By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com
The Obvious: In one of the most anticipated and dramatic endings to a USC football season, the No. 12 Trojans (8-3 overall, 7-2 Pac-12 South) will host intersectional rival and unranked Notre Dame (4-7) in the Coliseum on Saturday (12:30 p.m. PT/3:30 p.m. ET/ABC), hoping to keep one of their Rose Bowl scenarios alive, and then await the outcome of the Pac-12 South battle later in the afternoon between No. 21 Utah at No. 9 Colorado (4:30 p.m. PT/7:30 p.m. ET/FOX) to find out their Pac-12 South Division championship fate.
The Not So Obvious: While a win over Notre Dame may improve the Trojans’ College Football Playoff bowl ranking and break a one-game losing streak to the Irish, a Utah upset of Colorado will give the Trojans the Pac-12 South title for the second consecutive season, sending the Men of Troy to next Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara (6 p.m. PT/9 p.m. ET/ FOX) against either Washington or Washington State, depending on today’s (Friday) Apple Cup final in Pullman (12:30 p.m. PT/3:30 p.m./FOX). FYI, Colorado opened a 10-point favorite to defeat Utah while Washington opened as a 4 ½-point favorite to beat Washington State.
The Obvious: For the 88th meeting of USC and Notre Dame, college football’s greatest enduring intersectional rivalry, the Trojans opened as a stunning 17-point favorite over the Irish.
The Not So Obvious: For all of Notre Dame’s recent problems on and off the field, this point spread surly has surely awakened the “echoes” inside the Irish locker room. C’mon, baby, when was the last time a Notre Dame team was a 17-point underdog to the Trojans? That spread, along with still a cupboard full of talent, is why ND will a dangerous foe. The odds makers have gotten the Irish’s attention. Both clubs are remarkably similar when it comes to basic statistics. The Trojans are averaging 31.8 points per game on offense while the Irish average 31.3. Defensively, the Trojans allow 21.7 points per game while the Irish allow 26.3. Just based on those numbers, it looks like an even game; however, the Trojans are surging with a seven-game winning streak, and the Irish, unable to hold double-digit leads, have won just two of their last six games. For the record, ND leads the historic series 46-35-5, but the Trojans hold a 22-19-4 edge in Los Angeles.
The Obvious: Saturday’s USC/Notre Dame game will be nationally televised live on ABC (12:30 p.m. PT/3:30 p.m. ET).
The Not So Obvious: The ABC broadcasters for Saturday’s kickoff will be Steve Levy (play-by-play), Brian Griese (analysis), and Todd McShay (sidelines).
The Obvious: Saturday’s Trojans radio broadcast of the USC/ ND game will air live on ESPNLA 710 AM at 12:30 p.m. (PT) with Pete Arbogast (play by play), John Jackson (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline).
The Trojans ESPNLA 710 pregame (8:30 a.m. PT) and two-hour post-game show on Saturday will feature Arbogast, Jackson, Moore, Shaun Cody, Chris Fisher, Travis Rodgers, WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz, and WeAreSC contributor Jeremy Hogue.
The Not So Obvious: The Notre Dame broadcast can be heard on flagship station WSBT (960 AM) with Don Criqui (play-by-play) and Allen Pinkett (analyst). Besides also being broadcast nationally on ESPN radio, Saturday’s intersectional rivalry game will also air on Sirius XM satellite radio (channel 80) and on the Tuneln Radio app.
The Obvious (UPDADTED): The Los Angeles weather on Saturday calls for afternoon rain (1 p.m. 59 degrees/70 % precipitation/55% humidity), continuing rain (2 p.m. 59 degrees/85% precipitation, 60% humidity), intense rain (3 p.m. 56 degrees/90% precipitation/60% humidity) and then turning to thundershowers (4 p.m. 56 degrees/ 75 % precipitation/72 humidity).
