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.
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.