Here are five keys for No. 9 Notre Dame (4-1) when it hosts USC (3-2) on Saturday (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).
OFFENSIVE SURGE CONTINUES
Quarterback Ian Book played his best football last week, albeit against lowly Bowling Green. But maybe Book recording more touchdowns (five) than incompletions (four) also had to do with the burgeoning Irish offense. Starting running back Jafar Armstrong also returns for the first time since suffering an abdominal injury in the Sept. 2 season opener at Louisville. Armstrong may be on a snap restriction, but he should bring even more balance and unpredictability to an Irish offense registering 41 points per game.
DECENT PLAY FROM SECONDARY
The dynamic wide receiving trio of Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown provide a clear matchup advantage against an Irish defense that’s without starting field cornerback Shaun Crawford (dislocated elbow). The three combined for 305 receiving yards and a touchdown on 29 receptions against the Irish last season, and that was with All-American cornerback Julian Love as a member of Notre Dame’s defense. Sophomore TaRiq Bracy will operate as the starting field corner, but how the Irish approach obvious passing situations will be worth watching. Notre Dame will need to find a nickelback, or third cornerback, that can cover USC’s inside receiver on third-and-long.
Look for Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea to dial up different looks to attempt to confuse USC’s true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis. Creating a healthy amount of third-and-long situations opens the door for defensive end Julian Okwara and the defensive line to generate serious pressure. In two full starts against BYU and Stanford, Slovis is a combined 52-of-67 passing (77.6 percent) for 658 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. Neither opponent had a defense that compares with that of the Irish. Notre Dame ties for No. 3 in turnovers gained, ranks No. 12 in pass efficiency defense and No. 39 in total defense.
QUIET USC EARLY
The last two meetings between Notre Dame and USC produced surprising results. The Irish dominated quarterback Sam Darnold and the then-ranked No. 11 Trojans 49-14 in 2017. Last year’s undefeated Notre Dame squad squeaked out a 24-17 victory over a 5-7 USC team. The Irish starting fast, unlike last season, should quiet any hopes of an upset early. Book has not thrown an incompletion over his last two first quarters, completing a combined 16-of-16 passes for 196 yards and three touchdowns.
Uncharacteristic mistakes and self-inflicted wounds will keep a double-digit underdog from pulling off an upset on the road. The Trojans are one of the more undisciplined college football teams, tying for No. 97 in penalties per game and No. 121 in turnovers lost. Notre Dame has taken care of the football while proving to be opportunistic on defense, ranking No. 2 in turnover margin. The Irish sticking to that trend will make them hard to beat.