The Journal Gazette
Monday, October 07, 2019 1:00 am

Irish ready for step up in competition against rival USC

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame got past Bowling Green on Saturday, skating easily through a 52-0 win that featured six touchdown passes, 573 yards of total offense for the team's first shutout since 2014.

But the No. 9 Irish have larger goals than beating up on overmatched MAC opponents. The competition will get much more difficult the rest of the month, with games against USC and Michigan, which is why it was imperative that the Irish cleaned up weak spots in Saturday's matchup against the Falcons. They did exactly what they needed to, putting together a clean, nearly-mistake-free performance.

If there were any thoughts that this team would be looking past an inferior opponent, they didn't last long.

“We had one of our best weeks of practice coming into this,” defensive end Julian Okwara said after Saturday's home win. “We were locked in. We knew we had to go out there and play our hardest.”

The next step is to have that same crisp performance against a much better opponent. Now that the Falcons have been dispatched, attention can turn to USC and capturing the Shillelagh Trophy for the third consecutive season, which Notre Dame hasn't done since 1999-2001.

Coach Brian Kelly admitted his team has the game against the Trojans “circled on the calendar” and the players have already begun preparations for USC's trip to South Bend on Saturday night.

“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,” Kelly said. “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 (Sunday) and all they could talk about was the opportunity to play USC, so they're excited.”

Among the players who will see growth from the Bowling Green game tested by USC is quarterback Ian Book.

Book was magnificent Saturday, passing for five touchdowns, pushing the ball down the field and taking the time to survey the field before scrambling, as Notre Dame's coaching staff has been encouraging him to do all season.

Now the quarterback has to do it all again, against a much better opponent.

“The competition is going to step up,” Kelly said. “USC will be a bigger challenge. Two weeks later, Michigan will be another big challenge. But good things to work on that we saw (Saturday) from Ian that we can show him on film that he got a chance to feel today, which is even bigger, and we'll build off of that.”

USC is unranked at 3-2 with losses against Washington and BYU, but the Trojans – coming off a bye – will have had two weeks to come up with a game plan to attack Book. Kelly has only just started looking at USC film, but he said Notre Dame's rivals might have the best defense they've fielded in the coach's tenure with the Irish.

“Very good up front,” Kelly said of the Trojans. “In a four-man front, they can bring pressure.

“It'll be a great challenge for us.”

Notes: Running back Jafar Armstrong is still on pace to play against the Trojans after tearing an abdominal muscle in Week 1. The Irish will get a much better idea after practice Tuesday, Kelly said. ... Wide receiver/kick returner Lawrence Keys III has plantar fasciitis and missed Saturday's game but is expected to play Saturday. ... The Irish remained at No. 9 in the AP poll, the highest-ranked one-loss team. 

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