What to watch for: USC vs. Notre Dame

Here’s a look at what to watch for when the USC Trojans and Notre Dame Fighting Irish play on Saturday in South Bend.

When USC has the ball

This game could easily be decided by the Trojans commitment to run the ball. Interim coach Clay Helton said this week that he understands the need to be more physical, and he made that a priority during practices. USC will be without center Max Tuerk, who has been lost for the season due to a knee injury, but the replacement Toa Lobendahn is a solid option, especially when it comes to the run game. The Trojans will also be without multiple wide receivers due to injury, which lends even more of a reason to stick with the ground game. And it all needs to be orchestrated by Cody Kessler, who can show his leadership by calming the storm that has surrounded the team this week with the firing of Steve Sarkisian, and there is no bigger test than doing it on the road against the Irish. Notre Dame will counter with a defense that is led by an athletic outside linebacker in Jaylon Smith and a plug of a middle linebacker in Joe Schmidt.

When Notre Dame has the ball

The Irish have a balanced attack that is led by a strong running game averaging 238 yards per game on the ground, and over 500 yards per game overall. The Trojans have given up 552 rushing yards over the past three games and they will be facing a Notre Dame offensive line that features all five starters over 300 pounds. You want big man on big man football? You got it in this one. Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer has filled in admirably for the injured Malik Zaire, and his primary weapons are tailback C.J. Prosise and wide receiver Will Fuller. Keep an eye on USC middle linebacker Cameron Smith, a true freshman who leads the team in tackles, while senior nose tackle Antwaun Woods will be looking to control the center of the line of scrimmage for the Trojans. USC fans know the Trojans offense should be able to score some points, but will the defense be able to rise to the challenge?

Coaching match-up

Things couldn’t be more different in this head-to-head battle. Brian Kelly is in his sixth season leading the Irish and he has developed a certain level of consistency with his program, which now sits firmly as a top 15 team in the nation with the only blemish being a two-point loss on the road against Clemson in a pouring rain. USC enters the game after a whirlwind week that saw the second mid-season firing of a coach in three years, and the experience of having gone through this before could help the players who know how to navigate the process, and Helton himself. Not only was Helton at USC for the successful Ed Orgeron interim stint, but he also had one game experience as the head coach for the bowl game in 2013, and the Trojans came away with a victory. Helton will be the fourth USC coach to face Notre Dame in four years (Kiffin, Orgeron, Sarkisian) and there’s no better way to stake a claim to the full-time job than coming out of South Bend with a win.