beating TCU would adversely impact the Irish chances, unless the Horned Frogs still landed in the Playoff. Oregon beating USC would not matter, as that would be the Trojans second straight loss, likely knocking them out of the top-12, regardless.

So Notre Dame needs to beat USC, have TCU win the Big 12 and … trust the committee to ignore September.

Beating Clemson and USC would be a better pair of wins than any of those six teams can claim, but for Tennessee (9-2). Losing at home to Marshall and Stanford looks far worse than the Volunteers’ losses at Georgia and at South Carolina.

Thus, it is hard to see the Irish reaching a New Year’s Six Bowl unless they outright devastate the Trojans, a la their 35-13 win against Clemson and 44-0 shutout of Boston College this month.

Of course, Tennessee is now without star quarterback Hendon Hooker. Maybe the Volunteers lose to former Notre Dame defensive coordinator and current Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea. The two Irish defensive coordinators since Lea’s departure would greatly appreciate that, if they can get by USC at the same time.

Any losses among those other six teams will help the Notre Dame claim.

Oregon: Favored by 3, as of midday Wednesday, at Oregon State (3:30 ET; ABC).
Tennessee: Favored by 14 at Vanderbilt (7:30 ET; SECN).
Penn State: Favored by 18.5 vs. Michigan State (4 ET; FS1).
Kansas State: Favored by 11.5 vs. Kansas (8 ET; FOX).
Washington: Favored by 2 at Washington State (10:30 ET; ESPN).
Utah: Favored by 30 at Colorado (4 ET; P12N).
Notre Dame: A 5.5-point underdog at USC (7:30 ET; ABC).

If not the Cotton Bowl, the Irish will find themself somewhere in the first tier of ACC bowl tie-ins. That becomes more a subjective exercise, but the more notable half of that tier includes …

The Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28 against a Pac 12 opponent.
The Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando on Dec. 29 against a Big 12 opponent.

The Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte on Dec. 30 against a Big Ten opponent.
The Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Dec. 30 against an SEC opponent.