Head to head: Notre Dame vs. USC
Observer Sports Staff | Thursday, October 15, 2015
After notching 15 touchdowns and throwing for nearly 1,300 yards in his first four games, USC quarterback Cody Kessler struggled last time out against Washington, going 16-for-29 for just 156 yards and two interceptions in a 17-12 loss. It was a headscratcher of a performance from a player who started the year so well, extending his streak of consecutive games with three or more touchdown passes to six before the loss.
Notre Dame will, of course, remember Kessler’s performance in the game between the two teams last year, when he threw for six touchdowns and 372 yards in the Trojans’ 49-14 rout of a beat-up Irish team.
This year, the Irish haven’t been seriously tested much through the air. Texas was largely impotent, Clemson did not try much in the air during the downpour two weeks ago and Notre Dame has faced two triple-option attacks that largely kept the ball on the ground.
The Irish have had a tendency to give up big plays this year, and Kessler and his receiving corps are the kind of group that can pounce on those opportunities.
USC’s two feature backs, Tre Madden and Ronald Jones II, combined to average 7.4 yards per carry Oct. 8 against Washington, and the Trojans still managed to lose. With former head coach Steve Sarkisian dismissed and offensive coordinator Clay Helton taking the reins, it will be interesting to see if the play calling changes — but the Trojans will still have to find a way to turn their backfield talent into success. Madden has been limited in practice this week nursing a tender knee, but even if he’s not 100 percent, Jones and Justin Davis still give the Trojans options.
On the flip, Notre Dame’s defense has been fairly successful against the run this year: In four games against teams that don’t run an option scheme, the Irish have given up just 136.8 yards per game on the ground. If the front seven plays well for Notre Dame, they should be able to find success stopping USC’s rushing game.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
TROJANS OFFENSIVE COACHING
In the aftermath of a coaching change, it’s always tough to say what an interim head coach will do. While the general schemes the Trojans are running should effectively stay the same, interim head coach Clay Helton is likely to put his own spin on proceedings. But even with the potential uncertainty, the distractions of the week may have an impact on the ability of USC’s scheme to work under the lights.
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder should have everything he needs to put together a solid game plan after last year’s disaster in Los Angeles. It’ll be up to the defense to make sure it ends up being a successful one.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
TROJANS SPECIAL TEAMS
The focus of the special teams unit at the Coliseum boils down to one thing this year — Adoree’ Jackson. His two kickoff returns as a freshman last year earned him notoriety, and despite teams kicking away from him, he’s racked up more than 10 yards per punt return this year, breaking a long of 45 yards on the season. The veteran kick and punt coverage teams for the Irish should have their hands full containing Jackson.
The kicking game for USC is largely an unknown, even after five games — kicker Alex Wood is just 4-for-5 this year, with his miss an important 46-yarder in last week’s loss to Washington, but punter Kris Albarado has been good, downing six of 23 punts inside the 20-yard line and racking up five 50-plus-yard punts this year.
Once more, DeShone Kizer managed the game against Navy, putting the Irish in a good position to have success. He’s topped 200 yards through the air in each of his four starts this season and used a pass-heavy second drive of the game to get the Irish on the board last week.
After a tough contest at Clemson, the receiving corps responded well to the challenge against Navy but may have to take another step up against USC. Chris Brown has continued to be a reliable second option for the Irish, making it harder for teams to defend such that Will Fuller is taken out of the game. With the slew of options Notre Dame has at receiver, it’s reasonable to think the pass game will continue to have success.
USC’s pass defense is nothing to write home about — despite surrendering fewer than 20 points in four of its five outings, the Trojans defense is giving up more than 200 yards per game to opposing teams through the air. It’s surrendered just four touchdowns, but Saturday’s contest should give Kizer an opportunity to grow in confidence once more.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
If there were questions about C.J. Prosise and the Irish run game after a rough outing at Clemson, some of them were surely answered after last week’s performance against Navy, when Prosise racked up three touchdowns for the second time this season. Alex Bars coming in for the injured Quenton Nelson did little to harm the ground game, as a combination of jet sweeps and runs up the gut allowed Notre Dame to roll once more.
A few weeks ago, Stanford’s ground game ran wild over the USC defense, going for 195 yards and three touchdowns in the Cardinal’s 41-31 win in Los Angeles. It’s not hard to imagine the Irish rushing attack doing a similar thing this week against the Trojans, especially given the tumultous week USC has had.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
While Notre Dame went three-and-out on its opening possession last week, the offense responded well with another banner day. When the Irish were offered short fields, the proper play calls gave Notre Dame six points within seconds. The Irish staff had the right mix of passes and sweeps to C.J. Prosise to exploit the Midshipmen defense early, and they killed off the game very well in the second half.
The only team that’s stopped the Irish so far this year has been Clemson — and even then, the game plan was good enough to produce points had drops not harmed the effort. Oh, and the Trojans gave up 41 points in their only other game against a top-25 foe.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
Justin Yoon had a crucial 52-yard field goal at the end of the half against Navy, the third-longest in school history, while Tyler Newsome had a punt downed inside the five that eventually turned into a Navy turnover and seven points for the Irish. A forced fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half gave Notre Dame’s offense with more easy points in a marked difference from the Clemson loss, where special teams hurt the Irish.
The kick coverage team, however, did give up one big return, and with Adoree’ Jackson back deep for punts and kicks, that could be a concern. Consistency is still a worry, but another good performance could quiet those fears.