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O/NSO: Notre Dame edition

The Obvious from South Bend: Two legendary college football programs looking for a big victory in a storied rivalry will have at it on Saturday evening (4:30 p.m. PDT/7:30 p.m. EDT) in historic Notre Dame Stadium, as the unranked USC Trojans (3-2, 2-1 Pac-12) visit their out-of-conference and perennial arch-enemy, the No. 9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (4-1), in a national game that has far reaching job security for one coach and pursuit of a CFP berth for the other.

The Not So Obvious: Notre Dame, which lost an inspiring game at No. 3 Georgia, 23-17, on Sept. 21, is still strongly in the CFP playoff hunt, so there is a helleva lot of motivation to stick it to the Trojans. As for the Men of Troy, getting a win in South Bend would not only be the biggest victory of the year, but it would allow head coach Clay Helton to sleep much easier than he has the past several weeks. After all, the Trojans have lost two of their last three games and another “L”, although not a critical Pac-12 loss, would contribute to Helton’s tenuous job security. Helton can ill-afford to lose another game because suddenly that record at the end of the first half of the season becomes a pedestrian 3-3 and the reality of losing the past three of four games.

The Obvious: Notre Dame opened a 10 ½ -point favorite to defeat the Trojans.

The Not So Obvious: The Men of Troy have won 11 of the past 17 games with the Irish; however, all six losses have been since 2010. Troy has won six of the past 11 at Notre Dame Stadium, but they have lost the past three, which includes 2015 just six days after Clay Helton was named Troy’s interim head coach. The good news is that the Trojans have taken down the Irish the last five times the Cardinal and Gold have come off a bye week. Feel better now?

The Obvious: Saturday will mark the 91st meeting of the Trojans and the Irish.

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans and the Fighting Irish have beaten each other more than any other opponent (48 wins by the Irish and 36 by the Trojans, not including one USC win vacated due to NCAA penalty).

The USC /Notre Dame rivalry began with an agreement between legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne (photo above) and….
legendary USC football coach Howard Jones (photo above). Did Jones and Rockne ever think that the rivalry between the two private universities would grow to become the nation’s biggest intersectional rivalry?

The Obvious: Notre Dame Stadium has traditionally been a tough place for the Trojans to get a win.

The Not So Obvious: In South Bend, the Trojans are 13-26-1 (not including the 2005 vacated game; original record: 14-26-1), with two other USC losses in games played in Chicago. The Trojans have lost in its last three trips to South Bend but have won the previous five times there and six of the previous eight.  

It’s always a difficult task for the Trojans to defeat the Fighting Irish in Notre Dame Stadium (photo above), and it’s especially difficult in the cold of a night game.

The Obvious: Saturday night’s game will be televised on NBC (4:30 p.m. PDT/ 7:30 p.m. EDT).

The Not So Obvious: The NBC broadcasters will be Mike Tirico (play-by-play), Doug Flutie (analyst) and Chris Simms and Kathryn Tappen (sidelines).

The Obvious: Saturday night’s Trojans’ radio game broadcast from Notre Dame Stadium will air live on KABC 790 AM (4:30 p.m. PDT) with Pete Arbogast (play by play), Shaun Cody (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline). John Jackson will provide selective perspective.  

Former Trojan All-America defensive tackle Shaun Cody (photo above), who is part of the Trojans radio broadcasts, was once a big Irish fan and was expected to play for ND – his father once a big Notre Dame fan – but changed his mind before signing day when Pete Carroll became the Trojans coach and the rest is history.

The Trojans’ overall broadcast from South Bend on KABC AM 790 will begin with a two-hour pregame show beginning at 2:30 p.m. (PDT). Joining the game broadcast crew will be Sam Farber, former Trojans’ quarterback Max Browne, and Julia Adams. Following the game, there’ll be a two-hour post-game show.

The Not So Obvious: The Notre Dame broadcast can be heard in South Bend on flagship station WSBT AM-960 with Paul Burmeister (play-by-play), Ryan Harris (analyst) and Jack Nolan (sidelines).

Saturday’s game will also air on Sirius XM satellite radio (channels 84/84 or online channel 84) and on the Tunein Radio app.

The Obvious: Saturday’s South Bend weather forecast calls for sunny with a high of 54 degrees, low of 43 degrees, 54 percent humidity, and 10 percent precipitation. Temperature for kickoff is expected to be clear and 48 degrees.

