SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Few things shout “We’re back” from the chaos of last year as loudly as No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) welcoming USC (3-3) into a primetime game with temperatures dropping into the mid-40s. Playing the Trojans every year is a staple of Irish independence, and it was the first real casualty of Notre Dame joining the ACC for the 2020 season while the Pac 12, at the time, did not plan on playing at all.
Few things shout “The more things change, the more they stay the same” like USC facing Brian Kelly with an interim head coach, the third time Kelly will face a temporary leader on the Trojans sideline during his 12 years leading the Irish. First Ed Orgeron stepped in for Lane Kiffin, then Clay Helton stepped in for Steve Sarkisian, and now Donte Williams steps in for Helton. Kelly beat both those interim coaches, part of his 7-3 record against Notre Dame’s biggest rival.
As much as tradition can be overwrought, Kelly restoring Irish dominance to this rivalry — when he arrived in 2010, the Trojans had won eight straight in this series — is an appropriate piece of his path to breaking Knute Rockjne’s career wins record earlier this season. Rockne began the cross-country trips to Los Angeles, and Kelly used two of them to seal perfect regular seasons. If Notre Dame had played USC in 2020, it is likely a third would have been wrapped up out West.
That will obviously not be the case this year, but beating USC would continue to serve to split these two programs’ directions, one chasing a fifth consecutive season of at least 10 wins and another seeking its fourth head coach in the last decade.
Kyle Hamilton makes the point that #NotreDame's juniors will now have played USC twice at home and not at all in LA.
Figure for Hamilton and junior running back Kyren Williams, they will never make that trip to the Coliseum.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 19, 2021
TIME, TV: 7:30 ET on NBC. The game will also be streamed on Peacock.
Night games returned to Notre Dame only 10 years ago, greeting the Trojans in 2011 on the same night as the Irish debuted piped-in music in the Stadium. It is now an annual tradition to play at least one primetime game in mid-to-late October, and the in-house playlist has certainly grown since that fraught first endeavor with only a handful of songs at its disposal.
— Matt Freeman (@mattfreemanISD) October 20, 2021
PREVIEW: Per usual, no matter the coaching turnover or the current lack of success, USC has as much top-end talent as nearly any other team in the country. Namely, the Trojans offense leans on onetime Heisman hopeful quarterback Kedon Slovis and his ability to connect with star junior receiver Drake London.
Slovis’ season has not gone to plan, plummetting from the Heisman lists as the losses piled up for USC and he was knocked out of a game only to have freshman Jaxson Dart shine as the next Trojans quarterback, seemingly a constant designation for the program, perhaps a familiar refrain to Notre Dame fans. Dart may or may not be healthy enough to play tonight after needing minor meniscus surgery a few weeks ago, so unless he is seen donning a helmet, the assumption is the onus lies on Slovis.
Despite that big-play duo, USC has shown a confounding habit of getting punched out this year. No Trojans game has been closer than two touchdowns, win or loss. A tight fourth-quarter affair would quite literally be a first for USC in 2021. Given the lack of crowds in 2020 and the lack of dramatic moments in 2021, one can be forgiven for wondering how the Trojans would react to a high-stakes conclusion tonight.
Defensively, the Trojans have, by far, the worst defense Notre Dame has faced to date. That is not to say it is outright bad, though it is far from good. SP+ ranks USC’s defense No. 81 in the country, just a bit below an average unit. The only defense the Irish have faced thus far outside the top 33 has been Florida State’s at No. 67, decisively average. The Trojans give up 6.18 yards per play, No. 106 in the country. The Seminoles, again the worst Notre Dame has played to date, give up 5.54, No. 68 in the country.
Mobile quarterbacks have exploited USC’s defense, as have traditional passing games. While the Irish continue to juggle multiple quarterbacks with vastly different skill sets, this is one occasion when there may not be a wrong answer.
PREDICTION: As of Friday night, PointsBet favored Notre Dame by a full touchdown with a combined points total Over/Under of 58.5. The Irish winning by a touchdown would simultaneously be a relatively comfortable win for them — with three games won by three points — and a relatively tight game for USC.
It is that latter thought that continues to intrigue. The Trojans have not shown an abundance of fight this year. Maybe that ties to losing their head coach. Perhaps it is a byproduct of the fatigue the whole world can relate to after the last 18 months. It could simply be a fluke of a few games and football is a sport of small-sample sizes. But whatever the cause, USC has not shown up to punch back this year.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame has opened three games with either a touchdown on its first drive or a trip into the red zone. In the other three games, the opening Irish drives all lost yardage. Leaning into the quick start — again, the Trojans have a lackluster defense prone to being picked apart by a diligent quarterback — could lead to USC packing it in early once again.
That may be hard to believe in a rivalry game, the return of a rivalry, a rivalry in which the Trojans have not won since 2016, but all of this year’s indicators suggest it as a distinct possibility.
Notre Dame 38, USC 17.
(Straight up — 5-1; Against the spread — 4-2; Over/under — 4-1.)
No games needed to end (and thus replenish folks' bankrolls) for more money to come in on #NotreDame today.
Irish now favored by 7.5 against USC across the board.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 23, 2021
INSIDE THE IRISH
— Brian Kelly skips transparent gamesmanship, names Jack Coan as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback
— Notre Dame’s quarterback ‘respect’ differs from the growing national norm
— QB Brendon Clark, coming off knee injury, announces transfer from Notre Dame
— Much weaker defenses await the Irish, with USC’s arguably the worst
— And In That Corner … The USC Trojans return to Notre Dame scuffling on both sides of the ball
— Things To Learn: Notre Dame has a defensive plan for USC, but can it stick to one on offense?
— Friday at 4: Of Brian Kelly’s 107 wins at Notre Dame, the 7 against USC may be most impressive
— How to watch USC vs Notre Dame: Live stream, TV info for Saturday
— How Joe Alt transformed from high school tight end to Notre Dame’s starting left tackle
— Pressure-filled moments aren’t too big for Notre Dame freshman running back Logan Diggs
— The best of USC’s Drake London is still to come
— AP Midseason All-America Team
— The Athletic’s midseason All-America teams
— 2021 CBS Sports Midseason All-America team
— College football’s midseason true freshman All-America team
— Ronnie Stanley is having season-ending ankle surgery
#TBT Notre Dame vs USC#GoIrish pic.twitter.com/FUZoSLozx7
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) October 21, 2021