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  • Notre Dame running back Avery Davis and the No. 9 Irish take on USC tonight. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:36 p.m. in the 88th meeting between the rivals. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Saturday, October 12, 2019 5:30 pm

Pregame: No. 9 Notre Dame (4-1) vs. USC (3-2)

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Immediately before Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend to take the Notre Dame job, the annual series between the Irish and USC was owned by the Trojans. From 2002 to 2009, USC won eight straight matchups, its longest winning streak in the history of the rivalry.

Kelly's first season was in 2010 and since then Notre Dame has had the upper hand, winning six times in nine seasons, including a 24-17 victory in Los Angeles in 2018 that cemented the Irish's trip to their first College Football Playoff.

The Trojans have only won in South Bend once in Kelly's tenure, a 31-17 victory in 2011. The last time USC played at Notre Dame Stadium, the then-No. 11 Trojans were thrashed 49-14.

Today's renewal of the rivalry matches a top 10 Notre Dame team against an unranked USC team for the second straight year. The Irish are heavy favorites and should get a boost from an unseasonably chilly night: temperatures are forecast to be in the upper 30s by kickoff at 7:36 p.m. 

Still, USC has enough weapons, especially on offense, to give the Irish all they can handle. As I've written all week, the main focus will be on the Trojans' three star receivers: Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown in the slot. Notre Dame will have to deal with them without No. 2 cornerback Shaun Crawford. That means sophomore TaRiq Bracy, who played nearly the entire game against Bowling Green and held his own, will be thrust into the spotlight. It also means Donte Vaughn, who struggled so mightily in the Cotton Bowl against Clemson, will get far more snaps than he's seen so far this season. The Irish have long been high on Vaughn, but he hasn't yet shown that he can hold the fort against elite receivers. He has another chance to prove his worth tonight and possibly secure more playing time going forward.

One element of USC's offense that I think has been somewhat undervalued is its running game. After watching the tape of the Trojans' most recent game, a 28-14 loss to Washington, I was impressed with redshirt freshman Markese Stepp, who had 10 carries for 62 yards against the Huskies. Stepp runs with a physicality that I haven't seen from the other Trojans backs and I expect him to get more touches today as USC tries to establish the run before going to the air with redshirt freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis.

The Trojans would probably love to keep the ball on the ground as much as they possibly can because passing has not gone particularly well for them this season. The three USC quarterbacks who have seen time in 2019 (Slovis, injured starter JT Daniels and Matt Fink) have combined to throw nine interceptions. That has contributed to one of the Trojans' biggest weaknesses: a minus-7 turnover margin that ranks No. 122 out of 130 FBS teams. Out of all the opponents on USC's schedule, the Irish might be in the best position to take advantage of that weakness. Notre Dame has a plus-10 turnover margin that ranks No. 2 nationally and Alohi Gilman, Jalen Elliott and Kyle Hamilton have proven to be ballhawks at the safety position this season. If Notre Dame can pick up a few takeaways, its margin for error increases significantly. If USC finds a way to take care of the ball and can sustain drives, Notre Dame's task gets much more difficult.

The Irish got some bad news earlier today when South Carolina went into Athens and beat No. 3 Georgia, ending the Bulldogs' undefeated season. The Irish needed Georgia to keep winning to make their loss to the Bulldogs look good in a potential résumé comparison with other one-loss teams for a spot in the CFP. That Georgia loss to the Gamecocks puts a significant dent in Notre Dame's playoff hopes and changes the tenor of the rest of Notre Dame's schedule. From here on out, style points will matter. The Irish will have to win convincingly to have a shot at college football's final four for the second straight year. They can start by winning their third straight in this rivalry for the first time since 1999-2001.

dsinn@jg.net