5 keys for Notre Dame against USC: Cruise with Dexter, experiment before potential CFP

Staff reports
ND Insider

Here are five keys for No. 3 Notre Dame (11-0) when it plays at USC (5-6) on Saturday night.


ND can build an early lead with quarterback Ian Book’s arm. Both Trojan starting safeties — Isaiah Pola-Mao and Talanoa Hufanga — have suffered season-ending injuries. In turn, the Trojans are tied for last with three interceptions on the season. The nation’s No. 53 pass efficiency defense poses little threat for Book, who should rely on the short passing game that’s been so successful.


Running back Dexter Williams has been ND’s closer of sorts, especially against Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Syracuse. Averaging 6.7 yards per carry with four games over 100 rushing yards, Williams should find similar success against USC. The Trojans allowed UCLA’s Joshua Kelley to run for 289 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries last week. Williams might be all the Irish need on Saturday, but he would fit well as a closer once again.


USC compares to Florida State in many regards. Both rosters are loaded with talent, however they continually commit careless errors and underachieve. The Trojans are flagged eight times per game (tied for 116th) for a total of 812 penalty yards (120th). ND loses Saturday if it turns it over often and shoots itself in the foot. The Irish do not have a turnover problem with Book at quarterback, but they have committed more penalties as of late. ND’s offensive line will need to limit false starts and illegal procedure penalties.


Defensive coordinator Clark Lea will likely take advantage of JT Daniels’ lack of help. The Trojan offensive line struggles in pass protection, and their rushing offense ranks No. 102 nationally. Daniels entered his career with a lot of hype as a five-star recruit. He does not turn 19 years old until February, though, so his youth and lackluster cast does not bode well for him. ND’s No. 2 pass efficiency defense and potent defensive line should wreak havoc.


The Irish would have to wait until Dec. 29 for the College Football Playoff semifinal. Should ND jump to a commanding lead, it must take advantage by experimenting. For starters, nickel back remains a question for the ND defense. The Irish are flirting more with the TaRiq Bracy-Julian Love combination — where Bracy lines up outside and Love moves to nickel. ND should exit Saturday certain about which lineup works for nickel on third down and pivotal situations. Brandon Wimbush, who has recently earned reps at running back, is another wrinkle ND should test. If he impresses, maybe he could earn a small role in the backfield for CFP action.

Dexter Williams runs in for a touchdown against Syracuse.
Notre Dame’s No. 2-ranked pass efficiency defense should be able to rattle USC’s young quarterback JT Daniels, who doesn’t turn 19 until February.

NOTRE DAME (11-0) @ USC (5-6)

At LA Memorial Coliseum (78,467), Los Angeles

Kickoff: 8 p.m. EDT


Series history: Notre Dame leads, 47-37-5

Betting line: Notre Dame by 11