The stakes are high as the Fighting Irish take the biennial plane ride to Los Angeles and face their rival Southern California Trojans. For Notre Dame, a trip to their first-ever College Football Playoff is on the line while USC has little to play for except a minor bowl game or the role of spoiler to the Irish.

The tenure of Clay Helton is on life support despite a Pac-12 title last year and a 21-6 run between 2016-17. The young Trojans have fallen apart in the current year falling to Texas out of conference with an additional 5 defeats within Pac-12 play. That’s the most losses in league play since 2000 when Paul Hackett went 2-6. The next year, Pete Carroll took over in L.A.

Notre Dame (-11) at USC

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Exhibition Park, Los Angeles, California
Date: Saturday, November 24, 2018
Time: 8:00 PM ET
Series: 45-37-5 Notre Dame

Peter Carroll isn’t likely coming back as USC fans want Helton’s head on a stick despite athletic director Lynn Swann rumored to be sitting still on any changes for the head coaching position. It’s less than ideal conditions for USC with Notre Dame coming to town for their regular season coronation.

3 Pre-Game Topics

History on the Line in the Coliseum

Here’s the list of games played in Los Angeles against USC with Notre Dame coming in with either 1 loss or undefeated:

1926, 8-1 Notre Dame at 8-1 USC: 13-12 Win

First ever meeting! More known to history for the prior week when Knute Rockne decided not to attend the game at Carnegie Tech in favor of watching the Army-Navy game in Chicago. Notre Dame lost in one of college football’s most shocking upsets. The Irish took out USC but wasted a National Title opportunity.

1930, 9-0 Notre Dame at 8-1 USC: 27-0 Win

Rockne’s final season and last National Championship before he was killed in the spring of ’31. USC had only lost at Washington State but were soundly defeated by the country’s best team.

1932, 7-1 Notre Dame at 8-0 USC: 13-0 Loss

Perhaps the best USC team of all-time, surrendering 13 points in 10 games while becoming National Champions. This Irish team was really good but were shutout in their 2 losses on the season.

1938, 8-0 Notre Dame at 7-2 USC: 13-0 Loss

The Rose Bowl-winning Trojans upset the undefeated Irish keeping head coach Elmer Layden from winning a National Championship and forever altering his place in Notre Dame history books.

1947, 8-0 Notre Dame at 7-0-1 USC: 38-7 Win

A down year for the Pacific Conference saw the Trojans still win the league but get lit up by Notre Dame in the finale then by Michigan in the Rose Bowl. This led to Frank Leahy’s 3rd title.

1948, 9-0 Notre Dame at 6-3 USC: 14-14 Tie

This tie against an average USC team spoiled Notre Dame’s chances at 5 National Championships in a row under Frank Leahy. No one won, but the Irish definitely lost.

1953, 7-0-1 Notre Dame at 6-2-1 USC: 48-14 Win

Notre Dame tied Iowa the week prior but crushed USC in Los Angeles and ended up with #1 votes by 10 polls, although not by the AP so the school doesn’t officially recognize this title. This would’ve been Leahy’s last game but the team played SMU at home to wrap up the season.

1964, 9-0 Notre Dame at 6-3 USC: 20-17 Loss

This is the worst loss in school history, blowing a 17-0 halftime lead and a National Championship in Parseghian’s first season with the program.

1966, 8-0-1 Notre Dame at 7-2 USC: 51-0 Win

The Irish had played the famous “Game of the Century” tie against Michigan State the prior week and turned around with the best performance in Los Angeles from a Notre Dame team on the way to a National Title.

1970, 9-0 Notre Dame at 5-4-1 USC: 38-28 Loss

Seeing as the Irish beat #1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl this was a tremendously disappointing loss to a decent but not great USC team which likely cost Parseghian a National Title.

1974, 9-1 Notre Dame at 8-1-1 USC: 55-24 Loss

The Irish coughed up a 24-0 lead and let their possible National Championship dreams die in Los Angeles.

