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Way-Too-Early Preview: USC

| Tuesday, April 20, 2021

USC-Notre Dame is easily one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports, and the contest in 2021 has the potential to be one of the biggest games in the rivalry in recent times. With the Trojans as early PAC-12 favorites, it is very likely that a showdown for the ages could be set up in South Bend.

Opponent: USC Trojans

Date: Oct. 23

Time: TBD

Location: Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, Indiana

History of the Matchup

This rivalry began in 1926, when Irish head coach Knute Rockne famously took his team by train to Los Angeles to play the Trojans for the first time. The Irish would go on to win that first game by a score of 13-12 to finish the season 9-1. The two teams have played a total of 90 times since and have played every year except during World War II and last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Notre Dame currently leads the series 49-37-5 against the Trojans.

This rivalry is special in part because of the success that both teams have had on the national level, with both schools claiming 11 national titles. Notre Dame and USC are tied for first all-time in Pro Football Hall of Famers produced with 13 and Heisman winners with seven (including Reggie Bush’s still-vacated 2005 win). The Irish and Trojans also currently sit one-two for all-time NFL Draft Picks, respectively.

Almost every year, this rivalry holds national title implications. One of the rivalry’s best games occurred in 1929 at Soldier field with 112,912 spectators in attendance — one of the largest verified crowds in college football history. The Irish would go on to win that game by a score of 13-12, en route to a national title.

Since the beginning of the rivalry, there have been eras of dominance by one team and eras of parity as well. The early years of the rivalry were back and forth for the most part, but the Irish dominated the series through the ’40s and ’50s, as they added four national titles during that span. The period from the ’60s through the early ’80s is often referred to as the “golden age” of the rivalry. During this span, both teams combined for eight national titles, and the game held national title implications of some sort nearly every year.

Since the “golden age,” there have been periods of dominance by both teams, but it has been rare for both teams to be relevant on the national stage at the same time. From 1983 to 1993, the Irish won the series an unprecedented 11 straight times. The Trojans then dominated the series in the early 2000s, beating the Irish eight straight times from 2002 to 2009. That run included the infamous “Bush Push” game in 2005, where the top-ranked Trojans beat the ninth-ranked Irish by a score of 34-31 on a controversial last second play. USC running back Reggie Bush illegally pushed quarterback Matt Leinart into the end zone to win the game for the Trojans.

Most recently, though, the Irish have dominated the Trojans and have won seven of the last 10 meetings. While the Trojans beat the embattled Irish in 2016 by a score of 45-27, the Irish have won the previous three matchups, taking the latest matchup in South Bend in 2019 by a score of 30-27.

2020 Performance

USC finished the 2020 season with a 5-1 mark, as they got off to a late start because of the PAC-12’s delay in starting the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the Trojans finished the regular season with a perfect 5-0 record, they needed to pull off some late fourth-quarter comebacks in their victories against Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA. Ultimately, the Trojans would receive their first and only loss of the year in the PAC-12 Championship game, where they lost to Oregon by a score of 31-24.

The Trojans were led by quarterback Kedon Slovis in 2020. Slovis took over the starting role for the Trojans in 2019 after then-USC starter JT Daniels got injured, and he has not looked back since then. After a very successful 2019 season, many expected Slovis to have a breakout year in 2020. While he performed well, it seemed like he never quite got completely up to speed last season. Slovis finished the year with a completion percentage of 67.05%, 17 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Slovis has plenty of experience under his belt, and he is primed for a great 2021 season if he continues to develop as a passer and eliminate some of the interceptions that he has been known to throw on occasion.

The Trojans receiving corps in 2020 was led by Drake London, who finished the year with 33 catches for 502 yards and three touchdowns. London will be returning for the Trojans in 2021 and is likely to be their top receiver. Although London was a big part of the passing game, the Trojans also relied heavily on Amon-Ra St. Brown, who finished the season with 478 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. St. Brown declared for the NFL Draft after last season and is expected to be picked somewhere in the third round. The Trojans will also lose Tyler Vaughns, who had 406 receiving yards and three touchdown receptions on the year. It is expected that the Trojans will count on Bru McCoy to have increased production in 2021. McCoy had 236 receptions for two touchdowns in 2020.