The Not So Obvious: We’ll see whether the weather plays a major role in Saturday’s outcome (remember, umbrellas are not allowed inside the Coliseum). We’ll also see whether the Trojans aren’t looking ahead to the game that immediately follows their game with the Irish, namely Utah at Colorado. It figures that the Men of Troy will take the fastest showers in the history of the Coliseum in order to see whether the Utes can upset the Buffaloes and give the Trojans the Pac-12 South title. However, while the Trojans results with the Irish won’t have any Pac-12 implications, it could affect whether they play in a game like the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Cotton Bowl in Dallas, or have a realistic shot for the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Offensively, the Trojans are humming. Quarterback Sam Darnold continues to amaze, sophomore tailback Ronald Jones ll is a home run hitter, there’s a host of dynamic receivers including JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, Deontay Burnett, and surprise performers like De’Quan Hampton, and some big time tight ends, led by emerging redshirt freshman Daniel Imatorbhebhe. The Irish secondary is young and vulnerable, and we’ll see whether the Trojans talented receivers can burn them. Then there’s the Trojans offensive line, which has the capability of being physically dominant when it’s not slowing itself down with procedure or holding penalties. The Irish offense can score, so we’ll see whether the Trojans can continue to play ball control against a Notre Dame defense that has been hot and cold. Make no mistake, Notre Dame still has some very talented individual players on defense, and we’ll find out whether the toll of a disappointing season and the in-season firing of their former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, replaced by “interim” defensive coordinator Greg Hudson, is a factor.
The Irish have continued a pattern this season of giving up big leads – like 17-point leads, which they did again in their final home game last Saturday in a 34-31 loss to Virginia Tech. Defensively, the Irish have a good one in junior safety Drue Tranquill, who against Virginia Tech had 10 tackles (8 solo) and an interception. The Irish defense held Virginia Tech to 4 yards during the first quarter. The Irish were also stingy against Miami when they held the Hurricanes to 2 yards in the first quarter of their game. The Irish defense is also supported by junior linebackers Nyles Morgan and James Onwualu.
Defensively for the Trojans, we’ll find out whether Clancy Pendergast’s defense can stop a Notre Dame offensive that isn’t lacking. In fact, in Notre Dame’s last four games, they’ve opened their first possession with a touchdown scoring drive. Having this knowledge, we’ll see if the Trojans still elect to play defense first if they win the opening coin toss. That has been the case the last several games. The Irish figure to start junior quarterback DeShone Kizer (national top 25 in passing TDs, total offense, and 45 career touchdown passes), who many believe will be coming out for this spring’s NFL draft. The Irish also have skilled receivers, led by local Anaheim Servite High product Equanimeous St. Brown (17.0 YPC), so we’ll soon find out soon enough whether the Trojans secondary is up to the task.
In terms of rush defense, the Trojans have had recent success in holding down the ground attacks by those presented by Washington and UCLA. We’ll see whether the Trojans defensive front can continue its dominance against a physical Irish O-line, which helped pave the way for 200 rushing yards last Saturday (36 carries for an average of 5.6 yards per rush) against Virginia Tech. The 200-yard rushing performance marked the fourth time the Irish have recorded 200 or more rushing yards in a game this season. Last Saturday, Irish sophomore running back Josh Adams, a native of Warrington, PA, averaged 7.7 yards per rush and scored two touchdowns. It was Adams (6-1, 220) seventh consecutive time Adams has recorded a 100-yard plus rushing game.
Looking at specials teams, if the game gets close, we find out whether the Trojans can outkick the Irish. Trojans placekicker junior lefty Matt Boermeester (14-of-19 FGs, 42-of-43 PATs) will battle legs with Irish sophomore placekicker Justin Yoon (13-16 FGs, 41 of 43 PATs). In terms of the punting comparisons, the Trojans sophomore Chris Tilbey is averaging 37.7 while Irish junior punter Tyson Newsome averages 42.5 yards per boot. Field position could be critical.