1980, 9-0-1 Notre Dame at 7-2-1 USC: 20-3 Loss

This team was in line to play for a National Championship (and nearly beat eventual champion Georgia in the Sugar Bowl) but it’s offense let the team down on several occasions.

1988, 10-0 Notre Dame at 10-0 USC: 27-10 Win

A classic #1 vs. #2 matchup that doesn’t get talked enough about to this day. The Irish soundly defeated USC on the way to their last National Championship.

1992, 8-1-1 Notre Dame at 6-3-1 USC: 31-23 Win

A gritty effort by Notre Dame would ultimately lead to 7 straight wins to close out the season. Without an earlier loss to Stanford this team was squarely in the title conversation.

2012, 11-0 Notre Dame at 7-4 USC: 22-13 Win

Another gritty effort as the Irish defense stifled USC on their way to a perfect regular season and a briefly competitive game in the National Championship against Alabama.

Overall, an 8-6-1 record in these games but examples of 4 clear National Titles lost, and maybe 6 with a little help and things breaking in Notre Dame’s favor. Also, 5 of those non-wins were to ‘inferior’ USC teams.

Quitting Time

So much of this game will be about how much effort USC is going to put into facing a rival. Even taking the games mentioned above when a very good Notre Dame team came to town this might be the worst Trojans team to add to the list. Even in 1970, it was a different era where USC lost big to UCLA (in addition to 3 close losses in Pac-10 play) but beat a mediocre Alabama team, tied an Orange Bowl-winning Iowa, and of course upset the Irish.

You could say USC has beaten Washington State this year and it’s the best win in the Pac-12 for 2018! They’re not the same team anymore, and what’s even more damning, their current No. 53 ranking in F/+ is worse than their combined rankings from 2015-17. Yeah, it’s been that bad.

Most of the talking heads–especially from the media watching this team all year in California–are expecting the Trojans to pack it in for the off-season if Notre Dame gains a decent lead.

After the Fireworks

Notre Dame will be following quite the show on Monday Night Football in the Coliseum. The game between the Rams and Chiefs witnessed 105 combined points and 10 passing touchdowns from Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff.

The atmosphere inside the Coliseum is expected to be decidedly different this weekend. Will there be a weird, sleepy vibe even for a night game? Will the USC fans stay away and will the crowd be dominated by Notre Dame fans? Or, will it be a surprisingly hyped atmosphere relative to USC’s poor season and finish to 2018?

2 Key Opponents

QB JT Daniels – The young Trojans quarterback may have peaked in high school and if he hasn’t he certainly was thrown to the wolves as a reclassified true freshman who didn’t show up on campus until June of this year. Daniels would’ve likely remained the No. 1 national recruit for 2019 but is now being picked apart for not being that special while trying to lead an inconsistent offense with a porous offensive line.

That’s a bad decision down 1-point in the 4th quarter.

Daniels is doing one thing well and that is getting the ball to his favorite targets. A full 86.4% of his completions have gone to just 3 wideouts: Michael Pittman, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Tyler Vaughns. Among those receivers, Pittman is having a nice junior season (667 yards compared to 486 yards for 2016-17), Vaughns is building off his impressive redshirt freshman campaign last year (1,363 yards since 2017), while St. Brown is the second best Power 5 freshman receiver in yards per game (59.6) well behind Purdue’s Rondale Moore (93.0).

OLB Christian Rector – Although officially listed as an outside linebacker, Rector plays much more of a defensive lineman role at 275 pounds in USC’s scheme. The Trojans lost pass-rushing linebacker Porter Gustin (10 TFL in 6 games!) to injury earlier in the year and are now relying on a lot of inexperienced or young players up front.

Rector is one of the veterans as a redshirt junior and has put together decent success with 9 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He reminds me a lot of a little quicker version of Isaac Rochell.

1 Prediction

It’s my job (is this a job?) to look into my crystal ball, read the tea leaves, and come out on the other side with reasons–beyond the numbers–why Notre Dame may win or lose. Well, count me among the group that thinks USC is in trouble this weekend.

