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Keys to victory vs USC

Notre Dame concludes their regular season campaign this weekend as they travel to Los Angeles to take on USC. Both teams come in playing some of their best football, after the Trojans dispatched crosstown rival UCLA last week, while the Irish put up a dominant performance in the snow in South Bend. Here are the keys to a fifth-straight Notre Dame victory in the series. 

Benjamin Morrison

A month ago, it would have been unthinkable to list the freshman cornerback as a key to victory in arguably the biggest game of the season for the Irish. It speaks to Morrison’s meteoric rise from a three-star recruit not expected to get much playing time to one of Notre Dame’s most important defensive players. He broke out onto the scene with two interceptions, including a 96-yard pick-six, against Clemson. He added three more picks last weekend against Boston College. 

This week, especially with senior cornerback Cam Hart listed as questionable with a shoulder injury, Morrison’s performance will be critical to Notre Dame’s success. USC has one of the best passing offenses in the country, led by potential top-ten pick Jordan Addison. Slowing Addison down, who won the Fred Biletnikoff award a year ago as the nation’s top receiver, would be a difficult task for anyone, much less a freshman cornerback who only broke into the starting lineup relatively recently. 

If anyone can do it, however, it is Morrison. He has all the tools necessary to be a top cornerback and is improving by leaps and bounds each week. Addison torched the Bruins a week ago for 178 yards and a touchdown. If the Irish want to leave the Coliseum with a win, they can’t let that happen again. Even aside from Addison, quarterback Caleb Williams has an impressive array of weapons all over the field, and Morrison will be key to slowing down the Trojans. 

Start fast, but compete for four quarters 

One of Notre Dame’s keys to success all year has been strong first halves, particularly the past several games. In their previous two outings against Navy and Boston College, the Irish scored 35 and 37 points in the opening two quarters, respectively. 

Against the Trojans and their balanced offensive attack, it will be important for Notre Dame to get off to a hot start. The Trojans score early and often. They rank third in the nation at 42.9 points per contest, behind only offensive juggernauts Ohio State and Tennessee. 

Notre Dame’s defense may be able to limit the damage, but they won’t be able to stop this high-powered offense completely. If the Irish allow the Trojans to build a big first-quarter lead, the game could be very quickly out of reach. For Notre Dame to stay in the contest, they’ll have to get off to a fast start. 

However, the Irish still need to play a full four quarters of football. While they’ve been dominant in the first half, the second halves of games have often left something to be desired, particularly against Navy two weeks ago. The Irish need to start fast but keep their foot on the gas pedal throughout the contest. 

Continued excellence on special teams 

The Irish have been excellent on special teams all season long, and this has often tipped the balance of games in their favor. Notre Dame leads the nation in blocked punts with seven. Additionally, graduate student punter Jon Sot has been among the best in the nation at flipping field position for the Irish. Sot was recently named a semifinalist for the Ray Guy award, given annually to the nation’s top punter. 

This game could be decided by a razor-thin margin–current odds have the Trojans as 5.5-point favorites. In a game like that, special teams could make all the difference. Graduate student kicker Blake Grupe has been consistent but not great from distance this year for the Irish. He’s hit on all five of his field goals under 30 yards but is just 6-10 from 40 or more yards out with a long of 47. He’ll likely have to make a big kick on Saturday.

Notre Dame must also limit mistakes on special teams. Graduate student wide receiver Matt Salerno’s muffed punt against the Eagles was inconsequential, but it can’t happen against a team like USC who can make you pay for it. 

Special teams will be a point of emphasis for both sides this weekend–the Irish can swing the game in their favor with a big special teams play as they have done all season, but they can also lose their momentum just as quickly.

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Keys to victory versus Clemson

After a convincing win against Syracuse last week, the Irish have a lot of momentum heading into their biggest home matchup of the season against the fifth-ranked Clemson Tigers. Marcus Freeman and the Irish will look to prove that they can play well at home and break some of their early season woes at Notre Dame Stadium. Clemson, who is coming off of a bye week, last played against Syracuse as well, beating the Orange by a narrow 27-21 margin. The Irish will have their work cut out for them against the undefeated Tigers. Here are the Irish keys to victory.

Take care of the football

In Notre Dame’s stunning losses to Marshall and Stanford this season, it was ultimately turnovers that prevented the Irish from winning. Against Marshall, it was sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner’s pick-six with just under five minutes to go. Against Stanford, sophomore running back Audric Estime’s fumble late in the fourth quarter sealed the Irish loss. 

Facing a Clemson team that has more talent and experience on both sides of the ball, the Irish simply can not afford to give up any possessions or give the Tigers good field position on Saturday. The good news for the Irish is that the Clemson defense hasn’t exactly been racking up turnovers, as they only generated 12 turnovers this season. Despite this, the Irish will need to be disciplined at key moments of the game and not make costly mistakes like they have in a couple of games earlier this season. 

One player to watch for the Irish is Audric Estime. Although Estime has put up impressive numbers this season with over 500 rushing yards with an average of 5.6 yards per carry, he has lost three fumbles. The Irish relied heavily on Estime against Syracuse, and Estime took care of the ball and was very productive in the run game. The Irish will need the same from him on Saturday if they are going to compete with the Tigers.

