Head to head: USC
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, October 20, 2017
The Irish pass defense has been strong this year, limiting opponents to a completion percentage of just 54.4 percent and recording six interceptions in six games, with the only major statistical black spot coming thanks to garbage time yardage at Michigan State.
But the Irish are yet to face a Sam Darnold.
Georgia’s freshman quarterack Jake Fromm has proven to be superb this year, but was asked to do little in his first career start against the Irish. Darnold brings not only talent, but also experience. The six quarterbacks the Irish have faced so far this year combined for only 21 starts, seven starts against Power-5 opposition and zero Power-5 wins before facing Notre Dame. Darnold brings 17 starts and a 14-2 record against power-five teams.
Darnold became a top NFL prospect for a reason, not just because of 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, but also because of his combination of accuracy, arm strength and ability to extend a play. A high turnover rate this year may prove he has weaknesses, but you can’t pick against a quarterback like Sam Darnold.
In junior Ronald Jones II and freshman Stephen Carr, USC has one of the best running back duos in the nation when healthy. But the versatile Carr has missed time already this year and is unlikely to be 100 percent healthy for Saturday.
Jones is a more-than-capable back on his own, rushing for over 100 yards four times this year, as well as making up 134 yards on the ground against the Irish last year. Jones gave the Trojans the lead last week against Utah with an acrobatic score and possesses the speed to be a big play threat any time he gets into space.
The Irish run defense has been stout this year, however, holding opposing teams to less than four yards per carry. But with senior linebacker and top run-defender Greer Martini out with a knee injury, Jones may have more of an opportunity to break off a big play.
Trojans Offensive Coaching
Trojans head coach Clay Helton served as offensive coordinator under Steve Sarkisian before taking over as head coach, while former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin took the step up to take charge of the Trojan offense last season. USC coaches in recent years have always had the help of top quarterback recruits, but Martin and Helton deserve credit for teaching quarterbacks like Darnold the Trojan pro-style system and creating an offense that puts up 477 yards per game.
On the Irish side, defensive coordinator Mike Elko continues to look every bit the star coordinator he was expected to be, forcing three-and-outs on the opening five Tar Heel possessions in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Elko deserves a large amount of the credit for the incredible Irish defensive turnaround this year as he proves to be one of the very best coordinators in the nation.
Edge: Notre Dame
Trojans Special Teams
Trojans freshman kicker Chase McGrath didn’t attempt a field goal in either of his first two games for USC. After missing his first-ever attempt, he needed to make his second to prevent an upset loss to Texas. McGrath made that, and a 43-yarder in overtime as well as a career-long 46-yarder against California, on his way to eight consecutive successful kicks. Still, the freshman’s inexperience could prove to be a concern.
Walk-on redshirt-junior Reid Budrovich won the USC starting punter job from scholarship punter and returning starter Chris Tilbey, and he has proven effective this year. Budrovich’s 44.6-yard average puts him in the top 25 in the nation, and he shined in the Trojans defeat to Washington State, with three punts inside the 20 and a long of 63 yards.
The Irish made some sort of impact in punt returns for the first time this season against North Carolina, with junior Chris Finke returning four punts for 44 yards.
Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has proven a strong leader of the Irish offense, with his running ability playing a significant part in the Irish offensive success this season. But as a passer, his deficiencies are obvious. Wimbush’s accuracy is suspect in all situations and nonexistent on the run. Making matters worse, the Irish receivers — touted as an extremely deep and talented group before the season — have not lived up to expectations even when Wimbush is giving them accurate passes.
The Trojans have given up over 260 yards per game through the air to Power-5 teams, but has also allowed those teams to complete less than 55 percent of their passes. Injuries on the defensive line may limit the Trojan pass-rush, but they should still have enough to get the best of Wimbush.
Expect the Trojans to give Wimbush some easy opportunities to beat them with his arm in exchange for shutting down the run. Whether he can take advantage of them may decide the game.
The run game has been a clear strength for Notre Dame this season. The Irish have rushed for an average of over 300 yards per game this season for 6.9 yards per attempt.
Midseason All-Americans Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson have been at the forefront of that, opening up holes for the Irish ball carriers, whether it’s junior starting running back Josh Adams, quarterback Brandon Wimbush or any of the backups who have shone behind Adams already this season.
The Trojan run defense has mostly been impressive this season, apart from allowing 265 yards to Western Michigan and 6.5 yards per rush to a Stanford offense led by Bryce Love. Against the most dangerous running quarterback they faced this year — Sam Ehlinger of Texas — the Trojans limited the Longhorns to less than two yards per carry.
But the Irish running attack has too many talented players, and Adams is too much of a big play threat, especially with McGlinchey and Nelson blocking for him.
Edge: Notre Dame
Irish Offensive Coaching
Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long has struggled to find a way to get the passing game going all season, but he has been in charge of an offense that’s been dominant on the ground.
Trojans defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has extensive NFL experience, serving five years as the Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator and one at the same role in Kansas City, while also serving roles with the Houston Oilers, Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. The Trojans may rank in the middle of the pack for defensive yardage, but 15 turnovers in their last five games show that they can make the big play.
Irish Special Teams
Junior kicker Justin Yoon made his only field goal attempt against North Carolina, bringing him to 7-of-10 for the season, though at only 29 yards, it was not a major test. Still, despite his 0-for-2 season opener, Yoon’s experience and impressive Irish career so far suggests that he can mostly be trusted. Yoon also looked much more impressive in kickoffs against the Tar Heels than either he or freshman Jonathan Doerer had all season, showcasing improved power.
Irish senior punter Tyler Newsome’s powerful leg has been known for years, as shown by his 44.4-yard punting average. But until the Irish faced the Tar Heels, short-field situations appeared to be a glaring weakness in his game. Two weeks ago, however, a Newsome punt stopped at the one-yard line and set up an Irish safety.
Yoon and Newsome will be relieved they won’t be kicking to Adoree Jackson this year, but Velus Jones Jr could be a threat on kick returns with a 27.1-yard average. On punt returns, Ajene Harris has 27 yards on six returns.