The weather forecast for South Bend (photo above) on Saturday is for a very brisk day and a very cold evening by kickoff time.

The Not So Obvious: The real weather report is whether the Trojans can reach back and pull off one of the great upsets in the history of this storied rivalry. It’s certain not going to be a walk in the park, and history suggests when the Irish have an opportunity to crush the Trojans, especially in South Bend and in front of nationally televised audience, they go for it in a big way. With Clay Helton hoping to bring an upset to add some traction to his job security and Brian Kelly of Notre Dame looking to impress the nation with a team that could get into the CFP for the second season in a row, something has got to give.  

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (photo above in green shirt) will be looking to impress the CFP committee with a resounding win over the Trojans on Saturday night on national television.

Offensively, we’ll see if the Notre Dame defense doesn’t completely overwhelm Graham Harrell’s version of the Air Raid offense, which is starting to draw mixed reviews. Thus far, the notion that with the Trojans tremendous receivers and exceptional running backs, it would eventually break the back of opposing defenses hasn’t been consistently the case. FYI, the Trojans average 29.40 points per game, but in the last three games, the Trojans are averaging 23.6 per game, a downturn against quality opponents. We’ll find out whether the Trojans’ offensive line can stand up and neutralize a very strong Irish defensive line. With true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis back in the starting role, we’ll see whether young Kedon can stay vertical and avoid injury if the O-line doesn’t play at the top of its game. And it remains to be seen whether the celebrated array of Trojan receivers can dent an Irish secondary that has been very good but exceptional at home. The Irish defense, which has held its last 19 opponents to 30 points or less, is second nationally in turnover margin, fifth in tackles for loss, 13th in scoring defense and 17th in pass defense. We’ll find out whether the Trojans offense can keep Irish defenders like junior LBs Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White, senior LB Asmar Bilal, and senior S Alohi Gilman at arm’s length.

After coming off of concussion protocol, tt will be a major challenge for true freshman QB Kedon Slovis (photo above) to to maintain poise under pressure in legendary Notre Dame Stadium.

Defensively, we’ll see whether the Trojans defense can stop Irish senior quarterback Ian Book, who gave the Trojans’ defense fits last season – especially in the second half in the Coliseum – with his scrambling out of trouble and making big plays. The Trojans’ defensive front seven will face another outstanding Irish defensive line, which could be the most impactful matchup of the game. Notre Dame’s front four can nearly rival any unit in the country, and the linebackers aren’t chopped liver either. We’ll find out whether the Irish passing attack combined with its effective running attack doesn’t get the Trojans back on their heels and again Trojans’ defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will be under scrutiny for his game plan. Standout sophomore strong safety Talanoa Hufanga (concussion protocol)has been cleared to play and sophomore corner Olaijah Griffin (back) also figures to be on the field, so we’ll see whether both players can play at the level they were before their latest setbacks. It remains to be seen whether the Trojans can also contain senior RB Tony Jones Jr., who leads the Irish ground attack, and senior WR Chase Claypool and junior TE Cole Kmet, an especially talented tight end.

On Trojans’ special teams, we’ll find out whether the cold Notre Dame Stadium environment affects Trojan punter Ben Griffiths (40.21 avg.)and reliable placekicker Chase McGrath (4 of 4, LG 52yds.). The expected chilly weather and wind could have an adverse effect on both kickers. Irish freshman punter Jay Bramblett is averaging 41.5 per kick while junior placekicker Jonathan Doerer is 3 of 4 in the field goal department with a long of 36 yards.

Could the talents of placekicker Chase McGrath (photo above) make the difference against the Irish?

The Obvious: Clay Helton is the Trojans’ fourth-year head coach and his current record at USC is 35-19.

The Not So Obvious: On what it takes to win at Notre Dame Stadium, Helton says, “It takes really clean football, unforced errors. Obviously, when you walk in that place you walk into history. For young people walking in that place for the first time, they get caught up looking in the stand and say “wow,” the aura of this place is huge. The game itself, when you talk about USC and Notre Dame, is a huge rivalry. You have to take a deep breath as a young person and focus on your job, focus on what you got to do, and then do it over and over and over consistently.”    

Clay Helton (photo above in the white shirt), who is already under intense job scrutiny, will have a chance to make a major statement if his Trojans can pull off the upset.

