The Notre Dame Fighting Irish host their longtime rival, the USC Trojans, this weekend. It will be the 85th meeting between these two teams, but the matchup doesn’t have the appeal its had in the past.
Neither team is ranked in the Top 25 with both teams sitting at 4-2. The Trojans are fresh off a close win against Arizona, while the Irish pulled off the upset against No. 22 Arizona State.
The Trojans have had a tumultuous season. Following a big loss to Arizona State (who the Irish recently defeated), coach Lane Kiffin was fired … before he could get on the team plane. While Kiffin had been on thin ice heading into the season, and drawn the ire of the fanbase (read: donors), its still a pretty dramatic move to not let your coach fly home with the team.
Despite their record, the Irish have had an up and down season. They are still struggling to find an identity and haven’t had that many impressive wins. Squeaking by Purdue, one of the worst offenses in the country, and then pulling off a lucky, penalty fueled win against Michigan State doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in this team.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for Saturday night:
- Improving Offense. For the Trojans that is. USC’s offense is loaded with talent and some truly dangerous NFL caliber players. Cody Kessler might have had his best game of the season last week in Ed Orgeron’s debut as interim head coach. The Trojans will also get future NFL wide receiver Marqise Lee back this week. The good news for the Irish is that leading rusher Tre Madden will likely be out with a hamstring injury. Team’s have had a tendency to pass against the Irish rather than try to run on a very solid front seven. Getting to Kessler will be key for Notre Dame, as will locking up Lee downfield.
- Good Tommy. The Irish had the week off to shore up some of the issues that have plagued this team over the season. Namely, consistency on offense. Tommy Rees had a very good game against Arizona State two weeks ago. But will he perform at that level again? He seems to have a good game every other week, which means he’s due for a stinker this Saturday. The good news is that USC is mediocre against the pass, allowing 233 yards passing per game. Opposing QB’s are completing just 56-percent of their passes, slightly above Rees’ average of 51-percent. Rees has to limit turnovers and play smart football, even if that means just checking down to his safety valves.
- Run the Ball. The past few weeks has seen a resurgence in Notre Dame’s rushing attack. The Irish want to run the ball, mainly because it limits the number of attempts that Rees has to take. That might be easier said than done as the Trojans are limiting opponents to 107 yards per game on the ground. If the Irish can dominate the line of scrimmage and establish a running game, then I really like their chances to win this game. Relying on Rees to fling the ball all over the field doesn’t translate to wins often enough. A lot of 3rd-and-longs for Notre Dame and I see the Trojans taking the ball away more than once.
- Home Field Advantage? Not really. The Irish haven’t beaten USC in South Bend since 2001. That says more about the quality of these two teams over the past 10 years. USC was generally ranked in the Top 10 for most of the 2000s while the Irish were struggling to remain relevant. This year, the two teams are playing at the same level and the advantage sits with the home team. Its hard to pick against the Irish at home and under the lights.
Notre Dame’s schedule gets awfully easy the next few weeks and a win here goes a long way towards securing a fairly good bowl game. It will be a classic strength vs strength matchup Saturday Night and the Irish have some momentum after the big win over Arizona State.
Notre Dame wins a close game 33-28.
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