No. 9 Notre Dame vs. USC: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? No. 9 Notre Dame (4-1) vs. USC (3-2).

WHAT? No one has ever disputed the “greatest intersectional rivalry” claim attached to this series, about to enjoy its 89th rendition, perhaps partly because what would be the second-greatest intersectional rivalry? The best argument may be the out-of-conference, seemingly-annual Playoff meeting between Alabama and Clemson, but they are both very much in the same “section” of the country. Could it be Notre Dame and … Stanford? Navy? Boston College? Florida State? Frankly, this entire hypothetical list is probably made up of the Irish and their supposed rivals, and perhaps Army and/or Navy against Air Force.

Anyway, the answer to “What?” is, “the only intersectional rivalry.”

WHEN? 7:30 ET. Given the late hour, kickoff will come only six minutes later, rather than the usual 12. Thus, the broadcast may miss the flyover from an Air Force C-130 Hercules. Analysis: That is a big plane.

Given the quality (or lack thereof) of the rest Notre Dame’s home slate, this is the only home night game this season.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

NBC will have the national broadcast, with the game streaming online and via the NBC Sports app. As always, NBC Sports Gold is available to international fans.

While standing in the chilly air at the Irish hockey game on Friday, this 55-degree arena is borderline balmy compared to what is in store for Saturday night. Forecasts expect 49-degree temperatures at kickoff, though clear skies throughout the occasion.

Arguably more pertinent to a football game, 12 miles per winds are expected. That would not be enough to affect either offense’s reliance on the passing game, but any further uptick in the gusts could alter gameplans.

WHY? *insert some poetic waxing about Knute Rockne wanting to develop a nationwide brand via barnstorming*

In all seriousness, the Trojans represent one of the most talented rosters on Notre Dame’s schedule, even in a down year. Maintaining this rivalry is a crucial piece to making Irish independence sustainable.

To the current participants, the 90-plus years of history hold some weight. They know the list of players to star in this rivalry is lengthy and notable.

“They’re not up the street, they’re across the country,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “Great players have played in it. Great coaches have coached in it. … The history, the tradition of it being played every year, it’s one of those rivalries that hasn’t gone away.”

BY HOW MUCH? As of Friday evening, bookmakers expect Notre Dame to win by 10.5 with a combined point total over/under of 59. Extrapolate that math and the projected result is 35-24.

Every part of that score feels reasonable, though USC may be better than widely panned. Consider its most recent game, at Washington two weeks ago with third-string quarterback Matt Fink leading the way. The Trojans outgained the Huskies by two yards, averaged 6.4 yards per rush and forced a turnover. They were done in by Fink’s three interceptions, a fumble recovered in the end zone and an 89-yard touchdown run stemming from a single blown run fit.

USC was every bit as good as Washington, yet lost 28-14.

Notre Dame is better than the Huskies, that is hard to argue, but imagine the narrative if the Trojans were coming off an upset of a top-20 team on the road before their idle week? Irish worry would be rampant, somewhat understandably so.

Now remove Fink, insert freshmen Kedon Slovis, both better in protecting the ball and in delivering it to his dynamic receivers. That 10.5-point line starts to feel ambitious.

Having stoked that fear, let’s quell it. Notre Dame largely held those receivers in check a year ago, giving up a touchdown only when the game was no longer in doubt. The credit for that goes to Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea.

“It’s a team that has played a system now for a second season,” Kelly said. “There is a lot more continuity as a group, and clearly Clark is in his second year of calling defenses, so there are a lot of the pieces in play.”

If Notre Dame manages to keep USC’s receivers in check, the credit will again go to Lea. That may come from selling out on the pass rush, it may come from deploying junior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in new ways, it may come from freshman safety Kyle Hamilton continuing to develop into a star. Whatever wrinkle Lea leans on, if it finds success, the Trojans are unlikely to find a viable counter.

The truth inevitably lands somewhere between these two arguments. USC is better than typically argued, but the Irish are simply better than the Trojans these days. USC should do better than losing by two possessions, but Notre Dame should not worry much. In other words, the Trojans may replicate last year’s appearances-only score.

Notre Dame 31, USC 24.
(5-0 in pick; 2-3 against the spread, 1-4 point total.)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s depth concerns at RB and CB
Redshirts and Notre Dame’s ongoing roster management
Notre Dame’s Opponents: The rise of Michigan and Stanford
And In That Corner … The USC Trojans and freshman QB Kedon Slovis
Ian Book’s performance against Bowling Green could foreshadow sustainable success
Things To Learn: Notre Dame welcomes RB Jafar Armstrong’s return
Friday at 4: Kelly’s time at Notre Dame has turned tables on USC

OUTSIDE READING:
PFF Rankings: College starting QB rankings through week 6
Air Force flyover details
USC’s interim athletic director says he won’t make decision on Clay Helton
Predictions for college football’s biggest week of the season
The teams, players and chaos scenarios that can upend college football
The college coaches who are trying to change two-point conventional wisdom ($)
Mike McGlinchey will miss 4-6 weeks after knee scope
Father Jenkins elected to fourth five-year term as Notre Dame’s president