Notre Dame’s Opponents: Cincinnati’s Playoff hopes hinge on two trips to Indiana

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Cincinnati v Georgia
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Categorizing any Group of Five program’s season as “Playoff or bust” would be a level of ambition unusual even for college football, but that may be the case for Cincinnati in 2021. The Bearcats have the luxuries of an impressive previous season, a player that will demand national attention and a few high-profile games to reestablish national credibility.

If a Group of Five team is ever going to break into the four-team Playoff, it will be Cincinnati in 2021, beginning the year already at No. 8 in the AP poll, a ranking without consequence but one that establishes some September narrative all the same.

Of course, to reach the Playoff, the Bearcats will need to top No. 9 Notre Dame two weeks after visiting No. 17 Indiana. As mentioned, a few high-profile games.

2020 REVIEW
But the first key to a Group of Five team contending for the Playoff is establishing itself the year before. That may be unfair, but it is the reality of the landscape. Fortunately for Cincinnati, it very much did that despite the pandemic costing it any chances at high-profile wins in 2020.

The Bearcats tore through the American Athletic Conference, no one keeping within even two possessions until the final two games of the regular season, a pair of three-point wins against Central Florida and Tulsa. That stretch also saw Cincinnati fall from a Group of Five all-time high of No. 7 in the Playoff rankings to behind two-loss teams Iowa State, Florida and Georgia.

Hence the necessary multi-year résumé.

The Bearcats ended up facing the Dawgs in the Peach Bowl, falling on a 53-yard field goal in the final seconds, the type of loss that simultaneously dampened Cincinnati’s long-term hopes (it was, obviously, a loss) and boosted the Bearcats hopes moving forward (it was competitive, among other things, to be discussed next).

WHAT CINCINNATI LOST
The sour taste of that Peach defeat will benefit the Bearcats in 2021. While it is impossible to pinpoint exactly what players came back for an additional season, whether one was always possible or was granted via the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, it is undeniable the influx of key contributors returning was notable.

Thus, Cincinnati did not lose as much as would have been expected. Yet it will still need to find a pair of new offensive tackles and a lead running back, as well as replace lead tackler Jarell White and a first-team All-American safety. Even the fortunate few have to figure out turnover.

Of course, the Bearcats are also now without former defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. He found a new home a few hours west.

THE COACHING CONNECTIONS
The early October focus should be on Cincinnati’s biggest dreams — a focus that will be directly impacted on Sept. 18 in Bloomington, Ind. — but at least a few sidebars will delve into the layers of coaching staff relations.

Freeman is only the most recent crossover between the two staffs, a crossover that partly occurred because Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens made the same move a year earlier. A close friend of Freeman’s, Mickens helped convince the prized defensive coordinator that Notre Dame would be a fit for him. (Freeman reportedly lived in the Mickens family basement for his first few months in South Bend, while securing his own house and waiting for his family to finish up the school year in Cincinnati.)

Mickens was known to the Irish staff because … he played for Brian Kelly at Cincinnati from 2005 to 2008.

If the Irish lose once in September, and they Will Likely be underdogs to Wisconsin to close the month, then Kelly could actually break Knute Rockne’s record for wins at Notre Dame against the school Kelly once brought within a second of the BCS national championship.

And he would be doing so against his former assistant coach, Mike Denbrock, the Bearcats’ offensive coordinator throughout Luke Fickell’s tenure, since 2017. Immediately before that, Denbrock had coached under Kelly for seven years with the Irish, moving from tight ends coach to receivers to offensive coordinator.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Cincinnati’s offense begins with quarterback Desmond Ridder, coming off a season in which he completed 66.2 percent of his passes, threw for 229.2 yards per game and 8.2 yards per attempt with 19 touchdowns against only six interceptions, not to mention another 12 rushing touchdowns and nearly 60 rushing yards per game.

Ridder could have been a mid-round pick in last year’s NFL draft. Instead, he took the opportunity to chase another Playoff chance, an opportunity that will rely on a few veteran receivers in 6-foot-3 Alec Pierce and former Notre Dame transfer Michael Young. A shoulder injury limited Pierce to six games last year, in which he averaged 52.5 yards per game and scored three touchdowns, while Young led the Bearcats with 29 receptions.

