It’s time for an annual renewal of the “greatest intersectional rivalry in college football” in South Bend, Ind. To the winner goes the jeweled Shillelagh and bragging rights for a year.
USC has faced one of the toughest schedules in the country through six weeks. The Trojans are 3-2 and come into the rivalry game off a much-needed bye week. Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis has missed the majority of the last two games with a concussion but has returned to practice. In the two-and-a-half games that Slovis has played this year, he has completed nearly 78-percent of his passes, second best in the country. The success of Slovis and third string quarterback Matt Fink is in part due to the Trojans new Air Raid offensive system and in large part to the athleticism of the USC receivers. Senior Michael Pittman Jr., junior Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown have excelled in the new system, combining for 90 catches for 1,153 yards and nine touchdowns through five games.
The Trojans used the bye week to get healthy on defense with budding star sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga and sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin recovering from injuries. Hufanga was leading the team in tackles prior to missing the last game, while Griffin has been the Trojans best cover corner with six passes broken-up this season. Getting healthy in the secondary will be important for the Trojans, but the USC defensive line may be their most important unit against the Irish. In the Trojans’ win over Utah earlier this season, the defensive line – senior Christian Rector, sophomores Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele, and freshman Drake Jackson – put constant pressure on the Utes’ quarterback. Jackson leads that group with three sacks this season.
Notre Dame lost to No. 3 Georgia, 23-17, in week four, but in many experts’ eyes, they actually gained respect nationally in the loss. Since then, the Irish picked up a strong win against Virginia and beat Bowling Green, 52-0, to improve to 4-1. Senior quarterback Ian Book continues to play like one of the nation’s best quarterbacks with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. In the last two games, Notre Dame has also rediscovered their rushing attack as junior running back Tony Jones Jr. has surpassed the 100-yard mark in both wins. The receiving corps is deep, with seven different players recording a touchdown reception this year.
Defensively, Notre Dame has feasted on turnovers. The Irish have 14 total takeaways, eight fumbles and six interceptions, and have turned those turnovers into 10 touchdowns. Notre Dame has been particularly good against the pass this season. The Irish, who rank in the top-20 in passing defense and defensive passing efficiency, have held four of five opponents under 200 yards passing and allowed just three passing touchdowns all season. Senior safety Alohi Gilman, the leader of the defense and secondary, is second on the team in tackles and has recorded one interception. Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton and senior cornerback Jalen Elliott have each tallied two interceptions.
The Irish are favorites in this game, but Notre Dame hasn’t faced a passing attack like the Trojans Air Raid offense this year. If Slovis is healthy enough to play for USC, this could be a high scoring affair. If not, this is still a rivalry game and when it comes to rivals, you can throw all logic out the window.