Notre Dame Fighting Irish (5-1 SU, 5-1 ATS) vs. USC Trojans (6-1 SU, 1-6 ATS)
College Football Week 8
Date/Time: Saturday, October 21st, 7:30 PM
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
By Mike M., NCAA Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: USC +4 / ND -4
Over/Under Total: 60.5
The Jeweled Shillelagh will be on the line Saturday in South Bend when rivals USC and Notre Dame meet up for a primetime showdown at Notre Dame Stadium. The teams always play on the third Saturday in October when the Irish are the home team and the Saturday following Thanksgiving when the Trojans host the matchup.
This will be their 87th all time meeting with Notre Dame holding a 44-37-5 advantage, though USC has had the upper hand of late, having won 11 of the last 15 games between the teams including a 5-2 record in the last seven played at Notre Dame. Historically they are the two of the most successful teams in college football history, with the Irish and Trojans ranking in the top four in National Championships, consensus All-Americans, Heisman Trophy winners, NFL Draft picks and 1st round NFL Draft picks.
Both enter the game having only lost one game apiece, with Notre Dame falling to Georgia back on September 9th and USC losing on the road at Washington State two weeks ago. Their records straight up may be similar, but they have had opposite success against the spread, with the Irish having covered in five of their six games and the Trojans posting a paltry mark of 1-6 versus the number.
USCs lack of point spread success is certainly a bit of a surprise after they dominated the line last season when they covered their last six games in a row with ease to end the regular season. One variable that has clearly played a factor so far this season is injuries, as much like Notre Dames last opponent UNC, the Trojans have had to deal with a continuous barrage of hurt players. So far they have had nine players ruled out for the season due to injury, which is in addition to the ten that are questionable to play against the Irish on Saturday. Even with USCs consistent success in the recruiting department, there is only so much next man up/reloading that any team can do when you run into the injury decimation that they have had to continuously face this season.
Another reason could be the sky high expectations many had for them going into the year, especially with the odds on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, Sam Darnold, returning at quarterback. The Trojan sophomore signal caller has a 15-2 career record as a starter, and even in a draft class expected to be on the one strongest in regards to the quarterback position, still stands out as the consensus choice in regards to the expectation of who will be taken first overall. One thing Darnold will certainly need to work on for this week and going forward will be taking care of the ball, as he already has as many interceptions this year (9) as he had all of last season and has thrown at least one interception in 11 of his last 13 games. This will be especially important on Saturday against a Notre Dame defense that ranks 9th in the country in turnover margin and have scored a whopping 73 points off of the fourteen combined fumbles and interceptions they have caused this season.
Darnold is certainly not alone when it comes to skill and ability on the Trojans offense, with running back Ronald Jones already having rushed for 640 yards and eight touchdowns as the lead and clear focal point with his backfield backup Stephen Carr having missed the last two games due to injury. The receiving corps are led by junior Deontay Burnett, who was the only returning starter at the position and has continued his success this season after a breakout performance in the Rose Bowl back in January, and so far has put 49 receptions for 626 yards and 6 touchdowns.
The Trojans defense hasnt put up the numbers that fans have been accustomed too, and so far this season rank just 66th in yards allowed and 90th against the pass. Eleven of the injured players mentioned before are on the defensive side of the ball, which has unquestionably affected their play in the first half of the season. Thankfully for the team and their fans there is still a great amount of talent they bring to the table despite their multitude of maladies, including linebackers Cameron Smith and Uchenna Nwosu along with defensive backs Iman Marshall, Chris Hawkins, Marvel Tell III and Jack Jones.
USC has already gotten through the toughest part of their conference schedule and should be double-digit favorites in their final four Pac-12 games against Arizona, UCLA, Arizona State and Colorado. Despite the loss to WSU, the Trojans control their own destiny as they look to win the Pac-12 South to put themselves in position to win their first conference championship since 2008. But before they get to that, they will have to deal with a Notre Dame squad that has gotten an extra week off to prepare for them and looking to start off the second half of their schedule with a bang.
While their opponent this week USC has an easier back half of the season to look forward to, the Irish are in much different shape, with this weeks game against the Trojans followed by matchups against NC State (ranked 16th), Wake Forest, at Miami (ranked 8th), Navy (ranked 33rd) and closing at Stanford (ranked 22nd). With multiple teams in the polls ahead of Notre Dame losing this past weekend, the Irish find themselves in contention for one of the four coveted BCS playoff spots, but they would very likely need to win all six of their final games for that to happen. This is now the third time in the past four years that the Irish are in this potential playoff position at the midway point of the season, and will need to continue to play consistent football on both sides of the ball to avoid the downfalls that eventually ended their 2014 and 2015 campaigns.
Notre Dame will get the added boost this week with the return of quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who is back from a foot injury suffered against Michigan State that caused him to miss their previous game against the Tar Heels. Backup Ian Book did well enough managing the game in his absence against the depleted UNC squad, but there is no doubt that the Irish needed the fleet of foot Wimbush in the lineup if they wanted to have a good chance at beating USC this weekend. There is also no questioning that Wimbush will need to improve on his passing accuracy of just 52.3%, as despite that 90th ranking in passing yards allowed per game, the Trojan defensive backfield is stacked with playmakers that could turn any mistake into a nightmare for Notre Dame, much like opposing cornerback Adorree Jackson did for USC in their game last year when he sparked his team to a 45-27 victory with three touchdowns scored.
Another player who enjoyed success in Irish/Trojan game a season ago was Notre Dame running back Josh Adams, who went for 180 yards on seventeen carries and will be looking to at least match that this weekend in South Bend. Building (finally) the offense around Adams has paid off well thus far for the Irish, as he has helped lead them to the 6th rated rushing offense in the country and in turn a rank of 18th in scoring and 24th in yards per game. Adams himself has gone for 776 yards with five touchdowns and a 9 yards per carry average so far this season, and with all the talk about Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, it should be noted that Adams has bettered the Nittany Lion in yards per game and yards per carry this season while rushing for four touchdowns of 35 yards or more compared to Barkleys one.
For Notre Dame to conquer the Trojans this weekend, they will need to get as much pressure as possible on USC quarterback Sam Darnold, which is something they have found success doing thus far this season with thirteen sacks on the year, just one shy of their total from 2016. They will also need to come up with a better game plan for slowing down USC running back Ronald Jones, who throughout his career has put up an impressive stat line of 207 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries against the Irish. It will be interesting to see how Jones does this time around against coordinator Mike Elkos defense, as his squad has been markedly improved in nearly every facet of their game and has allowed just one rushing touchdown all season.
When Brian Kelly took over as the Notre Dame head coach his new team had lost their last eight straight to the Trojans, but since then the Irish have surprisingly had the advantage and gone 4-3 in the seven games since 2010. With the game being played in South Bend and ND being favored they definitely have the recent trends going their way as well, as the home team has covered the last four games between the Irish and USC as well as the favorite going 5-0 in their last five meetings. All that is well and good, but the real recent record that matters most is Notre Dames continuous struggle against the upper tier teams in college football, having gone 2-20 in their last 22 games against top 13 teams, including a 2-8 mark under Brian Kelly with both wins coming back in 2012. As much as I want to believe that the Irish are back and a true playoff contender, until they can get past a team like USC and a player like Sam Darnold, it is difficult to back them in a game like this and instead will be recommending the Trojans and the four point head start against Notre Dame in South Bend on Saturday.
Mike M’s Pick to Cover the Point Spread: USC +4. Where are you betting this game? Bet it for FREE by taking advantage of a 50% welcome bonus offered to new players at Bovada Sportsbook