The bottom line to Saturday’s game is whether the Trojans can get up for a third straight high profile opponent, play mistake free football, and not be distracted by the ensuing Utah/Colorado game. Defeat the Irish and get a Utah upset of Colorado, and there is no better way to end the Trojans regular season.
The Obvious: Record wise, this will not be a vintage Brian Kelly Notre Dame team that plays in Los Angeles this weekend.
The Not So Obvious: After Notre Dame’s team’s latest loss, Kelly told his team, “We’ve been down this road before, right? We’ve lost seven games this year, seven points or less in six of those and one by eight. One thing that always happens is you play your hearts out. You compete, you prepare and you did that again today. That has not changed. You represented Notre Dame football in the manner you need to. But losing football games is not part of what our tradition is. That’s not who we are. We need to win football games. We all know that.”
The Obvious: Eric Hansen is the Notre Dame beat writer for the South Bend Tribune.
The Not So Obvious: In a chatroom with readers, Hansen was asked about the upcoming USC/ND game. Hansen said, “I think this is a really tough matchup for ND, because pressuring the quarterback has been so difficult against even below-average offensive lines, and USC’s is elite. On the other side of things, USC has really stepped up its run defense, so a lot of pressure goes on Kizer’s shoulders. Even if ND gets the turnover count in its favor, this is going to be an uphill battle.”
The Obvious: The 2016 Trojans offense is averaging 31.8 points per game while the Notre Dame defense is allowing 26.3 points per outing.
The Not So Obvious: The 2016 Notre Dame offense is averaging 31.3 points per game while the Trojans defense is allowing 21.7 points per game.
The Obvious: Clancy Pendergast, recently nominated for the Broyles Assistant Coach of the Year Award, is the Trojans respected defensive coordinator.
The Not So Obvious: As it pertains to Notre Dame quarterback Deshone Kizer and the Irish offense, Pendergast said, “He (Kizer) is very talented obviously. He’s a dual-threat type guy. He makes plays with his feet in the run game, and he’s loose in the pocket in the pass game. We’ll have our hands full in trying to contain him.”
Asked how the Trojans would neutralize the tough and physical Notre Dame offensive line, Pendergast said, “We’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game and be physical on all three levels of our defense. They block extremely well and their running backs run really hard, so it will be challenge for our whole defense. I think the strength of the Notre Dame offense is that they’re very well-rounded, I think they score a lot of points early, and that will be critical for us. We have a lot of respect for them, and we don’t look at their record. They’re going to be ready to play and we’re going to be ready to play and it should be a good game.”
The Obvious: One of the biggest surprises of the season has been the play of Utah grad transfer, nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovato, who loves physical challenges as presented by offensive lines like that of Notre Dame.
The Not So Obvious: Facing Notre Dame for the first time and asked to describe the Notre Dame offensive line, “Mr. T.” said, “They’re bigger than the O-lines we’ve been facing. You can see it on film, they’re more thick. They come off the ball similar to Alabama. We have to play physical up front and come with a lot of heart on Saturday. I love these types of games like I loved the Alabama game.”
The Obvious: Trojans first-year head coach Clay Helton already has five wins over ranked opponents in his 21-game head coaching career (twice over Top 5 teams).
The Not So Obvious: Notre Dame’s seven-year head coach Brian Kelly has a 4-2 record against the Trojans, and one national championship appearance.
The Obvious: No longer bowl eligible due to lack of wins, Saturday’s game will be Notre Dame’s bowl game.
