Notre Dame Fighting Irish (4-7 SU, 4-7 ATS) vs. USC Trojans (8-3 SU, 7-4 ATS)
College Football Week 13
Date/Time: Saturday, November 26th, 3:30 PM
Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
By Mike Mann, NCAA Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: ND +16.5 / USC-16.5
Over/Under Total: 57
Notre Dame travels west to take on USC for a Saturday afternoon season finale showdown at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Irish lead the all-time series 46-35 and have had the upper hand of late, winning three of the last four games between the teams while also having won two of the last three in Southern California.
This year’s USC squad is a far different bunch than those that Notre Dame has defeated in recent years, with two new faces in particular now the focal point of the Trojan turnaround, head coach Clay Helton and freshman quarterback Sam Darnold. Helton had been the interim head coach for the team twice previously but was finally given the full time position last November, a move many applauded for not only his coaching ability, but also his mild-mannered, laid back approach which was a stark contrast to the program embarrassing boorishness of his two personality deficient predecessors, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian.
After beginning the 2016 season 1-3, some were calling for Helton to be removed as head coach due to the disappointing start, while the school wisely remained patient especially given the fact that the losses were all against ranked teams (Alabama, at Stanford and at Utah) and more so that they were breaking in not only a new head coach but also coordinators on offense, defense and special teams. Helton made the switch at quarterback from original starter Max Browne to Sam Darnold during the Utah game and despite the loss felt his team was playing inspired football and would eventually turn things around. Since they rattled off seven wins in a row by an average of over 20 points per game and can now win the Pac-12 South division if Utah beats Colorado on Saturday.
Darnold currently has the 8th highest quarterback rating amongst the 128 starters at his position throughout the NCAA, and has been playing far better and more poised than ever expected, completing over 68% of his passes on the season for 2,428 yards and 24 touchdowns compared to only 8 interceptions. His stellar performance thus far has been statistically beneficial for the other two stars of the Trojan offense, running back Ronald Jones II and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Jones is the clear leader of the backfield formerly known as ‘Tailback U’ and has come on especially strong of late, rushing for 608 yards and scoring 9 touchdowns in the past four weeks, while Schuster remains one of the top receiver prospects on the board for the 2017 NFL draft and has caught 59 passes for 758 yards and 8 touchdowns through their first eleven games. Though Schuster will be off to the pros after this year, the USC offense has a strong base building for the foreseeable future with Darnold and Jones leading the way for the Trojans.
While a resurgent season has many in Southern Cal looking forward toward a bright future, a dismally disappointing record of 4-7 has Notre Dame fans shaking their heads thinking what could/should have been if things gone a little different here and there throughout the year. Last week’s 34-31 home loss on senior day to Virginia Tech was a perfect microcosm of the weekly frustrations that has been their 2016 season. They Irish blew two separate 17 point leads, had a 10 point lead entering the fourth quarter, were outscored 27-7 in the final 31 minutes, had ten penalties including five on the offensive line, gained only 150 yards of offense in the second half (67 of which came on one carry) and despite all of that, still had a chance to win late in the game but a last minute drive stalled out near midfield as gametime and any chance of Notre Dame getting to a bowl game expired.
The game against Virginia Tech couldn’t have started much better for the Irish, up 17-0 and 24-7 in the first half as the Hokie offense continuously struggled with the inclement weather and couldn’t get any semblance of an offense going. After halftime though the game took a decided turn, as Virginia Tech’s coaches made the necessary adjustments while Notre Dame and their stubborn imp of a head coach did nothing and watched as their offense went stale and the Hokies grabbed momentum and eventually the victory as the game clock went to triple zeros. Last Saturday was the seventh game this season that the Irish scored on their opening drive and tenth game that they scored first, yet they have only four wins to show for it. Every one of their seven losses has been by one possession or less, and after watching a team continue to shoot themselves in the foot week after week and turning should be wins into unfortunate losses, there continues to be one person who deserves a lion share of the blame for their obscene amount of avoidable mistakes, head coach Brian Kelly.
The loss to Virginia Tech was the 30th Kelly suffered as the Notre Dame head coach, tied for the most in school history amongst Irish coaches with Lou Holtz, though in fairness to Holtz his losses were over an eleven year span while Kelly is only in his sixth year in South Bend. This year has been that much more frustrating as though they have seven losses, Notre Dame was expected by oddsmakers to win nearly all their games as they have only been underdogs once the entire season, which was back in October when they were getting 2.5 points at NC State in a near hurricane and lost 10-3 because Brian Kelly thought a torrential downpour and massive wind gusts would be an opportune time to open up the passing attack. While the game itself against Virginia Tech was maddeningly enough to watch due to Kelly’s season long insistence of not focusing on the running game and truly utilizing the skills of sophomore running back Josh Adams, it’s the postgame conference that Kelly’s ultimate failure as a coach comes to light, and this weekend was yet another example of the true type of person he really is. Again we got to hear about the youth and lack of experience on the team and about missed assignments and every other possible player faulting excuse, but little or at all did we see Kelly taking responsibility or blame for the team’s failures, whether it be his previously mentioned avoidance of halftime adjustments or the season long issue that is his lack of consistency or common sense to the offensive play calling. As long as Kelly continues to patrol the sidelines in South Bend there will be no chance of the return to greatness that many fans/students/alumni hope for, instead it will be a yearly battle where even a return to the postseason is a struggle as the team attempts to win in spite of their coach, not because of him.
If you have read the previous paragraphs and have any sort of Hardy Boys’ abilities, it should come as no surprise that I’m picking USC to win convincingly at home in LA. Notre Dame is a game way from a merciful ending to their first losing season since 2007, while USC is in the midst of a season resurgence and has a decent possibility of getting back to the Pac-12 title for the second straight season. Take the Trojans to triumph and trounce the Irish to end the teams’ respective regular seasons.
Mike M's Pick to Cover the Point Spread: USC -16.5
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