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Why Notre Dame should beat USC

The Trojans visit South Bend on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). The Irish run game and pass defense could be huge problems for USC.

Temple v Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The biggest game in college football’s Week 8 might be the one in South Bend.

No. 11 USC and No. 13 Notre Dame each have lost to one ranked team. Someone’s going to slide into the AP Poll’s top 10 on Sunday, a week before the first Playoff committee rankings come out.

Someone’s going to have two losses and be out of the running. I think that’ll be the Trojans.

Notre Dame’s running game is one of the best in the land.

The Irish are No. 1 in Rushing S&P+ and No. 3 in yards per carry, at 6.9. They run 45 times per game, using a bunch of different backs. The headliner is junior Josh Adams, who’s averaging 9 yards on his 86 carries this year, for nearly 800 yards in total. Adams is an incredible home run hitter, and he doesn’t get stacked up often. When you consider his efficiency, explosiveness, and volume, he’s been the most prolific back in the country after Stanford’s Bryce Love.

Adams has a lot of help. His top backup by carry load, Deon McIntosh, gains around 6 yards per run. The second-stringer on the depth chart, Dexter Williams, has been injured but averages better than 10 yards per run in limited action.

Quarterback Brandon Wimbush averages almost 8, and a lot of Adams’ runs work because Wimbush makes the correct read.

When a recruiting power like Notre Dame has four seniors on its offensive line, that line’s usually pretty good. The Irish are particularly bruising up front, and Adams is a big back (6’2, 225 pounds). Watch right guard Hunter Bivin pull and mash a linebacker to set this one up:

USC’s rush defense is highly gettable.

The only running game USC’s looked impressive against is Texas’ in Week 2, and the Longhorns a) were starting an unseasoned true freshman QB and b) have a mediocre run game in general. Later, the Trojans “limited” Stanford to a 6.5-yard average, and ND’s run game is of a similar quality.

If USC doesn’t spend the evening with eight men in the defensive box, the Irish are likely to run efficiently. Even if the Irish aren’t efficient, Adams is going to hit a few big ones that should keep USC’s DBs from creeping too close to the line.

That ND pass defense is something.

The Irish have played only one dangerous passing offense. That was Georgia’s, and the Irish limited Jake Fromm to 4.9 yards per attempt and a 100 rating. Fromm has pretty much destroyed every other team he’s faced, though he didn’t really need to pass against Tennessee in a 41-0 win.

Notre Dame is No. 6 in opponent-adjusted Defensive Passing S&P+. The front is good and gets some sacks (No. 26 in Adjusted Sack Rate), and the secondary picks off a few passes (1.25 per game against Power 5 teams so far). The Irish have a couple of ball hawks, like corners Julian Love (eight breakups) and Shaun Crawford (two picks).

The key player is Drue Tranquill, the perfect illustration of the modern nickel cornerback. Tranquill’s so important to the Irish in so many ways, both in stopping outside runs and defending all manner of receiving route. On Saturday, he’ll bug both Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones II, depending on the play and Darnold’s reads.

And USC QB Sam Darnold’s been iffy.

Darnold was the preseason Heisman favorite. I’m sure he’s going to have a long and prosperous NFL career. He’s been fine this year.

But he hasn’t been all that efficient and, after nine interceptions, he fumbled two or three times, depending on how you count them, against Utah. He’s had only one Big Sam Darnold Game this year, the one against Stanford in September.

He’s certainly capable of picking apart Notre Dame and winning this thing by himself, but that’s not the likely outcome in the context of his season so far. What’s likely is that Darnold is fine against an elite pass D.

It might come down to Notre Dame’s QB. That’s probably no problem.

The Irish are only 4-point favorites, and S&P+ projects that they’d beat USC in South Bend 63 times out of 100.

USC will probably send numbers to slow down ND’s running game. The Trojans’ best bet is to force Wimbush to throw.

Notre Dame v Michigan State
Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The hitch here is Wimbush’s health. He didn’t play at North Carolina two weeks ago, and his health’s not certain this week. But he practiced last week, and Brian Kelly said he’d be getting first-team reps in practices going forward. If backup Ian Book replaced Wimbush again, that’d be tough news for the Irish because he’s not as good a passer and not nearly as explosive a runner. But it seems like Wimbush will be back.

After an iffy start to the year, Wimbush came into his own in the passing game against Michigan State and Miami (Ohio), before he missed the UNC game.

If the Trojans have to move heaven and earth to stop Notre Dame from running, Wimbush’s job won’t be that hard. And if the Irish run game approximates its usual self, Wimbush should be comfortable anyway. It might only take a few big completions for Notre Dame to find the points to win.