Even with so many external factors at play, one thing is for certain: USC football has to win this weekend in order to remain in the College Football Playoff hunt.
As college football braces for the final week of the regular season, month-long narratives will finally be resolved. From College Football Playoff rankings, to conference championship qualifications, there is only so much room at the top in this highly contested year of play.
The next step for No. 6 USC will be hosting No. 15 Notre Dame on Saturday in what could very well be the game that determines whether or not the Trojans can leap into the top four and make the College Football Playoff.
The matchup is simple: It’s dynamite offense versus disciplined defense. Pass versus run. The USC Trojans versus the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
In a tradition born in 1926, the rivalry between USC and Notre Dame has seen just about everything, but if one thing is to be expected this year, it is that the game is going to be extremely physical.
Notre Dame is a team that runs on 60% of its plays, one of the most efficient rates in college football. The Irish’s top two runners, sophomores Audric Estime and Logan Diggs, both average over five yards per carry.
“They do a good job running the football and then they’ve also done a really nice job in some of their play actions, certainly involving [Michael Mayer],” USC head coach Lincoln Riley said Tuesday on Trojans Live. “He’s really a tremendous player and he’s definitely one of the best tight ends out there. A lot of their offense starts with the run and play action, then involving him in the throw game.“
The USC defense has allowed over 147 rushing yards per game and has also let opposing tight ends take over games in the past. In the Trojans only loss this season, Utah senior tight end Dalton Kincaid tortured USC with 234 receiving yards and a touchdown on 16 receptions.
Notre Dame’s premier offensive weapon, junior tight end Michael Mayer, leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Mayer already has three games this season with over 100 receiving yards and a score, and has a favorable matchup to make it four on Saturday.
“Notre Dame has gotten the most out of their offensive production because they’ve done good things on all sides of the ball,” Riley said. “We’ve got to make them one dimensional.”
To counterbalance the Fighting Irish’s physicality, USC will need big games out of linebackers Shane Lee and Eric Gentry. The senior Lee leads the team in total tackles, while the sophomore Gentry is working his way back to full health since suffering an ankle injury against Utah in Week 7.
Gentry, standing at 6-foot-6 with over a 7-foot-1 wingspan, could be a major factor in containing Notre Dame’s Mayer if the inside linebacker plays. Gentry appeared briefly in last week’s win against UCLA, but was shut down after USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch noticed discomfort in the linebacker’s pursuit.
Defense has not been USC’s calling card this season, but an explosive passing game certainly has.
Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams has been the answer for the Trojans all season. The transfer from the University of Oklahoma followed his head coach to Los Angeles and is now the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
Williams is top-five in quarterback rating and touts an incredible 33-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In statistically the best game of his collegiate career, the product out of Washington D.C. completed 74% of his passes for 470 yards and two touchdowns in the win against UCLA last week.
Williams even went viral on social media for a running throw he made in the second quarter of the Crosstown Showdown.
Without a doubt, Williams has his Heisman moment but he can still build up his case with impressive showings this weekend and in the Pac-12 Championship game.
“He’s one of the calmest quarterbacks I’ve ever been around,” redshirt junior wide receiver Kyle Ford said. “I just think he’s elegant in the way he plays the game — that’s the only word that I can describe it.”
As far as the team is concerned, the next two weeks are all that are left for USC to qualify for its first College Football Playoff. Unfortunately for the Trojans, some of the dominoes that must fall in order for the team to make the playoffs are simply not in their control.
No. 5 LSU is riding a five-game win streak into its Saturday matchup against Texas A&M, before the Tigers will play No. 1 University of Georgia in the SEC Championship the following week — a game that will either solidify or crumble LSU’s playoff hopes. No. 4 TCU, one of four undefeated teams in the FBS, sits comfortably in the last playoff spot ahead of its game against Iowa State Saturday. The Horned Frogs will play either Kansas State or University of Texas in the Big-12 Championship.
A decisive victory in “The Game” between No. 2 Ohio State and the No. 3 University of Michigan could open up a space in the top four for a playoff hopeful, but will most likely rearrange configuration within the already existing playoff teams.
Earlier in the week, head of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee said the committee placed the two-loss LSU Tigers ahead of USC in the most recent poll because they wanted to “see more” from the Trojans defense.
“Did [the comments] add motivation? Certainly not,” Grinch said. “Saturdays are our resume. We’re in the business to win games. We found a way to win 10 and we’re going to fight like hell to get 11.”
USC kicks off the regular season finale against longtime rival Notre Dame Saturday at 4:30 p.m. inside the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.