Stop Clemson’s run game

Another key to Irish victory on Saturday will be stopping the Clemson run game, which has averaged nearly 200 yards per game this season. The Tigers are led by sophomore running back Will Shipley, who has been sensational for the Tigers this year and is averaging six yards per carry. Shipley is also coming off his most impressive performance of the year. He rushed for 172 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse two weeks ago. 

If Shipley and the Clemson offensive line are able to have their way with Notre Dame’s front seven, this game could be a blowout. The Irish run defense is ranked 51st in college football, and they have been very streaky this season. At times they have come up big in short-yardage situations, but they have also allowed nearly four yards per carry this season. They have been susceptible to allowing big yardage plays on the ground. Shipley is arguably the best running back the Irish have faced this season. Containing his production will be a challenge to say the least.

Even if they can contain Shipley, they have to worry about Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who can punish defenses with his mobility. Uiagalelei has 350 rushing yards this season, and his ability to be effective outside of the pocket could be an issue for the Irish. If the Irish are able to stop the run, however, they can potentially expose Uiagalelei’s bigger weakness in the passing game. Uiagalelei ranks just 45th in the FBS in passer rating.

Find success in the passing game

Although the Irish relied heavily on the run game in last week’s victory over Syracuse, that is going to be much tougher to do against a Clemson run defense that is ranked 7th in FBS and allows an average of just 2.98 yards per carry. It seems unlikely that the Irish will be able to lean on their run game to lead them to victory. 

For that reason, it is likely going to come down to junior quarterback Drew Pyne being able to make some plays, potentially in third and long situations. Since the BYU game, Pyne has completed just 48.6% of his passes, which isn’t going to cut it against Clemson. In the win against Syracuse, Pyne attempted just 19 passes, but it is quite possible he needs to throw the ball twice as much this Saturday and do so successfully. If the Irish are going to get Pyne comfortable in the pass game, they need the offensive line to step up against a Clemson team that averages nearly three sacks per game. Since the Stanford game, the offensive line has looked formidable, but they will face a difficult task against a talented Clemson front seven.

Aside from the offensive line, Pyne needs to have options available downfield other than junior tight end Michael Mayer. Assuming the Tigers do everything in their power to take Mayer out of the game, the Irish need at least a couple of receivers to step up. Sophomore Deion Colzie might be an option for the Irish, as he had a couple of catches in his return from injury against Syracuse. Freshman Tobias Merriweather and sophomore Jayden Thomas have also shown flashes of greatness this season, and they could be options for deep downfield plays as well. 

At the end of the day, though, it comes down to Pyne’s ability to find these open receivers. Too many times this season Pyne gets locked in on Mayer, and that has proved costly at times. Pyne has the opportunity of a lifetime on Saturday, and he has to be prepared to take advantage of his opportunity if the Irish are going to find a victory.

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Notre Dame Keys to Victory vs. Stanford

After a rewarding victory in Vegas last weekend, the Irish will lace up to take on the Stanford Cardinal this weekend at home in prime time. As this is the first home game of the season, it should make for an exciting atmosphere the team can feed off of, much like Allegiant Stadium last weekend. The Irish demonstrated an effective offense against BYU, orchestrated by junior quarterback Drew Pyne and junior tight end Michael Mayer. However, after some second-half struggles and poor red zone execution, there is still room for improvement.

On the defensive side of things, the Irish lost some intensity in the second half. However, they still showed their ability to make a stop when needed.  Heading into the weekend, the Irish have the potential to win big against the Cardinal. Nevertheless, there are several keys to ensure this victory against Stanford at home. 

Avoid a Vegas hangover against a beatable Stanford team

Though last week’s victory was big for Notre Dame, the team is far from being able to rest. Stanford should be an easily beatable team for the Irish. That being said, very recent history has shown this is not always how it plays out. To avoid any resemblance to the devastating Marshall loss that took place earlier this season, the Irish will need to bring the intensity on both sides of the ball. The three-game win streak shows that they are more than capable of doing so, but it is all about execution.

Shut down the Stanford pass game

The Irish defense fell flat for a bit during the second half of last week’s matchup against BYU. Though they were able to bring the intensity when it mattered most, the defense still let up chunk plays to the Cougars that could have been easily avoided. This cannot happen this week if the Irish want to secure a win against Stanford. Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee is an NFL draft prospect for next year, so it is important that the Irish defense does not underestimate him. The defense must come out the gate strong like they did last week. Additionally, they need to continue to hold their own as the clock dwindles down. 

Feed Mayer, get the run game going

Michael Mayer helped run the offense last week, as he was responsible for two of the three Irish touchdowns. Drew Pyne also proved he is fit for the role of QB1 through his poise and decisiveness in the pocket. Pyne had some great looks to Mayer and some of the wideouts on the team such as sophomore Jayden Thomas. If Pyne and Mayer can find the connection that they did last weekend, coupled with other players stepping up, Stanford’s defense will not stand a chance. Stanford has been underperforming on their run game defense, and the Irish have racked up 521 rushing yards over their past two games. If they unlock the ground game once more, this has the potential to be a high-scoring game for the Irish.