Notebook: Can Notre Dame play keepaway from USC's prolific passing game?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The best way to slow down USC’s prolific pass-catching trio?

Play keep away?

Head football coach Brian Kelly has at times employed that strategy during his 10 seasons at Notre Dame to help mitigate elite offenses and/or players.

Running back Jafar Armstrong’s expected return from an abdominal injury Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium for the 91st rendition of the ND-USC rivalry (7:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV) would seemingly help along those lines if Kelly chose to go that direction.

Without the 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior for all but five offensivee plays this season, comprising three touches on Sept. 2 against Louisville, the Irish offense hasn’t been ball-hogging at all.

Its 62.8 offensive plays per game in nearly half a season ranks 119th out of 130 FBS teams, is roughly 11 plays fewer per game than the Irish offense ran last season (73.4) and is on pace to be the fewest since Bob Davie’s 1998 Irish averaged 60.1.

And ND has been fairly consistent from game to game, with 65, 65, 61, 62 and 61.

It certainly hasn’t suppressed scoring as ninth-ranked Notre Dame (4-1), at 41 points per game, is on a trajectory to break the school’s modern scoring record, and ranks 15th nationally in scoring offense.

When pressed about the trending downward in plays, Kelly professed it not to be anything intentional, particularly when it comes to tempo.

“We’re one of the top teams in the country in terms of explosive plays,” said Kelly, whose Irish are 12th in yards per play (7.1) and 19th in yards per completion (14.4). “That impacts it. So we haven’t had many of those long, 90-yard drives. This offense is not operated like that this year.

“So there are those that would say 63 plays is that what you want? No, what we’re doing is taking this offense and what its strengths are.”

The strength of unranked USC (3-2) is its wide receiver corps of senior Michael Pittman Jr. (35 catches, 501 yards, 4 TDs), junior Tyler Vaughns (31, 414, 2) and sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown (24, 238, 2). Freshman QB Kedon Slovis, now USC’s top option at QB who suffered a concussion Sept. 20 in an upset win over Utah, returns for his first game action Saturday night.

Together they help comprise the nation’s No. 26 pass offense. For comparison’s sake, the Irish won’t see a passing offense ranked higher than 73rd (Michigan) over the balance of the regular season.

Slovis’ quarterbacks coach at Desert Mountain High in Scottsdale, Ariz., incidentally, was NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner. After taking over for sophomore JT Daniels — out for the season with a torn ACL — in the season opener, Slovis has completed 78 percent of his passes and ranks 17th nationally in passing efficiency, one spot below ND’s Ian Book.

While the focus rightly so is how Notre Dame’s defensive backfield matches up with USC’s receivers, another key matchup is how the Irish pass rush will fare against a USC offensive line that has yielded just six sacks, 17th best nationally.

The Irish, with the nation’s 12th-best pass-efficiency defense, have allowed three TD passes this season (Troy Pride Jr., TaRiq Bracy and Paul Moala one each). Only Michigan (2) has allowed fewer among the 130 FBS teams.

Will USC push the pace against the Irish?

The Trojans have that capacity, as they’ve run as many as 75 plays twice and as few as 59 in a game.

Own worst enemy?

If Notre Dame can’t beat USC Saturday night, USC might just beat USC.

Out of 130 teams, USC ranks 122nd in turnover margin, 105th in red zone offense and 113th in fewest penalty yards per game.

In fact, the No. 113 ranking is USC’s best since fashioning a No. 112 ranking in 2016, the season Clay Helton was first named interim head coach, then permanent head coach of the Trojans.

During the 10-year Brian Kelly Era at Notre Dame, USC has ranked higher than 97th nationally in fewest penalty yards per game once. They were a modest 62nd in 2011.

As far as the turnovers are concerned, 32 percent of USC’s opponents’ points (44) have been scored off USC’s 13 giveaways. ND, second nationally in turnover margin, has scored 70 points off turnovers.

Bye week magic?

USC is the third of seven teams to play Notre Dame that have a bye week immediately before playing the Irish this season. Historically, the Trojans are 7-4-1 in such instances, including their last five such games against ND (1972, 1980, 2004, 2008, 2009).

However, the two teams that played ND this season so far after a bye are 0-2 in those games (New Mexico and Bowling Green) and have been outscored 118-14.

Giving back

Earlier this season, the Clay High School football program broke a 33-game losing streak with a 14-8 victory over Hammond.

On Saturday, the team got to experience another highlight — getting to take in Notre Dame’s 52-0 rout of Bowling Green in person.

For the past several years, Notre Dame has invited a local high school football team to attend an Irish home game and get an inside look at the program. This time it was Clay’s turn.

“It was such a positive experience,” Colonials head coach Garrett Fields said. “Not to complain about ticket prices, but with a lot of these kids their parent can’t afford to take them to games. So actually witnessing a game and being in the stadium, they absolutely loved it.”

Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott (21) defends USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown (8) as he makes a catch during ND’s 24-17 win Nov. 24 at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

WHO: No. 9 Notre Dame (4-1) vs. USC (3-2).

WHEN: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 10 1/2