The Journal Gazette
Saturday, October 23, 2021 11:10 am

Pregame: No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. USC (3-3)

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND -- Under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium tonight, the best intersectional rivalry in the country will return from its first hiatus since World War II to hold its 92nd meeting.

The 13th-ranked Irish will take on USC, trying to beat the Trojans for the fourth time in a row, a feat Notre Dame has not accomplished since 1993, when it won its 11th straight, setting a new record for longest streak in series history. The Irish did not meet Southern Cal in 2020 because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, ending a streak of consecutive years played for the series that dated to 1946.

Notre Dame is coming off a bye week, during which it had some time to solve the issues that held its offense back in the first half of the season.

Coach Brian Kelly expressed optimism that the moribund running game, which showed signs of life against Virginia Tech, will continue to improve. He also appears to believe that quarterback Jack Coan, once again the starter for tonight's matchup despite getting benched in each of the last two games, will be able to get the ball out more quickly tonight and avoid adding too many sacks to the 22 he has already taken this season.

If both of those things happen, the Irish offense could begin to fulfill its vast potential. A quick-passing game with Coan plus an occasional dash of true freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner to give the Trojans a different look could get Notre Dame moving, but it remains unclear whether the two scoring drives that Coan led in the final minutes against Virginia Tech were real or a prevent-defense-infused mirage.

The question remains: If USC brings pressure, can the Wisconsin transfer move just enough in the pocket to get the ball off on time? The Irish don't need him to be Kyler Murray; they just need him to have a modicum of mobility. He's shown repeatedly in practice that he has it -- Kelly emphasized that's why Coan remains the starter -- but bringing it into games has been a tougher task, and all too often the veteran quarterback has created sacks even out of decent protection. If the Irish get bogged down again, Kelly can't hesitate to go to Buchner or Drew Pyne or both (isn't this quarterback muddle fun?).

Coan should be helped significantly by the return of tight end Michael Mayer, who missed the Virginia Tech game with an abductor strain and was also gimpy in the Cincinnati game because of it. Kelly this week called Mayer Notre Dame's best offensive player, strong words in a unit that also features Kevin Austin and Kyren Williams, but Mayer has earned the distinction and he could provide a safety blanket for Coan if he's 100%, as Kelly said he should be. 

Mayer could also provide an extra blocker in the run game, which is good because the Irish are short of tight ends right now with Kevin Bauman and Cane Berrong out because of injuries. The Irish ran the ball effectively with some heavy "13" sets (one running back and three tight ends) against Virginia Tech and might go to such looks again today if USC gets too fixated on bringing pressure and trying to rattle Coan.

Running back Chris Tyree will be a game-time decision with turf toe, and game-time decisions have generally meant a no-go for the Irish this season. If Tyree is out, Williams will share the rushing load instead with C'Bo Flemister, who could see his first action of the season, and true freshman Logan Diggs, who flashed significant ability against the Hokies. 

On defense, the Irish have one main job -- stop Drake London. The USC wide receiver is one of the country's best, ranking in the top five in the country in receptions (60) and receiving yards (832). USC targets him a lot and Notre Dame will almost certainly use some kind of bracket coverage to try to slow down the All-Pac-12 receiver. That could mean fewer blitzes and more help over the top for All-American safety Kyle Hamilton.

Kelly compared London to Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis: Both are players the Irish had to scheme specifically to stop. After Notre Dame's win over the Boilermakers, Kelly said he simply wasn't going to let Karlaftis "ruin the day" and the focus of Notre Dame's game plan on defense today will be preventing London from doing the same.

Of course, the Trojans can also run the ball a little bit. Texas transfer Keontay Ingram is picking up 5.7 yards per carry, and his workload has been fairly minimal with a couple of other talented backs available. The Trojans have also fallen behind in a couple of games and that has limited their ability to run the ball. That could be the key for the Irish -- get a lead early and make USC one-dimensional.

The problem is, Notre Dame doesn't know which Trojans team will show up. USC has been a Jekyll-and-Hyde group all season -- before the firing of longtime coach Clay Helton and after, with Donte Williams running the show. Will the Irish face a Trojans team like the one that dispatched Washington State 45-14 or will it see a group like the one that fell behind 35-10 against Utah in its most recent game?

Under an interim coach, the Trojans are unpredictable. To keep their hopes for a New Year's Six bowl bid alive and retain the Jeweled Shillelagh, the Irish have to be prepared for whatever their rivals from the West throw at them.

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