Five things we learned: 78th Blue-Gold game

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On a beautiful afternoon for football, Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold game went off without a hitch. No turnovers. No broken coverages. More important than either—no major injuries.

All eyes were on quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. And while Kizer’s Blue team pulled out the 17-7 victory, no quarterback’s play on the field—not even under a clear-blue sky high above the still-transforming Notre Dame Stadium—provided clarity to a battle that’ll continue into fall camp.

But plenty of position groups came into focus on Saturday afternoon, with a rebuilt Irish roster featuring new faces that’ll turn into key pieces of the 2016 team. As the offense and defense battled evenly, head coach Brian Kelly was happy that his young team was able to play clean football.

“I think it was a little bit of everything, I think it was good football on both sides of the ball,” Kelly told NBC’s Jac Collinsworth. “Fundamentally sound defensively. Offensively, it was a little bit of everything. Some guys stepping up and making some plays. I was pleased overall coming out here and having a competitive day.”

With Montgomery VanGorder scored the second half’s only touchdown in the game’s closing minutes, he finished the spring on a positive note. Let’s find out what else we learned as Notre Dame caps off a key transitional spring before the 2016 season.

 

The first-half quarterback showdown revealed the Irish are in good hands either way. 

The afternoon certainly didn’t start the way Malik Zaire wanted it to. Notre Dame’s rising senior quarterback, who is looking to reclaim a starting job he lost just two games into last season when he broke his ankle, missed early and often in his first two drives, both ending in 3-and-outs.

But Zaire turned things around and flashed moments of brilliance—making plays with his feet and with the deep ball, connecting with Torii Hunter on the day’s most impressive play. Zaire also ran for a touchdown, looking healthy and elusive as he capped off the Gold team’s lone scoring drive in a one-man army type effort.

If Zaire’s day featured highs and lows, Kizer’s steady performance underscores his comfort in the system. More surgical with his decisions, Kizer worked through his reads, finding success picking apart the Gold defense with underneath throws.

Kizer also won the mental chess match at the line of scrimmage, a third-down audible exploiting an open middle of the field where Kizer ran for a long conversion. His quick side-armed sling around an unblocked defender turned a sack into a nice completion to Alizé Jones. Maybe his best pass of the afternoon was dropped, a deep ball looped perfectly towards a streaking Kevin Stepherson, with the rookie failing to reel in the big gainer.

Both quarterbacks played the entire first half without a red jersey before turning the keys over to Brandon Wimbush in the second half. After the game, Kelly complimented the play of both, while also acknowledging that this battle isn’t ending any time soon.

“It was set up for the quarterbacks and I think they did a nice job,” Kelly said immediately after the game. “But I don’t think anybody separated themselves.”

 

As new faces emerge, freshmen Kevin Stepherson, Devin Studstill and Shaun Crawford look like major contributors. 

Brian Kelly has been telling everybody who’s been willing to listen that the young players on his roster were ready to make an impact. Saturday afternoon highlighted three of them, with Kevin Stepherson and Devin Studstill (both early-enrollees) along with (redshirt) Shaun Crawford looking the part of ascending players.

Stepherson was Notre Dame’s most active wide receiver, flashing top-end speed and the ability to play anywhere as he led the Blue team with 70 receiving yards. While he dropped a throw that would’ve put his afternoon into triple-digits, he’s clearly put himself into a position to be in the receiver rotation in the fall.

“We have a player on our team in KJ Stepherson that can catch the ball at full speed as he cuts across the field, a very unique trait,” Kelly said. “He still has to work on catching the ball vertically down the field. But he catches the ball out of his break at full speed, and it is a unique trait that he has that I have not seen since I’ve been here at Notre Dame.”

That explosiveness is likely why Stepherson was back catching punts. And even considering the difficulty freshmen wide receivers have had making an impact under Kelly, it looks like the unheralded recruit is positioned to be the most productive freshman wideout that Kelly’s had in his time in South Bend.

On the other side of the ball, Studstill was around the football early and often, proving very quickly that the praise her earned was much more than a motivational tactic for Max Redfield. Studstill ran the alley and made a nice stop on Zaire, limiting the quarterback to a short gain. He also looked at home in coverage, playing like a seasoned veteran, not a freshman who should be finding a prom date in a few weeks.

Put Kelly among those who wondered if Shaun Crawford knew what his green jersey signified (limited contact). It’s clear that a healthy Crawford has the ability to make the defense so much better with him on the football field. The Ohio native seems to just find the football. He was active in coverage, strong in run support, quick to diagnose every play he saw develop.

Crawford came off the edge with a blitz that ruined a play and played man coverage as an outside cornerback, too. With Nick Watkins out and Crawford still in the recovery phase after his August ACL tear, it’s clear the Irish have a playmaking cornerback on their hands. What’s surprising is that he looked like one of the most confident players on the field even before he’s made his collegiate debut.

 

Torii Hunter is standing out as the No. 1 weapon in the rebuilt receiving corps. 

