BGI staff predictions: USC Trojans vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish football
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BGI staff predictions: USC vs. Notre Dame

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on college football schedules across the country in 2020, and one of the most notable losses was the Notre Dame-USC rivalry. You had to go back 75 years — during World War II from 1943-45 — to find the last time the Fighting Irish and Trojans did not meet on the gridiron.

In what is considered “the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football,” the No. 13 Fighting Irish (5-1) and Trojans (3-3) will renew acquaintances Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium at 7:30 p.m. ET. It will be the 92nd all-time meeting between the schools, with Notre Dame holding a 49-37-5 edge in the series.

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly has enjoyed a lot of success in the rivalry, going 7-3. With a victory Saturday, he will tie Frank Leahy (8-1-1) for the second most wins against the Trojans by an Irish coach. Lou Holtz racked up the most wins of any coach in the series, going 9-1-1 from 1986-96. Both Pete Carroll (8-1) and John McKay (8-6-1) are the winningest coaches in the rivalry for USC.

Kelly and Notre Dame have won the last four games against USC in South Bend, including a 30-27 triumph in the last meeting between the two schools in 2019.

This year’s game also happens to mark the third time in USC’s last five trips to South Bend that it has been guided by an interim coach. In 2013, Ed Oregeron took over for the fired Lane Kiffin and the Trojans lost 14-10. In 2015, Clay Helton replaced Steve Sarkisian and was on the sidelines for the Irish’s 41-31 win. This year, Donte Williams has taken over for Helton and will lead Trojans against the Irish.

Todd Burlage, contributing writer

Notre Dame 30, USC 24

With three straight victories and a 7-3 overall record against USC, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has taken control of this proud rivalry that dates back to 1926 and was played in every season since 1946 before the pandemic canceled the game in 2020.

When Kelly came to Notre Dame in 2010, the Irish had lost eight straight and 12 of 16 in this series.

For USC, preseason expectations of winning the Pac 12 title and making a push to reach the College Football Playoff were dashed early after two September losses.

Head coach Clay Helton was fired after two games, cornerbacks coach Donte Williams was promoted to interim skipper, and now Kelly will coach against a fifth different USC skipper in his 11 rivalry meetings while at Notre Dame.

The Trojans are coming off a 42-26 defeat to Utah and haven’t won consecutive games this season.

The Irish also put their nation’s best 36-game winning streak against unranked opponents on the line in this game, a streak that extends to 37.

Steve Downey, managing editor for Blue & Gold Illustrated

Notre Dame 35, USC 20

Through six games this season, the Trojans had yet to put together two good performances in a row. USC alternated wins and losses, with the three defeats coming at home against less talented foes Stanford (42-28), Oregon State (45-27) and Utah (42-26). It marked the first time the Trojans lost to the Beavers at home since 1960, while the home defeat at the hands of the Utes was the first time that happened since 1916.

The biggest culprit for the Trojans’ uneven start has been the defense. The Trojans ranked 79th nationally in scoring defense (27.3 points allowed per game), 101st in sacks per game (1.67) and 110th in tackles for loss per game (34.0). The later two numbers are even more damning when you consider USC notched five of its 10 sacks and seven of its 24 tackles for loss against Colorado, which ranks 127th in total offense.

The Trojans have also just been flat-out sloppy. They rank 83rd nationally in turnover margin (-0.17 per game) and 98th in turnovers lost (11), and were 122nd in fewest penalties per game (8.33) and 126th in fewest penalty yards per game (83.17). Those kinds of things make it very difficult to win on the road against a good opponent.

It hasn’t always been pretty for the Irish this season, but they are resilient and have found ways to win. I think their offense will finally gain some traction against USC’s vulnerable defense and they’ll make fewer mistakes en route to another victory over their archrival.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish football vs. the USC Trojans in 2019
The Fighting Irish and Trojans had met 75 years in a row before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled last year’s game. (Andris Visockis)

Patrick Engel, editor

Notre Dame 31, USC 23

At first glance, this is one of the more uninteresting Notre Dame-USC matchups of the Brian Kelly era. The Irish are on the outside looking in of the College Football Playoff picture. The Trojans fired their coach and twice lost to unranked teams at home in September.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis and wide receiver Drake London remain early round NFL Draft prospects who are capable of defeating any secondary. That duo should help USC surpass 20 points. The Trojans’ leaky and tackling-averse defense, though, provides a nice path for Notre Dame’s offense to find its way and build off a promising offensive line performance at Virginia Tech.

