Nov. 24, 2016
By John Heisler
Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s 2016 Notre Dame football team finishes the regular season Saturday in the Los Angeles Coliseum against old rival USC. The Irish will be confronting one of the hottest teams in the country—with the Trojans on a seven-game win streak led by freshman quarterback Sam Darnold. Here are five things to watch as the Irish face USC:
1.The Trojans may have three losses—but pay no attention to that.
It’s amazing that on the same day Notre Dame lost its 2016 season opener in overtime to Texas, about an hour away in Arlington USC was blown out by top-rated (and still unbeaten) Alabama. Two and a half months later—despite three losses in its first four games (also to Utah and Stanford)—that same Trojan team is being talked about in the same conversation with the Crimson Tide, thanks to the Trojans’ recent surge. USC needs help simply to reach the Pac-12 title game next weekend—and the College Football Playoff seems a reach for a three-loss team--yet there’s not much question the Trojans have proven to be one of the more potent teams in the country through October and November.
2. It’s all about pride.
The Irish needed some late-season success to put themselves in position for a bowl game. Short of that, there remains plenty of pride on the line for Notre Dame in what always has been considered its biggest rivalry game. It’s been 30 years since the Irish came to the Coliseum with a sub-.500 mark—and on that occasion Notre Dame prevailed by a single point on a John Carney field goal as time expired. Brian Kelly has a chance to do something that has never happened at Notre Dame—lead an unranked Irish team to victory in the Coliseum over a USC team rated 13th or higher (the Trojans are 12 th this week).
3. The quarterback duel should be fun.
Two years ago when Notre Dame played here DeShone Kizer was a freshman watching from the sidelines in a season in which he never saw the field. At the same time Sam Darnold was a high school junior in California. On Saturday they’ll match up as two of the outstanding college quarterbacks in the nation. Both have 24 touchdown passes to their credit to date in 2016. Over his last four games, Kizer has thrown 10 TD passes versus a single interception—while averaging 231.2 passing yards per game. He’s also rushed for 224 yards in those four contests. Darnold did not start any of USC’s first three games, but once he entered the lineup he has been spectacular, completing 68.3 percent of his passes and averaging 220.7 passing yards per game for the year. Darnold threw five TD passes each in back-to-back October games against Arizona and California—something that had never been done at USC. He has thrown at least two TD passes in seven straight games—something that hasn’t happened at USC since 2004 when Matt Leinart did it. In Darnold’s seven starts, the Trojans four times have scored 41 or more points and four times have held their opponent to 17 or fewer. Watching Kizer and Darnold perform Saturday should be entertaining.
4. The youngsters in Notre Dame’s secondary have had almost a full season to grow up, but this will be their ultimate test.
With freshmen sprinkled liberally through the Irish defensive backfield (Julian Love, Dante Vaughn, Devin Studstill, Troy Pride Jr., Jalen Elliott), it’s been a fall of growth for that unit. Those learning experiences have seen them allow 363 passing yards to Syracuse’s Eric Dungey, 290 to Duke freshman Daniel Jones, 288 to Miami’s Brad Kaaya, 280 to Texas freshman Shane Buechele and 267 to Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans. In terms of individual passing efficiency in current NCAA stats, Evans ranks 12th, Kaaya 38th, Buechele 41st and Dungey 47th. Meanwhile, USC’s Darnold ranks higher than any of them at eighth (Kizer is 28th).
5. Whatever it takes to win.
In five of the last seven meetings between these two teams at the Coliseum, USC has scored at least 38 points. The exceptions were Notre Dame wins in 2010 (20-16) and 2012 (22-13). So expect the Irish to have to muster some defensive stops for Notre Dame to have a chance for a victory. Meanwhile, the Irish average 31.3 points per game and the Trojans average 31.8, so this could end up a high-scoring affair.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler follows the Irish football scene for Fighting Irish Media. Look for his Sunday Brunch piece, an inside recap of what happens against USC as Brian Kelly’s squad concludes its 2016 regular season.