The Trojans have typically been more of an air raid style offense and that showed in 2020, as their run game struggled to find success at times. On the year, the Trojans averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and recorded only eight total team rushing touchdowns. The Trojans will look to Vavae Malepeai to lead the backfield in 2021. Malepeai finished his 2020 season with 238 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. Stephen Carr will also likely be a big part of the Trojan backfield in 2021, as he had 176 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns in 2020. One significant loss for the Trojans is Markese Stepp, who decided to transfer to Nebraska. Stepp had three rushing touchdowns in 2020.

The defense has been an issue for the Trojans during the Clay Helton era, and 2020 proved no different, as the Trojans gave up 27 or more points in four of their six games. Looking back beyond last year, the Trojans’ defensive struggles were on full display in their last game of the 2019 season, where they gave up nearly 50 points in their Holiday Bowl loss to Iowa.

2021 Outlook

The Trojans are expected to win the PAC-12 South again in 2021, and many expect the Trojans to compete for a PAC-12 title and be relevant on the national stage for the first time in over a decade. While this team definitely has a lot of potential, it seems like USC has recently been overrated heading into the season nearly every year. This might be USC’s year to break through, though, as they have a reliable, proven quarterback and a couple of wide receivers in Drake London and Bru McCoy that they can rely on. The defense will have to improve somewhat, however, as USC’s offense likely won’t be potent enough to score in the mid-thirties on a consistent basis. With head coach Clay Helton likely on the hot seat as well, there is likely to be a sense of urgency that could push USC over the edge.

The schedule also plays out nicely for the Trojans this year, as they avoid Oregon and Washington in their PAC-12 crossover games. Before their game against Notre Dame, the Trojans will play San Jose State, Stanford, Washington State, Oregon State, Colorado and Utah. The Trojans will likely be favored in all of these games, and if they can win all of them, it is possible that they find themselves in the top-5 in the country heading into South Bend. The Irish will have a tougher path to remain undefeated heading into this one, as they will have to navigate Wisconsin, Cincinnati, and road games against Florida State and Virginia Tech. Both teams will have a bye leading into this highly anticipated rivalry game.

(Way-Too-Early) Predictions

Nate Moller — Sports Writer

I am going to make a bold prediction and say that both teams are undefeated and ranked in the top seven in the country coming into this game. If that is the case, this matchup will surely be one of the most hyped-up games of the college football season, as it will carry huge College Football Playoff implications for both teams. While USC may be undefeated coming into this game, they don’t have that difficult of a test before Notre Dame, and I think that will cost the Trojans. I expect the Irish to get out to an early lead and be ahead by double digits from the second quarter on. With the win, the Irish will assert themselves as College Football Playoff contenders and put the PAC-12 in jeopardy of missing the playoffs yet again.

Final: Notre Dame 38, USC 27

Greg McKenna — Sports Writer

While both teams may enter this game undefeated, both the Notre Dame offense and Trojans’ defense could remain huge questions marks heading into what will likely be the most crucial game of the season for both programs. A mediocre but talented USC squad pushed an eventual 10-win Notre Dame team to the brink in 2019 after some poor drives by the Irish offense allowed the Trojans’ speedy perimeter talent to have success against a tired Irish secondary. With uncertainty surrounding both the QB and CB positions for Notre Dame this season, I believe junior Kyren Williams and first-year Chris Tyree will need to have monster games if the Irish hope to avoid handing over the Jeweled Shillelagh at home for the first time in over a decade. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, I think Clay Helton’s team gets out to a fast start and holds on for a marquee win.

Final: USC 27, Notre Dame 24

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