Oct. 20, 2017
By John Heisler
Notre Dame’s midseason break is over. The Irish are coming off an open date last weekend, plus it’s fall break for the University with no classes this week. So Brian Kelly’s squad has had plenty of time to regroup, get healthy and prepare for the second half. And what a second half it will be. No team in American plays a final six games as challenging as what the Irish face (those six teams have combined for seven defeats to date, and Miami is unbeaten at 5-0). And it all begins with 11th-rated USC in a rivalry that’s as big as any on the annual Notre Dame slate.
Here are some areas to check out Saturday night in South Bend:
1. Keep Darnold in check. Notre Dame has faced plenty of great USC quarterbacks over the years (Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Cody Kessler all have their names in Notre Dame’s opponent record book for career achievements), so maybe it’s fitting that Sam Darnold is next in line. Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko needed only put on the tape of the Trojans’ Rose Bowl comeback win over Penn State to give his charges a sense of what Darnold is capable of doing. The USC sophomore is going to make some plays, but the Irish need to keep him from taking over the football game.
2. The Irish quarterback. Brandon Wimbush doesn’t play the same style as Darnold does, but the Irish signal-caller will need a solid effort of his own for Notre Dame to prevail. Wimbush missed the last Irish outing at North Carolina with a foot injury, but Brian Kelly has assured everyone quarterback health is no issue this week. Wimbush has proved a nimble threat as a runner, and Notre Dame likely needs his throwing to be on key this week as well.
3. There’s something at stake. It’s been a while since these teams met when they both were ranked (2009) and even longer since both came in as top-15 teams (2005 and 2006). That means the winner of this contest–with both units coming in with a single loss–keeps its profile in line with the rest of the College Football Playoff contenders.
4. Keep an eye on the Irish running backs. Notre Dame said before the season that it was committed to running the ball more and that assuredly has been the case. Irish junior Josh Adams comes in averaging 129.3 yards per game (seventh nationally)–and he has been over the 100-yard mark three straight weeks despite not playing in the second half in any of those contests. Adams (2,544 career yards) matches up against USC junior Ronald Jones (2,709 career yards) who also averages more than 100 per game in 2017.
5. There could be a bundle of points. Notre Dame ranks 22nd nationally in total offense (471.2 yards per game) and 14 th in scoring (40.0 points per game). USC rates 19th in total offense (477.0) and 35th in scoring (34.4). So this one does not predict as a defensive struggle. It may come down to which defense can somehow get a handle on the other team’s offense on a few more possessions.