When the 2016 season began, most had the finale as the marquee game on Notre Dame’s schedule. But few imagined its importance would be one-sided, USC the only team capable of improving its postseason fate.
For the Irish, motivation is internal. With no postseason bowl possible, the chance to salvage something—or play spoiler to the Trojans—is all that’s left. And just days after the NCAA did its best to embarrass the Notre Dame football program, anything less than a wholehearted effort in Los Angeles could bring the same result.
With Thanksgiving in the rearview and an afternoon kick set for just after high-noon (local time) in Los Angeles, let’s crack open the final pregame six pack.
Sam Darnold may steal all the attention, but USC’s ground game could be the real weapon on Saturday.
We’ll get to Darnold in a bit. But if the Irish are going to find a way to win on Saturday, they’ll need to slow down a USC rushing attack that’s on fire lately. Since Arnold was inserted into the starting lineup, the Trojans’ running game has been explosive, averaging 240 yards a game and being held below 175 yards by just Washington.
Ronald Jones has been the heavy-hitter lately, starting the season slowly but looking like the home run threat that the Irish recruited heavily out of Texas as well. Jones has seen his numbers explode since mid-October, scoring 10 of his 11 touchdowns in that span, averaging 137 yards a game.
Senior Justin Davis was slowed by an ankle sprain, but looks to be healthy as well, giving the Trojans two explosive rushers who’ll challenge Notre Dame all afternoon, running behind a veteran offensive line anchored by seniors Zack Banner and Chad Wheeler.
Notre Dame’s receivers must make plays downfield against USC’s secondary.
Last year, Will Fuller landed a haymaker on Trojan star Adoree Jackson. Without Fuller, can the Irish find a receiver capable of landing that punch?
Torii Hunter practiced this week, though his availability for the season finale isn’t clear. That leaves Kevin Stepherson and Equanimeous St. Brown on the outside, both putting together nice seasons, though each have only reminded Irish fans just how special Fuller’s 2015 campaign really was.
Notre Dame knows the Trojan starters at cornerback well, having recruited both Jackson and Iman “Biggie” Marshall before both ultimately decided to stay home. And while Jackson’s reputation as one of college football’s biggest playmakers is deserved, he has been more susceptible to the big play than you might expect.
On the season, Jackson’s given up five touchdown passes. He’s ranked just 130th at his position by PFF when measuring the opponent’s passer rating when targeting him, a surprise when you consider Marshall’s ranked just 121st. PFF’s evaluations across the board don’t matchup with Jackson’s reputation, giving credence to the idea that the young and unproven Irish receivers have a chance to do some damage in the season finale.
Can Notre Dame start fast and also finish strong?
We’ve seen the Irish get off to a quick start. We haven’t seen them mirror that with a strong fourth quarter. Brian Kelly talked about those struggles on Tuesday, clearly understanding the difficulties that have hit his football team in the fourth quarter, when so many of these games are still on the line.
“We’ve been outscored 51-16,” Kelly said, focused on the team’s fourth-quarter results. “You’ve got to look at everything. You’ve got to look at structure on defense, you’ve got to look at structure on offense.
“You’ve got to look at your special teams. You’ve got to look at conditioning. You’ve got to look at everything. You know, fourth quarter — we’ve scored 46 points in the fourth quarter this year. At this time last year we’ve scored 106. So we’re down 60 points in the fourth quarter.”
Those 60 points are enough to change the balance of just about every defeat this season, when you consider that Notre Dame’s seven losses have come by a combined 32 points. And it’s a big reason why Kelly is going back to the drawing board this offseason to root out the issue.
“I don’t think there’s any stone that you leave unturned when you go to the fourth quarter and not have the success in the fourth quarter,” Kelly said. “Also, there’s experience and not being experienced and not handling the mental end of things, and so there are a number of different factors that are involved in there.”
Sam Darnold has been dynamic. So the Irish need to take advantage of the mistakes he’s still making.
Brian Kelly’s appreciation for what Sam Darnold does for USC’s offense was apparent from the very start of his comments on Tuesday.
“Obviously the big difference there, Sam Donald, when he’s been inserted into the lineup, that’s been a transformation for that football team offensively,” Kelly said. “He’s as good as I’ve seen in a long, long time. His escapability, his ability to throw on the run, his accuracy. I don’t see anything there that is anything short of brilliant in terms of the way he’s playing right now, and of course he’s got a great supporting cast.”
That’s high praise from a coach who certainly sets a high bar for quarterback praise. And now Kelly and his staff need to figure out how to slow down Darnold, a guy who is dangerous as a thrower and runner, and plays as aggressively as any quarterback the Irish have seen this season.
That aggression is where the Irish need to take aim. Because while Darnold’s completing 68.3 percent of his throws, he’s still giving a few back to the opponent. He has six interceptions in the past four games, the only black marks on a stretch of football that has the Trojans playing among the best in the country. (He’s doing all of that while still completing 70 percent of his throws in those four games.)
Can the Irish show heart after all that has gone wrong?
Notre Dame is a 17-point underdog on Saturday. Against USC. And that’s usually a very, very bad sign for the Irish.
Will this game get ugly? History isn’t on Notre Dame’s side. Because as Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated points out, Notre Dame in the roll of a heavy underdog against the Trojans usually ends with the Victory March getting played on repeat.
But this Irish football team looks different. And if we’re to believe the players and the head coach, they’ll perform differently, especially considering the mulligan we gave this team the last time they went to the Coliseum and got hammered—with a defensive depth chart that was decimated.
Injuries won’t be a factor on Saturday. Pride will. So Notre Dame will need to buck the trend if they’re going to be able to surprise the oddsmakers.
DeShone Kizer is poised to be an early first-round pick. But if this is it, can he deliver a big victory on his way out?
Quarterback DeShone Kizer is expected to leave Notre Dame after the season and head to the NFL. But before he does, a big victory on his resume may help his cause.
Kizer has had a ton hoisted on his shoulders this season. And while he’s done a ton of good things in a very trying season, an upset victory and a big-time performance would certainly help both his personal draft stock and the Irish’s exit plans.
After a really strong debut season, Kizer’s trajectory has been a little flatter than most expected. His touchdown passes are up and interceptions are down, but his overall quarterback rating is below last season’s and his completion percentage has dipped below 60 percent. Against good defenses those numbers are down even farther, Virginia Tech the latest to hold Kizer in check, joining Stanford, NC State (with the assist of a hurricane), and Michigan State.
Sure, a young set of skill players has been a major part of this. Throwing to three first-year starters as opposed to Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle will do that.
But if Kizer’s ready to be the hope of a future NFL franchise, he’ll find a way to play a great game on Saturday, where the weather is supposed to make a turn for the worst as the game rolls on. Because a win against one of college football’s hottest teams might be a heckuva way to make a first impression.