The Obvious: Brian Kelly, 57, is in his 10th season as Notre Dame’s head coach and his current record at ND is 64-35.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding the Trojans, Kelly said, “Explosive offensively, obviously. The ability to push the ball down the field. That’s first and foremost and probably the best defense we’ve faced from the Trojans maybe since I’ve been here. Very good upfront. Now in a 4-man front. They can bring pressure. It’ll be a great challenge for us.

“We play a lot of rivalry type games, but USC certainly stands by itself as one that’s always had a great tradition to it. Our guys are excited about the game but know that at the end of the day it’s about two teams with great traditions that have to settle it on the field. Have to prepare the right way. They knew this was coming up but had to take care of business this last weekend. They came in for treatment today and all they could talk about was the opportunity to play USC so they’re excited.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (photo above) will be looking to impress the nation with a major domination over the Trojans.

The Obvious: The Trojans’ offense averages 29.40 points per game while the Trojans defense allows 24.80 points per game.

The Not So Obvious: Notre Dame’s offense averages 41.0 points per game while the Irish defense allows 14.8 points per outing.

The Obvious: True freshman QB Kedon Slovis will be starting his first game since suffering a concussion in the Utah game.

The Not So Obvious: The big question with Slovis, who now has had two concussions in the past two seasons of playing football, is whether he will be gun-shy in the face of what figures to be a fierce Irish pass rush. Saturday will be a major mental and physical challenge for Slovis on many levels.

The Obvious: The starting quarterback for Notre Dame is senior Ian Book, a very mobile and smart signal caller.

The Not So Obvious: Believe it or not, Book is yet another Californian to play against the Trojans. The kid played his high school ball at Oak Ridge High in El Dorado Hills, Calif. Book is enrolled in the Mendoza College of Business, majoring in marketing. The Irish QB is 16th in the country in passing efficiency and is a threat throwing (1,254 yards, 13 TDs) and running (139 yards) the ball.

A California native, Irish QB Ian Book (photo above) is a major cog in the impressive Notre Dame offense.

The Obvious: Everybody seems to have a specific memory of USC/Notre Dame games over the years.  

The Not So Obvious: Asked about his memories of the USC/Notre rivalry, ND coach Brian Kelly said, “John Robinson (USC) on the sideline and Ara Parseghian (ND) and from my perspective in Massachusetts, the pageantry of the game as it’s played on TV. It was one of those games you wanted to watch on TV because it was played up as such a big game. But those two iconic figures.”

The Obvious: This will be the fifth Trojan night game in South Bend.

The Not So Obvious: Saturday night’s game also ties for the latest USC/ND kickoff time ever.

The Obvious: The Trojans have one player, RB Markese Stepp, who was once a Notre Dame verbal, from the state of Indiana.

The Not So Obvious: Stepp was a huge Notre Dame fan at one time. Adding to the Irish connection is the fact that his high school is known as the Fighting Irish and whose mascot is a Leprechaun. Go figure.

A state of Indiana hometowner, Trojans’ redshirt freshman running back Markese Stepp (photo above) will be looking to not only impress the Notre Dame defense but his fans and former teammates from Indianapolis Catholic High School.

The Obvious: Notre Dame has always recruited selectively well in California.

The Not So Obvious: The Irish have 12 Californians on its roster.

The Obvious: Notre Dame’s wide receivers coach is DelVaughn Alexander.

The Not So Obvious: DelVaughn lettered as a Trojans’ wide receiver (1993 and 1994), and then was a USC graduate assistant coach (1996 and 1997).

Former USC wide receiver DelVaughn Alexander (photo above) is currently the Notre Dame wide receiver coach.

The Obvious: And finally, the winner of Saturday night’s game gets year-long possession of the jeweled Shillelagh.

The Not So Obvious: The foot-long shillelagh—a Gaelic war club made of oak or blackthorn saplings from Ireland—has ruby-adorned Trojan heads with the year and game score representing USC victories, while emerald-studded shamrocks stand for Notre Dame wins. In the days of tie games, a combined Trojan head/shamrock medallion was used. The first Shillelagh was retired after the 1989 game when it ran out of space for the medallions and a second one is now in use. There are now 48 shamrocks, 37 Trojan heads and 5 combined medallions on the shillelaghs (one Trojan win was later vacated due to NCAA penalty).

Which team, USC or Notre Dame, will keep or take home the symbol of victory – the famed Shillelagh (photo above).

Greg Katz
Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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