This game is a matter of pride for USC, even in wayward seasons. The Trojans lost at least five times in 2018 and 2019, yet played one-score games against top-10 Notre Dame teams. In 2012, when then-No. 1 Notre Dame visited unranked 7-4 USC in 2012, the Irish won by just nine and didn’t seal the victory until mounting a goal-line stand in the waning minutes.

USC has enough offensive firepower to stay within striking distance once again, but won’t come up with enough stops on defense to pull out a win.

Tyler Horka, staff writer

Notre Dame 27, USC 16

I’m not worried USC is going to run the ball well on Notre Dame. Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis isn’t much of a dual threat, and the USC offensive line has been too inconsistent to trust running backs Keaontay Ingram and Vavae Malepeai, even though the former has run for 419 yards on 5.7 yards per carry.

On that side of the ball, it’ll come down to this: can Notre Dame stop wide receiver Drake London? No. Nobody can. But can the Irish limit him enough to hold USC to two offensive touchdowns? Yes.

Notre Dame is going to pick up where it left off against Virginia Tech running the ball, meanwhile. USC’s defensive front isn’t particularly impressive outside of pass rusher Drake Jackson. Look for Irish running back Logan Diggs to make the most of Chris Tyree being limited with turf toe. I’m predicting some big plays from the true freshman.

It might look ugly through the air for Notre Dame for large stretches of the chilly evening, but when hasn’t it been that way since the season opener? Inconsistency is one thing. Total ineptitude is another. As shaky as Notre Dame’s passing game has been, it’s tended to lean more toward the former. Graduate student Jack Coan will make enough throws to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer for the Irish to pull away in this one late.

Greg Ladky, managing editor for BlueandGold.com

Notre Dame 33, USC 24

The USC coaches do not elaborate much on the injury status of various players, but TrojanSports.com reports that linebacker Drake Jackson participated in practice Tuesday.

If he’s ready to go, that means Notre Dame will have to face another edge defensive player expected by many to be a first-round NFL Draft pick. How the Irish block him will be a major key.

All-American candidate Drake London and quarterback Kedon Slovis have connected 64 times in just six games this season, for 832 yards and five touchdowns. Slovis can attack all points of the field with his professional level arm strength, and Notre Dame knows London will get his catches. Simply put, London is a fantastic player.

USC’s problem is they have not been able to run the ball well. They rank 93rd nationally in rushing offense, against a string of opponents with far less stingy run defenses than Notre Dame has played.

Slovis has thrown five interceptions this season, often when he is under pressure and trying to force a pass downfield.

I like Notre Dame to take away USC's run game, and pressure Slovis into mistakes.

Offensively, Michael Mayer returns for the Irish. USC has not defended opposing tight ends particularly well this year (Utah's tight ends caught seven passes for 79 yards in a 42-26 win over USC two weeks ago). Expect a big night from Mayer. If not, that means USC devoted too much to stop him.

Notre Dame's run game will continue to improve as the offensive line gets better.

Long road trip, interim head coach, and a one-dimensional offense adds up to a tough night for USC.

Mike Singer, recruiting insider

Notre Dame 33, USC 28

The Trojans are not very good this year, but they’re a fun bad team. I believe this game will play out similarly as the last time they met in 2019, when Notre Dame had a 17-point lead in the third quarter, but USC made things interesting before it ultimately lost 30-27.

This USC team can score some points (26 is their lowest point total of the year), but their defense is not very good. Notre Dame Stadium will be rocking. Both teams should be well-prepared coming off a bye. It will be a fun game — one that I like Notre Dame to win. The Fighting Irish will control the game but a late USC score gives the Trojans the cover on the seven-point spread.

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