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
— 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