The real piece for Ridder to lean on will be tight end John Whyle, coming off a year with 353 receiving yards and six scores.

Replacing two starting offensive tackles is never ideal, but Cincinnati still returns 48 total starts. Then again, not all pieces of returning production are necessarily good pieces. The Bearcats already struggled to protect Ridder in 2020, a fact that may have led to some of his 592 rushing yards. They gave up more defensive havoc — a fancy word for pressure — than any other offense in the country.

Former Alabama transfer Jerome Ford may help keep defenses honest, averaging 6.6 yards per rush last year as a complementary piece, but that onus will likely hinge on Ridder. Much of Cincinnati’s lofty aspirations will depend on the 6-foot-4, four-year starter dual-threat, but if his offensive line cannot provide better protection, someone will exploit that by the end of the season.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Though the Bearcats scored 37.5 points per game last year, they remain recognized as a defensive force. Even in this year’s preseason analytics, Cincinnati’s defense is why the team as a whole is considered on par with Notre Dame.

Losing Freeman will create some doubt, and new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel may incorporate more 3-4 fronts into Freeman’s 3-3-5 template, but doubting the Bearcats defense would be a foolish choice. Cincinnati had the No. 3 passing efficiency defense last year, the No. 8 scoring defense and the No. 13 total defense. That did not all stem from Freeman’s scheme; the players deserve some of the credit.

Cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner, a second-team All-American, and Colby Bryant will continue to buttress that passing efficiency defense, linebackers Joel Dublanko and Darrian Beavers are only able to be back in college because of the pandemic eligibility waiver, and defensive end Myjai Sanders had seven sacks in last year’s truncated season.

A possible 2022 first-round draft pick, Sanders alone will inspire fear into opposing offensive coordinators.

The defense remains deep, with or without Freeman. It is the Bearcats’ strength, with or without Ridder. If Cincinnati pulls off a notable road win in Indiana in September or October, the defense will be the differentiating factor.

2021 OUTLOOK
Notching one of those two wins will be the differentiating factor of the Bearcats’ season in wagering terms, but winning both will be the only way to keep that Playoff dream alive.

PointsBet sets Cincinnati’s season win total over/under at 10 games. In other words, if it can win once at Indiana or Notre Dame, then it should be clear to crash the over, particularly with the toughest conference games all coming at home (SMU, Tulsa, Central Florida).

The Bearcats defense raises the floor on its ceiling to such a height that the 10-win threshold makes sense, and Ridder creates a larger margin of error than most Group of Five teams, even the powerhouses, ever enjoy.

Fickell has led Cincinnati to a 31-6 record the last three seasons. Expecting that pace to slow in the slightest would be a mistake.

PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner, and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.

NOTRE DAME’S OPPONENTS
Despite influx of transfers, Florida State looking at another ugly season
With nearly the entire roster returning, Toledo set to rocket
Purdue’s 2020 slide a sign of worrisome trends
Wisconsin looks to recapture the magic of Mertz’s debut throughout 2021

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    Chris Terek’s flip from Wisconsin gives Notre Dame five OL commits in third straight class

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    For the second straight recruiting cycle, a coaching announcement was quickly followed up by a Wisconsin recruiting target committing to Notre Dame. Quite literally just as the Badgers announced Luke Fickell would be their new head coach on Sunday, rivals.com four-star offensive guard Chris Terek (Glenbard West High School; Glen Ellyn, Ill.) flipped his commitment from Wisconsin to Notre Dame.

    A year ago, the very first thing Irish head coach Marcus Freeman did after his introductory press conference was go visit Billy Schrauth in Fond du Lac, Wis., who joined the Notre Dame class shortly thereafter.

    Terek is the No. 220 player in the country, per rivals.com, and the No. 21 offensive guard. He had been committed to the Badgers since late June, but when Wisconsin fired Paul Chryst one game into October, schools began chasing Terek anew. Despite holding scholarship offers from Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa, as well as Kentucky, Iowa State and Boston College, Terek considered only the Irish through the fall.

