Can USC’s defense find its footing on the road against rival Notre Dame?

USC takes on Notre Dame Saturday as the Trojans enter the heart of their schedule.

The Trojans are entering the rivalry match-up against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish a perfect 6-0, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. Despite coming out on top against both Arizona schools and Coach Prime’s revamped Colorado Buffaloes, they beat those three programs (which should’ve been tune-up games) by a combined 23 points. For context, they were 21-point favorites vs Colorado alone.

The Trojans have been scoring in bunches, but they’ve been giving up nearly just as many points. The box scores are continuously perplexing, but the one thing that has stuck out in back-to-back games is the inability of the Trojans to get off the field on third-down and close drives. The defense has seen 95 3rd-down attempts (which they’ve stopped more than 61% of the time).

The offense has only attempted 56 3rd-downs for context. So, by and large, they’re getting finishes, but as of late, teams have converted 17-34 3rd-downs on USC. Not a great clip. Let’s get into the team’s thoughts from practice. 

Defending The Defense

We saw Caleb come to the defense of the defense in the post-press conference vs. Arizona:

In this practice, we saw Lincoln Riley say something similar:

Look, they’re tied for the second most sacks in FBS and NUMBER ONE in tackles for a loss. It doesn’t make sense that with the pressure the defense is getting, they’re not decimating teams on the defensive side. But with the good comes the bad, and while opponents haven’t called to the USC Red Zone an excessive amount, opponents have gotten points on 16-17 attempts. The Trojan offense is almost dead last in time of possession, so on top of the defense struggling to get off the field, is Lincoln Riley’s offense scoring too efficiently? It’s a ridiculous question to pose, but there’s true effectiveness in scoring the rock AND controlling the game’s flow. And while we praise USC’s scoring capabilities, the defense is left out on the field far too often, and if you’re out there long enough, things will ultimately go against you. Are the Trojans getting gassed? It seemed to be the case against Colorado and Arizona St. But against Arizona, the Wildcats jumped out to a shocking 17-0 lead. For Grinch to get the heat off of his back, the following will probably have to occur:

  1. Two complete halves of football. It may seem simple, but the defense needs to start how they finish and finish how they start. 
  2. Lincoln needs to hang on to the ball longer. I can’t believe I’m asking for fewer Caleb-to-Tahj 70-yard plays, but the USC Trojan offense needs to do a better job of being methodical to give the Trojan defense more of a breather. Could help. 
  3. Limit first-downs. In any which way across the board, the Trojans are giving up first-downs. They’re tied for 116th in first downs allowed. There are only 130 qualified teams. Not only are they getting hit in the pass and run, they’re heavily penalized. It’s time for this team to close drives if they want to contend earnestly. 
  4. Grab an interception. These teams are slinging the ball across the field against USC, yet the Trojans have only come away with four interceptions. They need to force a turnover in the defensive backfield, especially if the defense puts on this type of pressure. 
  5. Chunk plays. The Trojans can’t be giving up chunk plays, big or small. No one wants to give up a long pass or run, but in terms of “small-chunk plays,” the Trojans are giving up almost 6 yards a play. Inexcusable. 

The Trojans will dance with one of the decade’s more experienced and accomplished quarterbacks in college football when Sam Hartman lines up under center for the Fighting Irish. Although the output for the team out of South Bend hasn’t been what they’ve thought it to be, expect that they’re coming for blood in this rivalry game and looking to defend a home turf sullied by a late-game drive from the Ohio State Buckeyes. Despite our thoughts on the upcoming Pac-12 gauntlet, this could be USC’s trickiest test.