CFP berth, Heisman could be on line as No. 6 USC faces No. 15 Irish

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Sixth-ranked Southern California looks to close out its best regular season since 2008 and stay alive for the College Football Playoff when it hosts No. 15 Notre Dame on Saturday in Los Angeles.

The Trojans (10-1) capped their Pac-12 Conference slate with a dramatic, 48-45 win at crosstown rival UCLA last Saturday. The back-and-forth contest likely bolstered the Heisman Trophy candidacy of USC quarterback Caleb Williams, who finished with more than 500 total yards in the win.

Williams heads into the final regular-season week ranked sixth in the nation in total passing yards (3,480) and tied for fourth in passing touchdowns (33) while having been intercepted just three times.

His 345.1 yards of total offense per game ranks fourth nationally. Statistics alone do not tell the full story of Williams’ importance to USC’s success, however, which Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman touched upon in his weekly press conference.

“He’s one of the few guys I’ve seen continuously break tackles,” Freeman said. “Guys have their hands on him and he continues to stay up. That can be devastating to a defense. That can make you try to do something outside of what your responsibility is on defense — ‘I want to make a play and I’m going try to rush around this guy instead of staying on him.’

“You have to stay in the rush lanes, but you can’t play cautious.”

The Fighting Irish (8-3) have surged on the back half of the schedule thanks primarily to their defense.

After opening the season 0-2, which included a confounding home loss to Marshall, then falling against a down Stanford team on Oct. 15, Notre Dame has mounted a five-game winning streak that includes a 35-14 rout of Clemson on Nov. 5.

The Fighting Irish defense is holding opponents to 20.2 points per game, tied for No. 27 in the nation, and has been especially good against the pass. Opponents have thrown for 186.8 yards per game against Notre Dame (16th in the nation) and have just 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions.

Although exactly even in the turnover battle on the season, the Fighting Irish are a combined plus-7 over the past four games. They may need to continue that trend against the nation’s best team in regard to turnover margin.

At a whopping plus-21 for the season — including plus-3 last week at UCLA — the Trojans have a season-long margin that is seven better than the next-most productive team (Duke at plus-14).

USC can expect a challenge to that turnover success, particularly trying to move the ball on a Notre Dame defense yet to allow an opponent 400 yards of offense in a game this season.

Trojans coach Lincoln Riley said, “They’ve got good players at all levels. You can tell they’ve recruited there for many years and they’ve built a talent base. I don’t see a ton of weaknesses with that group. They’ve got guys who can rush the passer, they play well in the secondary. … The margins are thin with a group like that.”

–Field Level Media

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