    “I don’t care about any other schools that aren’t Wisconsin or Notre Dame,” Terek told Inside ND Sports last month. “Notre Dame, they’ve got a pretty crazy track record. They do very well with their O-linemen. (Offensive line) coach (Harry) Hiestand is awesome. And they seem like they’re really building something there.”

    At 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds, Terek is not as massive as most Irish offensive tackles, though he spent his high school career playing right tackle. That fits with Hiestand’s broad recruiting approach of chasing only tackles and finding which ones will work on the interior at the next level. Terek is likely such a guard.

    His high school ran to the right, presumably because Terek was plowing the way. His massive lower body — which Notre Dame strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis should enjoy molding — gives Terek ample power, something that Hiestand could turn loose on many Irish running plays.

    The fifth offensive lineman in this recruiting class, Terek gives Notre Dame 25 total commits expected to sign during the early signing period beginning Dec. 21. Rivals.com continues to rank that class the No. 2 in the country.

    Signing five offensive linemen in a class may seem over the top, especially considering the Irish could return as many as 13 from this year’s roster, but with one-time transfers allowed without missing a season of action, that number will reduce itself naturally. Some of those 13 will not return to South Bend next year, chasing playing time elsewhere in 2023, and some of the five commits will follow that same path down the line.

    In that regard, signing five offensive linemen may be the new Notre Dame norm. This will be the third recruiting cycle in a row of five offensive lineman signees, spanning two offensive line coaches.

    THE OTHER OFFENSIVE LINEMAN PLEDGES
    Four-star Charles Jagusah, No. 8 offensive tackle in the country
    Four-star Sam Pendleton
    Four-star Sullivan Absher
    Three-star Joe Otting

    Highlights: USC 38, Notre Dame 27 — Arm, legs and foot of Caleb Williams too much for Irish upset bid

    USC Trojans defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 38-27 during a NCAA football game.
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    Marcus Freeman stuck to his preseason plan. And while no single decision or play decides a game all on its own, especially not when No. 15 Notre Dame (8-4) lost to No. 6 USC (11-1) by two scores, 38-27, on Saturday, Freeman’s final pregame choice may have cost the Irish.

    Notre Dame won the coin toss and opted to defer possession until the second half, at which point the Trojans obviously chose to receive the opening kickoff. This has been Freeman’s preference all season.

    “If you just ask me right now, if I had to make a decision today, it’d probably be to defer,” he said on Aug. 29. “Just try to get that extra possession for the second half, but that changes game by game.”

    By seeking that extra possession in the second half in Los Angeles, Freeman gave USC’s dynamic offense a ripe chance to take a lead and immediately weakened the best piece of the Irish offense.

    “It’s difficult to play catch-up to any team,” Freeman said after the final game of his debut season as a head coach. “But when you’re not able to stop their offense, it’s extremely difficult. We weren’t able to do that at critical points of the game today.”

    The first of those critical points came when the Trojans sliced through Notre Dame’s defense for a methodical touchdown drive to open the game. Obviously, the Irish thought they could stop USC; no defensive-minded coaching staff reaches kickoff thinking otherwise. But practically, Freeman and defensive coordinator Al Golden assuredly recognized the challenge ahead of them: USC quarterback Caleb Williams’ immense talent is apparent after watching only a few plays of film.

    And Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees have watched Notre Dame’s offense stop and start through 11 games; they assuredly recognized it would not score on every single possession.

    As soon as the Trojans received that opening kickoff, the pressure was on Rees and junior quarterback Drew Pyne to keep up with Williams until he slipped up, if he slipped up. Instead, the Irish gained four yards on a three-and-out on their first possession. Williams subsequently took a 10-0 lead.

    If Notre Dame had received the opening kickoff, it would have had two chances to put points on the board before Williams had any chance to open a two-score lead. As soon as there was a two-score lead, the Irish ground game could not dictate terms as diligently.

    Eight of Notre Dame’s first 13 plays, its first two drives, were runs from either Logan Diggs or Audric Estimé, gaining 22 yards. On the remaining six Irish drives (ignoring the two-play possession just before halftime), only 10 of 37 plays were runs for either sophomore, gaining 55 yards.

