Notre Dame at Southern California

The Sports Xchange

November 21, 2018 at 3:52 pm.

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
SITE: L.A. Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles
TV: ABC
SERIES: Notre Dame leads the series 47-37-5 and won 49-14 last season.
RANKINGS: Notre Dame No. 3

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Fighting Irish

–QB Ian Book has emerged as a star. His 72.6 percent completion percentage ranks second in the nation through the first 11 weeks. He has passed for 17 touchdowns and five interceptions this season.

–WR Miles Boykin has an opportunity to add to his career-best statistical season. Boykin enters the Trojans game with 51 catches for 730 yards and eight touchdowns. He has led the team in receptions five times this season.

–PK Justin Yoon needs one more field goal to become the program’s all-time leader. Yoon has 57 career field goals, which is tied with Kyle Brindza for No. 1 in the record books.

Trojans

–RB Vavae Malepeai handled much of the run-game duties against UCLA, when USC’s leading rusher, RB Aca’Cedric Ware, was sidelined by injury. Malepeai has been effective as a secondary option this season, including going for 77 yards on 15 carries last week. Overall, however, USC has struggled to establish a consistent run game, and this week faces a Notre Dame defense that allows just 3.7 yards per carry.

–QB JT Daniels’ debut season has been defined by flashes of brilliance and moments of freshman mistakes, mixed with long periods of stagnation. Coach Clay Helton said on Sunday that he’s been pleased with Daniels’ improvement. Saturday’s regular-season finale can set the tone for the young QB heading into bowl practice — or the offseason, if USC loses.

–CB Iman Marshall has had an outstanding 2018, and his performance in the loss at UCLA was no exception. Marshall comes into the regular-season finale off an 11-tackle performance, which included two tackles for loss and a pass break-up.

KEYS
TO THE GAME

A Notre Dame win Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum likely lands the No. 3-ranked Fighting Irish in the College Football Playoff. A USC loss denies the Trojans a bowl bid and throws the immediate future of the program into doubt.

Longtime rivals Notre Dame (11-0) and USC (5-6) find themselves with two very different prospects for the immediate future beyond Saturday’s matchup, the 90th all-time between the two blue-blood programs.

The Fighting Irish are competing for a perfect regular season and first-ever playoff berth; the Trojans are trying to avoid their first sub-.500 finish since 2000, and perhaps maintain the employment of coach Clay Helton.

If there are any similarities between the two programs on opposite ends of the football spectrum this season, it’s that neither Helton nor Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly have direct control over their fate after Saturday.

“I don’t know that, if we win our last game, that we’re going to the (playoff),” Kelly said in his press conference, following a 36-3 rout of Syracuse in Yankee Stadium. “But that’s not in our control.”

While the Fighting Irish are ultimately at the mercy of the College Football Playoff selection committee, completing a 12-0 regular season should be sufficient. No undefeated team with Power Five conference designation — which Notre Dame is granted through its affiliation with the Atlantic Coast Conference — has ever been excluded from the Playoff field since its inception in 2014.

Last week’s defeat of Syracuse also gave Notre Dame its fourth win over a team currently ranked in the Top 25 — including one head-to-head against fellow Playoff contender, Michigan.

The waiting, and perhaps lobbying, ahead of Notre Dame after a win reflects USC a season ago, which offered a modest campaign for the final playoff spot that went to eventual national champion, Alabama.

USC’s abrupt decline from winning 11 games and the Pac-12 Conference championship a season ago left Helton faced with repeated questions about his job status following last week’s 34-27 loss at UCLA.

“I’m pretty heartbroken for our kids,” Helton said. “But we have a game left, an important game for our seniors.”

While outgoing seniors are the focus for the Trojans gaining bowl eligibility and winning one final time at the Coliseum, where USC’s 19-game winning streak ended Oct. 27 and is now home to a two-game losing streak the program’s underclassmen dictate the future beyond 2018.

“Explosive plays by Michael Pittman, Amon-Ra (St. Brown), Velus (Jones), Josh Falo, Vavae (Malepeai) and Tyler Vaughns was great to see,” Helton said. “The silver lining looking at it, for me, is all those young men are back next year.”

So, too, is freshman quarterback JT Daniels. An emotional Daniels defended Helton following the UCLA, saying he shouldered responsibility in playing for the coach’s employment.

“I completely feel that,” he said. “If you ask Coach Helton if he can do things better, I promise you he’d say yes. But this isn’t Clay Helton blew it. USC football blew it.

Notre Dame, since surviving a 19-13 scare on Oct. 13 against ACC Coastal division champion Pittsburgh, has won its last four by an average of 23.5 points per game.

The Irish defense has given up more than 21 points just three times, allowing Navy 22; Virginia Tech 23; and Wake Forest 27.

Notre Dame scored 44, 45 and 56 in those games.

Kelly’s move to quarterback Ian Book paid immediate dividends for the offense. He has thrown for 2,116 yards with a 72.6 completion percentage and has rushed for 23.4 yards per game. An injury plagued USC defense — which could be without linebacker John Houston Jr. (hamstring) this week — struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks this season.

Compounding that challenge is running back Dexter Williams, coming in averaging 120.6 rushing yards per game since his Sept. 29 return to the lineup. Williams faces a defense that allowed 289 yards on the ground last week to UCLA running back Joshua Kelley.

Notre Dame needs only win to put itself in position for the Playoff even if Kelly emphasizes Saturday’s game as part of another goal.

“We had three goals this year: Beat Michigan, win all of our games at home, and then win the month of November,” he said in his Tuesday press conference. “So that will be the primary focus. All that other stuff will take care of itself.”