This particular Trojans team does have some flash on offense. As usual, there is some freakish talent at wideout and Aca’Cedric Ware is a very good running back. They’re not really targeting the tight end position much and the offensive line has not been a memorable unit.

Defensively, this is the least scary USC unit that I can recall doing game previews. They are young up front, the corners seriously underachieving, the safeties thinned out, and the linebackers–who were supposed to be a strength–haven’t been able to make up for all these deficiencies.

National Rankings

F/+ 6 53
S&P+ 6 41
S&P+ Offense 27 55
S&P+ Defense 3 37

Add it up, and this might be the worst USC team of this century.

They are passing the ball (nearly 50% of all snaps) a ton and the running game sits at an astonishing 87th right now according to S&P’s metrics. They’ve only gained 1,508 rushing yards! Everyone knew the passing game would fall back to earth with the loss of 3rd overall NFL pick Sam Darnold (they’ve fallen from 10th to 59th in S&P passing) and while that’s been no great shakes I would venture a guess it’s been a long time since the Trojans ground game has been this ineffective.

The nation’s second-best defense in terms of passer rating is coming up against the Pac-12’s second-worst quarterback in passer rating. Compounding this matchup is the belief that USC needs to make big plays through the air–that’s a major strength of this Irish defense, sitting in a tie for 4th nationally with just 7 plays allowed of 30+ yards in the passing game.

A close game wouldn’t shock me, it’s college football after all. Still, there’s only so much you can do when literally every single arrow is pointing strongly towards Notre Dame with the possible exception of the Irish having too big of a head and taking USC too lightly. I know the initial spread (8 points!) surprised many and even the increased line feels too low. Vegas may be playing the rivalry card as much as anything, although this rivalry really isn’t the same as it used to be decades ago. Perhaps USC keeps chucking it and comes up with a sad back-door cover but I think it’s more likely JT Daniels is on the bench (healthy or not) late with both teams playing out the string in a boring 4th quarter.

Notre Dame 37

USC 13

Bonus Material: Thoughts on the Future of USC

USC can elicit a whole range of opinions all over the country. To me, they’ve been the school who looked like they could always put it together, never really did that, but somehow ended up with respectable amounts of wins. Obviously, this season has blown that up completely.

Back in 2008, the Trojans finished 4th in F/+ while winning the Rose Bowl as an elite program and a 2nd place finish in the polls. Since then–stretching from Pete Carroll’s final season through 2017–USC hasn’t finished in the Top 10 in F/+ once. Not once! Heck, they won the Rose Bowl 2 years ago, were in the Cotton Bowl less than a year ago, but a harder look at the program reveals a ton of cracks and underachieving.

Helton is signed through 2023 after receiving an extension this past February, whoops! I think it’s easy to blame the head coach for them falling apart this year but many saw a poor season coming (starting a true freshman at QB usually isn’t great), the school administration is a mess, Lynn Swann seems ineffectual as AD, and they have a $300 million stadium renovation completing next fall. It might be prudent to wait and see what the landscape looks like next year, but that’s a tough pill to swallow and a long off-season for USC fans.

We’ve discussed this during the last couple hires at USC that they (still) refuse to adopt a true spread offense with a mobile quarterback and it’s this weird cultural thing that should probably be dropped sooner rather than later. The Trojans have the stigma of a soft culture that doesn’t jive well with trying to be a cooler, hipper version of Wisconsin or Stanford.

If the school is intent on keeping things the same, then why not just rewind it with a young Daniels, St. Brown & Co. and see if next year is a lot better? It would seem hilariously dumb to pay Helton millions to go away only to hire Jeff Fisher and his NFL offense.

Make no mistake, USC has to be careful. They hit the jackpot with Pete Carroll on an elite 7-year run but that era has now been surrounded by nearly 20 years (6 conference titles across 2+ decades) of less than dominant play stretching back to the 1980’s and now 10 years since (1 conference title) with mediocre results for such a blue-blood. Their program is screaming for a fresh rebuild unlike anything they’ve tried before.