    Freeman felt Notre Dame’s offense was still “efficient,” and it was, averaging 7.8 yards per play, but it was also stressed. The Irish were in a “two-minute situation,” per Freeman, midway through the fourth quarter. Urgency may not have yet been as distinct before then, but oscillating 10-point and 17-point deficits did not inspire a sense of time to spare. Pyne needed to keep chucking, completing nearly every pass he threw.

    He wanted to attempt one more. When Pyne pulled a zone-read out of Diggs’ hands, he said he did so with the intention of throwing to a receiver in the flat. Instead, he lost control of the ball.

    That was the end of the extra possession Freeman sought in the second half. By then, the pressure was already long on Notre Dame.

    QUOTE OF THE GAME
    That combination is what condemned Freeman’s pregame — preseason — choice. If Notre Dame had scored to start the second half, the result would have excused the questionable process, though the process would still have been questioned, given the Irish already trailed such.

    “That’s a 10-point game at the time,” Freeman said. “We get the ball, we’re driving down the field, … we’re rolling. QB and RB exchange, and those can’t happen. They can’t happen.”

    Then Freeman unintentionally reinforced the argument of anyone still doubting USC’s validity. The Trojans have a plus-22 turnover margin this season. In 12 games, they have benefited from 26 turnovers. More than a few of them were gifts from the opponent rather than defensive excellence.

    “(If) they do something spectacular and they create a takeaway, good for them,” Freeman said. “But for us to give the ball away on a self-inflicted wound on a QB-running back exchange, those are inexcusable.”

    PLAYER OF THE GAME
    Fear of recency bias prevents drawing any comparisons to Williams. Next week, Utah’s physical defense and more consistent offense may prove too much for this USC run to the Playoff, and if Williams makes a costly mistake there, comparing him to the dual-threat greats of the last 20 years could be perceived as over-reactionary.

    But on Saturday night, this one game, he was every bit the marvel as any such name that has come to mind.

    “He’s freaky athletic,” Irish senior linebacker JD Bertrand said. “It shows.”

    Notre Dame will spend the next 10.5 months pondering how to better contain Williams while still pressuring him. On first viewing, there never seemed a moment an Irish pass rusher had blatantly overpursued. The presumptive Heisman winner was just that good.

    “You see it happen over and over all year,” Freeman saaid. “His ability to feel pressure, to spin out of it, we told our guys, he’s going to spin. Work up field, he’s elusive.

    “He’s got huge legs, like he’s a running back back there at times. But he’s got an arm of a great quarterback. He’s really difficult to bring down.”

    Irish fans and players and coaches alike can be frustrated today by the praise being heaped upon Williams from all corners, but such is the reward of tallying four touchdowns in a showcase bestowed by playing in arguably college football’s greatest rivalry, certainly its rivalry covering the most distance. And that alone is a compliment to Notre Dame.

    STAT OF THE GAME
    Williams now even has the longest punt of USC’s season at 58 yards. Literally.

    Having Williams pooch punt twice was a savvy approach by the Trojans to avoid the risks of the Irish punt-block unit and its seven blocked boots this season.

    Two factors allowed USC to get away with the unorthodox approach. First of all, Notre Dame never stopped Williams & Co. before they had at least gotten toward midfield. Hypothetically, say the Trojans had gained only three yards on their third drive instead of 15. It is not a hard hypothetical to conjure, given Williams had to evade pressure from fifth-year defensive end Justin Ademilola before somehow finding receiver Mario Williams along the sideline for a 12-yard gain to create a 4th-and-8.

    Punting from their own 30 in this hypothetical, Caleb Williams may have given Irish safety Brandon Joseph a chance at returning the punt against USC’s offense. Instead, Williams was able to kick a relative line drive into the end zone.

    That was the second perk for the Trojans: Williams is clearly that much of a natural athlete. While he assuredly practiced punts all week, if not longer, not every quarterback is comfortable enough or coordinated enough to kick a ball 54 yards in the air so it bounces another 10 into the end zone. Shanking such a punt would have been about as troubling as letting Notre Dame block one. But Williams was completely comfortable with the task.