Streaking deep with Nick Coleman in good position to defend him, Torii Hunter made the game’s best catch—snatching Zaire’s perfectly-thrown deep ball with one hand and bringing it in. The 50-yarder was one of three catches Hunter made as Zaire’s favorite target, a nice step forward for the rising senior as he ascends to the No. 1 wide receiver job.

Hunter’s evolution as a receiver has been one of the spring’s most important developments. Long viewed as one of the team’s best practice players, injuries have hampered through two of his seasons in South Bend before finally getting through 2015 healthy.

But Hunter has been unwilling to let anything get in the way of his ascent. Kelly credited those efforts after the Blue-Gold game, talking about the work ethic the rising senior has displayed.

“I think he’s had a terrific spring,” Kelly said. “The work volume that he’s put in while he’s going to school, while he’s playing baseball, has been an incredible commitment.

“It’s amazing what he does in terms of the intensity in which he practices and how hard he goes, and then he does the same thing for [baseball coach Mik Aoki]. He’s a unique young man in that he can focus and give that kind of intensity to both sports”

Hunter’s move to the front lines will be counted on in 2016, especially if Corey Robinson‘s return to the football field isn’t clear. But identified as one of the team’s most improved players this spring by Kelly on Friday, Hunter is poised for a big season.

 

Even with massive turnover, improved defensive fundamentals had to have Irish fans happy. 

Nobody is ready to anoint the Irish defense after it got the better of the offense in the spring game. But any worry that there’d be offensive fireworks and big plays coming fast and furious were erased by a rock-solid performance in the first half.

The Blue front seven made things difficult for Zaire from the game’s first snap. Neither Josh Adams or Dexter Williams get loose. While Drue Tranquill drew a “panic P.I.” on a deep pattern by Chris Finke and Hunter caught a 50-yarder, Kelly praised the competitiveness of his rebuilt secondary.

“I’m very pleased is the progress of some of the young players in the back end of our defense,” Kelly said. “I thought our corner play was better. I thought our safety play was much improved and those are the areas we need better play at, and I thought that those young players out there today made significant progress.”

Spotting Jay Hayes wreaking havoc from his new defensive end spot had to make Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore happy. Watching young linebackers Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas continue to learn on the field had to be promising as well. With Avery Sebastian making his presence felt and Jarron Jones flashing early, Kelly didn’t sound like a guy wishing something to be true in his postgame comments when he set a lofty goal for his rebuilt unit.

“I think that this defense is going to play the kind of defense necessary for us to get into that playoff hunt again,” Kelly said. “There are good enough players out there for us to do that once again.”

 

On a roster filled with new players, the progress is still apparent. 

There were no cameos with defensive linemen in the backfield or screen passes thrown to linemen. The quarterback battle didn’t feature a flea flicker or forced friendship to finish the day on a high note.

Saturday was a work day for the Irish—Brian Kelly made sure of that. And his young football team rewarded him with a solid day at the office, finishing spring like a team intent on taking advantage of every opportunity to get better that the NCAA allows them.

With 14 starters gone and the majority of those heading to the professional ranks, prevailing wisdom would allow for a step back as the roster rebuilds. But with young talent unwilling to wait to get on the field and veterans more than eager to breakthrough, this football team—for one day, at least—didn’t look like a group that expected to be anything less than a contender for a college football playoff spot.

The play was crisp. The competition was even. And as Kelly continues to look for leaders to step forward, he’ll do so from a framework where the program runs smoothly.

“It’s a pretty sound group. They are not a group that gets too far outside of the blueprint,” Kelly said.

The team now transfers into the players’ hands. Replacing five captains is no small task and the months of offseason training is when Kelly believes this team’s identity will be formed.

“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly explained. “That naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way.”

One of the benefits that comes with a rebuilt roster is the anonymity it allows. For the first time in a long time, the Irish will be able to do something they’re fairly unaccustomed to doing: Sneak up on people.

So while there’s certainly the possibility that the Irish can’t overcome the considerable personnel losses they faced, there’s no better time to project a rosy future than when it’s 70-and-sunny in South Bend.

Weather aside, there’s reason for optimism.  At the game’s most important position, the Irish have an embarrassment of riches. Notre Dame can win with Zaire or Kizer, and probably with Brandon Wimbush as well.

Defensively, the Blue-Gold game was a nice data point in the evolution of a unit with a spotlight on it. For as much heat as VanGorder has taken for his scheme and his unit’s maddening inconsistency, one area he rarely receives credit is for his ability to make big adjustments in the offseason.

We watched the 2015 team do masterful work against the option after looking lost a year before. When teams used tempo to take the Irish out of their game plan in VanGorder’s debut season, they were unable to do so last year. With comprehension and player recognition the singular goal of the offseason, it isn’t too big of a leap to think that Year Three could yield improved results, even after rebuilding its core.

For now, those are questions—not to mention the quarterback battle—are deferred to the fall. Until then, Irish fans can be happy with the progress displayed on a perfect football Saturday.

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 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.