A look at how USC (3-2) and No. 9 Notre Dame (4-1) match up heading into Saturday’s game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (4:30 p.m. PDT, TV: NBC, Radio: 790).
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis vs. Notre Dame’s pass defense. The Trojans freshman passer returns to the road with a lot to prove. After missing most of two games with a concussion, followed by the bye week, Slovis hasn’t seen the field much since having three passes intercepted against Brigham Young. How he handles the most hostile environment of his young career will go a long in determining whether USC can find any offensive rhythm. It won’t be easy against a stingy Fighting Irish secondary that’s allowed just three scores through the air all year.
USC (429.4 ypg, 29.4 ppg): Slovis should help jump-start a passing game that fell apart in the Trojans’ 28-14 loss at Washington on Sept. 28. But the best route to upsetting the Irish probably lies on the ground. USC found its groove in the ground game against Washington, with its trio of backs rushing for a season-high 212 yards. Notre Dame’s defense is solid in almost every way, but its run defense is perhaps most exploitable. An increased role for redshirt freshman back — and former Notre Dame commit — Markese Stepp could be in the cards, as he’s averaging more than six yards per carry this season. Turnovers have twice sunk USC’s offense this season — they rank 122nd in the nation — and the same could be true this week.
Notre Dame (450.2 ypg, 41 ppg): With a dynamic and experienced quarterback in Ian Book, Notre Dame’s varied offense is able to beat defenses in a multitude of ways. Most notably, the Irish have been deadly with run-pass options, as Book, the El Dorado Hills native, has proved himself to be more of a threat to run this season. It’s that balance that makes Notre Dame especially dangerous. Book’s efficiency in the passing game has improved, as he’s averaging a career-high nine yards per attempt. But if USC’s secondary is able to slow him down, the Irish have no trouble leaning on the ground game and Tony Jones Jr., who has consecutive 100-plus-yard rushing games.
USC (411.4 ypg, 24.8 ppg): The bye week came at the perfect time for USC’s beat-up defense, as such crucial contributors as safety Talanoa Hufanga and cornerback Olaijah Griffin should return, while others who have played hurt, like defensive linemen Christian Rector and Jay Tufele, are now rested. USC’s defense was solid in its last outing, and while Notre Dame presents the most balanced attack it’s faced yet, the talent is there to slow the Irish down. With starters Hufanga and Griffin back, a strong showing from the secondary is a must. Up front, freshman Drake Jackson is just starting to find another gear. He has 13 tackles over his last two games. Pressuring Book is USC’s best hope of halting the Irish at home.
Notre Dame (330.2 ypg, 14.8 ppg): Only once this season have the Irish allowed a quarterback to pass for more than 200 yards. Only twice has an opposing quarterback completed more than 56% of his passes. That success is a product of not only an experienced secondary, but also an impressive pass rush, highlighted by dynamic senior defensive end Julian Okwara, who’s averaging a sack per game. The only flaw in Notre Dame’s solid front, if it can be called that, is a rushing defense that allowed at least 150 yards in each of its first three games. But since that tough start, it’s allowed just 1.72 yards per carry.
After a slow start in his first season as punter, USC’s Ben Griffiths appears to be back on track over the last two games. For his last 10 punts, the Australian freshman is averaging 41.5 yards per punt, up nearly three yards from his first three games.
Over 91 meetings of their rivalry matchup, this is the earliest that USC and Notre Dame have faced each other in a season. But considering USC’s history playing in South Bend, where they’re only 13-26-1 all-time, it may not matter much when the game is played.
After the bye, USC is as healthy as it’s been since the beginning of the season, as Hufanga (concussion) and Griffin (back) will return. Linebacker Jordan Iosefa, whom USC coach Clay Helton hoped might return this Saturday, will travel with the team, but remains unlikely to play.