    DEBATED PLAY OF THE GAME
    On Williams’ second punt, Joseph had drifted back far enough to fair catch it at the 10-yard line. Presumably, an Irish halftime adjustment was to coach Joseph back for that when he saw Williams drop into a deep alignment for the punt. Joseph catching the punt would save 10 yards of field position, conceivably.

    On first viewing, it seemed Joseph could have slipped into his moonlighting duties as Notre Dame’s punt returner and possibly expose USC’s offense in doing so. Analyst Kirk Herbstreit made a point of arguing for such.

    On a second viewing, Joseph had called for a fair catch before the camera even panned to him. The Trojans’ receiver peeled around Joseph because the fair catch had already been waved for.

    Watch the far right of this clip. When Joseph comes into view, note he never waves for the fair catch. He already had. (Pardon the sub-par quality of the below clip. It was recorded off a tablet early in the morning for the sake of illustrating this point.)

    This was not a Joseph mistake. If he had tried to return that punt, two USC receivers were on hand to tackle him.

    USC defense, Caleb Williams’ Heisman-worthy performance never give Notre Dame an opening

    Notre Dame v USC
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    Caleb Williams did not flash the Heisman stance in the end zone at first, instead waiting until he was approaching USC’s sideline after his second touchdown in Saturday’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame. But he could hardly have been blamed if he had channeled his inner Desmond Howard right away in the end zone.

    The Trojans quarterback outshined his Irish counterpart even as Drew Pyne went more than three quarters without throwing an incompletion. No. 15 Notre Dame (8-4) pressured Williams plenty, but far more often than not, that backfired.

    “Coach [Lincoln Riley] always tells me I am athletic sometimes,” Williams said to ABC‘s Holly Rowe after the game. “So use my legs when I can and go out there and be special.”

    If the Irish defensive line opted entirely to not pursue Williams in the backfield, it may have been able to contain him, but even amid responsible pass-rushing, Williams dazzled his way out of trouble and up the field for gains.

    “You guys saw his ability just to extend plays,” senior linebacker JD Bertrand said. “That was one of the biggest things, his ability to keep the play alive, even though it really should be a dead play. To escape the pocket and still keep it going, it led to guys — you have to plaster downfield and it led to those extra pass yards, and then as well it led to him getting explosive runs. That was one of the biggest things we needed to stop, and we didn’t do.”

    After Williams’ third total touchdown, he showed less restraint, staring back at Irish senior linebacker Jack Kiser as he eased into the end zone, not quite taunting Kiser but certainly relishing the 31-14 lead. Williams did not make it out of the end zone before he struck the Heisman pose that time around, somewhat subtly slipping it in twice as he began back toward the Trojans’ bench.

    He earned those celebrations on Saturday, both getting the win and presumably the Heisman, a performance so dominant that Notre Dame could hardly be faulted for falling short in its biggest rivalry. Williams finished with three rushing touchdowns and one passing, taking seven carries for 70 yards and throwing for 232 yards on 18-of-22 passing.

    Pyne had one of the best games of his career, completing his first 15 passes and throwing for three touchdowns, but a fumbled zone-read keeper and an irresponsible cross-body interception undid those gains. Against a defense that entered the weekend with 24 forced turnovers, those mistakes played right into USC’s hands. More pertinently, they cut short Notre Dame’s few chances.

    That fumble cost the Irish a promising drive, and that interception gifted Williams a short field to set up the game-clinching touchdown, at which point his offensive linemen made a show of placing a pantomimed crown on top of Williams’ helmet. In a rivalry, some measure of gloating is earned, though the Jeweled Shillelagh does not make the most dramatic on-field postgame prop.

    Pyne connected with junior tight end Michael Mayer for two scores, presumably the last game for Mayer in a Notre Dame jersey. His nine touchdowns this season are an Irish record for a tight end, and he caught at least one pass in every one of his 36 career games. Mayer finished with 98 yards on eight catches, Pyne turning to him often as he threw for 318 yards on 23-of-26 passing. That 88.5 percent was the second-most accurate game in Notre Dame history, behind only Steve Beuerlein’s 10-of-11 (90.9 percent) against Colorado in 1984.

    Yet, the Irish offense was slow out of the gates. A three-and-out on its first drive was just as unfruitful as a turnover on downs deep into Trojans territory on the second drive. Reaching halftime with just seven points meant the Trojans had time to build a lead, a 17-7 margin at the break.

