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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, October 21, 2017 6:50 pm

Pregame: Notre Dame (5-1) vs. Southern California (6-1)

CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND — Southern California coach Clay Helton jokingly said this week he would sleep with the Jeweled Shillelagh, a foot-long trophy made of oak or blackthorn saplings from Ireland. 

Notre Dame lost possession of the trophy last year because of a 45-27 loss at USC, but the Irish hope to reclaim it tonight in the 89th meeting of this storied rivalry.

Kickoff is 7:42 p.m. at Notre Dame Stadium. Here's what to watch for:

1. Heat on Coney: With Greer Martini sidelined by a knee injury, Te'von Coney starts for Notre Dame at outside linebacker. He's played a lot, anyway, but Coney's stamina will be tested this game because he won't get many breathers. 

Coney is second on the Irish in tackles (42) and has one sack and two quarterback hurries. His strengths are in shooting through gaps quickly and wrapping up well on ball carriers, which is vital against Ronald Jones II.

USC leans on Jones when the offense most needs yardage. He averages an eye-popping 6.3 yards per carry and has scored nine touchdowns, including one receiving.

2. Season of Sam: USC quarterback Sam Darnold was college football's golden boy in the preseason and with good reason. He led the Trojans to a victory in the Rose Bowl last winter.

A funny thing has happened on the way to the Heisman Trophy, however. Darnold has struggled with ball security and seen his completion rate drop from 67 percent in 2016 to 63 percent this year.

Still, Irish coach Brian Kelly fears Darnold.

"You know, I don't know where to start," Kelly said. "Let's see: accuracy, quick release, competitiveness. He can make plays after things break down. He just has that knack of making plays when it looks like you've got everything covered. Just a great arm. Great arm strength."

Notre Dame's secondary, especially safeties Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott, figure to be stressed because Darnold can buy time in the pocket and get the ball out in a blink.

"I think what probably separates him from the other quarterbacks is just his ability to find that open window in tight spaces with a quick, quick release," Kelly said. "I mean, that ball comes out of his hand as well as anybody that I've seen."

3. Hole inside: USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast runs a 3-4 scheme that depends on strong play by the lone defensive tackle. Unfortunately for the Trojans, their top two players at that position are injured and unable to play tonight.

What this means for Notre Dame's offensive line and center Sam Mustipher in particular is that more runs are likely to go up the middle. If the Trojans are able to slow down a dominant running game, they'll be able to test sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Wimbush was shaky in his previous big game, a 20-19 loss to Georgia on Sept. 3. The Irish have said Wimbush is fully healthy after he missed their last game with a strained right foot.

4. Slowing Rector: When the Associated Press released a midseason All-America team, USC outside linebacker Christian Rector was featured. He's tied for third in the country with 6.5 sacks.

The priority for Notre Dame is to always have an offensive lineman assigned to Rector.

"Rector has been matched up on a back a couple of times, and he's got some sacks just because he's one-on-one with a back," Kelly said. "In that three-down package, sometimes you fan the wrong way and have got him matched up on a back."