The Not So Obvious: Regarding the Trojans, coach Brian Kelly said, “USC is one of the hottest teams in the country. Obviously, the big difference there for USC is (quarterback) Sam Darnold. When he was inserted into the lineup, that’s been a transformation for that team offensively. He’s as good as I’ve seen in a long long time. His escapeability, this ability to throw on the run, his accuracy, I don’t see anything short of brilliant the way he is playing right now. Of course, he’s got a great supporting cast. (wide receiver) JuJu (Smith-Schuster), (tailback) Ronald Jones, just a very very potent offensive football team, and it starts with the quarterback. Defensively, having Clancy Pendergast back as the defensive coordinator, they’re familiar with the scheme, they know the scheme, and they’re not too far from what he’s done there in years past. Just an aggressive front. They like to keep the box loaded, and again they’ve got a good backend, a good experienced backfield. Special teams game obviously with Adoree’ Jackson you have to be aware of, so all three phases a really really good football team we’re facing on the road.”
The Obvious: As mentioned, this is the 88th renewal of the Trojans and the Irish, a rivalry that began when fabled Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne and legendary USC coach Howard Jones agreed to play each other in 1926.
The Not So Obvious: The Trojans and the Irish have beaten each other more times than any other opponent.
The Obvious: It is rare that a Notre Dame team comes to Los Angeles with a losing record.
The Not So Obvious: The last time the Irish came to the Coliseum with a losing record was 1986, when ND was 4-6. It also happened in 1956 and 1960. The Trojans were winners in the 1960 game.
The Obvious: It is considered the norm when both teams play each other as national ranked.
The Not So Obvious: This is the first time since 2009 that the Trojans have been ranked when facing the Irish.
The Obvious: Last Saturday, the Trojans dominated UCLA 36-14 in the Rose Bowl.
The Not So Obvious: The Trojans have defeated both UCLA and Notre Dame in the same season 19 times with nine of those games occurring back-to-back.
The Obvious: In 2016, the Trojans and the Irish have played one common opponent.
The Not So Obvious: If you guessed Stanford, you are correct. The Trojans lost to then No. 7 Stanford, 27-10, in Palo Alto during September while Notre Dame also lost to Stanford, 17-10, in Notre Dame Stadium back in October.
The Obvious: The Trojans and the Irish have both won numerous national championships.
The Not So Obvious: Ironically, both universities have won 11 national championships each in football.
The Obvious: Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator is Mike Sanford.
The Not So Obvious: Mike’s dad, Mike Sanford Sr., is a former Trojans quarterback/safety (1973-76) and Trojans assistant coach (1977, 1989-96).
The Obvious: This is the time of the year when Trojans football and basketball can overlap.
The Not So Obvious: Bring your ticket stub from Saturday’s USC/Notre Dame football game and receive complimentary admission to the USC women’s and men’s basketball games on Sunday, November 27th.
The Obvious: The Trojans have no players from the state of Indiana.
The Not So Obvious: Notre Dame has 10 players that hail from California high schools.
The Obvious: Before Saturday’s kickoff, the Trojans will do their annual salute to the seniors, as those departing the university will run through a spirit tunnel provided by former players.
The Not So Obvious: In another special promotion for Saturday’s game, in an effort to help the homeless in Southern California, fans attending the game are encouraged to bring a pair of new sneakers to the game to donate to a Sneaker Drive, an initiative sponsored by USC Football and Clay and Angela Helton in partnership with the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. There will be drop-off bins at various entry points into the Coliseum. The goal is to provide 5,000 pairs of sneakers to the homeless, with the most pressing need being men’s large sneakers
The Obvious: For a game like Notre Dame, parking can sometimes be a real challenge.
The Not So Obvious: FYI, all Coliseum parking lots will open at 8 a.m. and all campus lots will open at 6 a.m.
The Obvious: And finally, regardless of the USC/Notre Dame outcome, all eyes will be on the Utah at Colorado game that will follow around 30 minutes after the last play in the Coliseum.
The Not So Obvious: What a way to end the regular season this weekend! The Trojans have come a long way from that dark September day in Arlington, Texas against Alabama. The anticipation builds for Saturday and the following Sunday’s definitive bowl assignment announcement (Dec. 4) will be at a high level. But in the meantime, here’s hoping you had a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.