    “It’s difficult to play catchup to any team,” head coach Marcus Freeman said. “But when you’re not able to stop their offense, it’s extremely difficult. We weren’t able to do that at critical points of the game today.”

    With each successful USC drive — scoring on its first two and three of four possessions in the first half, a one-possession edge granted by Notre Dame deferring after winning the coin toss, as well as five of its first six drives — the most-reliable Irish offensive approach became less viable. Pyne may have been productive, but the Notre Dame rushing attack is less likely to turn over the ball when it is humming. Once the Irish were behind multiple scores, a first-quarter reality at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, that ground attack lost its effectiveness.

    “You think about the first half, we had three possessions, really,” Freeman said.

    That was by design — and to mention it again, a result of that coin-toss choice — but when the first of those was a dud and the second stalled short of the red zone, the shortage of chances with the ball compounded into a shortage of chances to catch up. Notre Dame thus needed to speed up the game and abandon its ever-reliable ground game.

    Logan Diggs and Audric Estimé combined for 18 carries for 77 yards, a stark dropoff from their last month of dominance. Since the Irish notched their first win this season, winning eight of nine games since starting 0-2, those numbers are the lowest for the combination except for when they took only 17 carries for 114 yards against Stanford, notably the only loss in that stretch. In the five games since then, the sophomore duo had averaged 30.6 combined carries and 169.2 yards per game, and 5.53 yards per rush attempt.

    “I thought we would be able to run the ball more,” Freeman said. “But we were still efficient in what we were doing. When you’re not able to run the ball as you want, you have to throw the ball, and I thought we threw the ball really well.”

    Perhaps well, but also not perfectly, as close as Pyne came. Anything short of perfect would not be enough while Williams roamed around the field.

    USC’s defense was effective but not necessarily exemplary. With Williams at quarterback, it does not need to be. By stopping Notre Dame on its first drive, a three-and-out that gained four yards, and then stuffing a tight end Mitchell Evans-as-quarterback sneak attempt on fourth down on the second Irish drive, the Trojans defense had done its job.

    Notre Dame’s defense could not do its.

    “We had to get a stop defensively to give our offense a serious chance, and we didn’t do that,” Freeman said.

    On this particular Saturday night, the only thing stopping Williams was a touch of restraint that justifiably escaped him when he was surrounded by his teammates on the sideline.

    SCORING SUMMARY
    First Quarter
    10:36 — USC touchdown. Tahj Washington 11-yard pass from Caleb Williams. Denis Lynch PAT good. USC 7, Notre Dame 0. (7 plays, 75 yards, 4:24)
    3:29 — USC field goal. Lynch 31 yards. USC 10, Notre Dame 7. (9 plays, 37 yards, 4:51)

    Second Quarter
    6:14 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 22-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Blake Grupe PAT good. USC 10, Notre Dame 7. (9 plays, 80 yards, 4:53)
    0:34 — USC touchdown. Williams 5-yard rush. Lynch PAT good. USC 17, Notre Dame 7. (10 plays, 75 yards, 5:40)

    Third Quarter
    8:21 — USC touchdown. Raleek Brown 5-yard rush. Lynch PAT good. USC 24, Notre Dame 7. (7 plays, 74 yards, 2:53)
    5:54 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deion Colzie 23-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. USC 24, Notre Dame 14. (5 plays, 75 yards, 2:27)

    Fourth Quarter
    14:53 — USC touchdown. Williams 3-yard rush. Lynch PAT good. USC 31, Notre Dame 14. (10 plays, 75 yards, 6:01)
    11:29 — Notre Dame touchdown. Logan Diggs 5-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. USC 31, Notre Dame 21. (7 plays, 75 yards, 3:24)
    2:35 — USC touchdown. Williams 16-yard rush. Lynch PAT good. USC 38, Notre Dame 21. (4 plays, 24 yards, 2:21)
    1:02 — Notre Dame touchdown. Mayer 24-yard pass from Pyne. Two-point conversion attempt failed. USC 38, Notre Dame 27. (6 plays, 56 yards, 1:25)

    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