No.3 Notre Dame renews rivalry with struggling USC

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book suffered a rib injury in Saturday's victory over Northwestern.Photo Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Sports Xchange

A Notre Dame win Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum likely lands the No. 3-ranked Fighting Irish in the College Football Playoff. A USC loss denies the Trojans a bowl bid and throws the immediate future of the program into doubt.

Longtime rivals Notre Dame (11-0) and USC (5-6) find themselves with two very different prospects for the immediate future beyond Saturday’s matchup, the 90th all-time between the two blue-blood programs.

The Fighting Irish are competing for a perfect regular season and first-ever playoff berth; the Trojans are trying to avoid their first sub-.500 finish since 2000, and perhaps maintain the employment of coach Clay Helton.

If there are any similarities between the two programs on opposite ends of the football spectrum this season, it’s that neither Helton nor Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly have direct control over their fate after Saturday.

“I don’t know that, if we win our last game, that we’re going to the (playoff),” Kelly said in his press conference, following a 36-3 rout of Syracuse in Yankee Stadium. “But that’s not in our control. If we do a good job there and we win our game, then we would have won all of our games, and then we’ll let people decide who should go to the (playoff).”

While the Fighting Irish are ultimately at the mercy of the College Football Playoff selection committee, completing a 12-0 regular season should be sufficient. No undefeated team with Power Five conference designation — which Notre Dame is granted through its affiliation with the Atlantic Coast Conference — has ever been excluded from the Playoff field since its inception in 2014.

Last week’s defeat of Syracuse also gave Notre Dame its fourth win over a team currently ranked in the Top 25 — including one head-to-head against fellow Playoff contender, Michigan.

The waiting, and perhaps lobbying, ahead of Notre Dame after a win reflects USC a season ago, which offered a modest campaign for the final playoff spot that went to eventual national champion, Alabama.

USC’s abrupt decline from winning 11 games and the Pac-12 Conference championship a season ago left Helton faced with repeated questions about his job status following last week’s 34-27 loss at UCLA.

“I’m pretty heartbroken for our kids,” Helton said. “But we have a game left, an important game for our seniors.”

While outgoing seniors are the focus for the Trojans gaining bowl eligibility and winning one final time at the Coliseum, where USC’s 19-game winning streak ended Oct. 27 and is now home to a two-game losing streak the program’s underclassmen dictate the future beyond 2018.

“Explosive plays by Michael Pittman, Amon-Ra (St. Brown), Velus (Jones), Josh Falo, Vavae (Malapeai) and Tyler Vaughns was great to see,” Helton said. “The silver lining looking at it, for me, is all those young men are back next year.”

So, too, is freshman quarterback JT Daniels. An emotional Daniels defended Helton following the UCLA, saying he shouldered responsibility in playing for the coach’s employment.

“I completely feel that,” he said. “If you ask coach Helton if he can do things better, I promise you he’d say yes. But this isn’t Clay Helton blew it. USC football blew it.

Spoiling the championship aspirations of an old rival may be the best closing argument the USC underclassmen can make for their coach. Actually doing so should prove a difficult task.

Since surviving a 19-13 scare on Oct. 13 against ACC Coastal division champion Pittsburgh, Notre Dame has won its last four by an average of 23.5 points per game.

The Irish defense has given up more than 21 points just three times, allowing Navy 22; Virginia Tech 23; and Wake Forest 27.

Notre Dame scored 44, 45 and 56 in those games.

Kelly’s move to quarterback Ian Book paid immediate dividends for the offense. He has thrown for 2,116 yards with a 72.6 completion percentage and has rushed for 23.4 yards per game. An injury plagued USC defense — which could be without linebacker John Houston Jr. (hamstring) this week — struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks this season.

Compounding that challenge is running back Dexter Williams, coming in averaging 120.6 rushing yards per game since his Sept. 29 return to the lineup. Williams faces a defense that allowed 289 yards on the ground last week to UCLA running back Joshua Kelley.

Notre Dame needs only win to put itself in position for the Playoff even if Kelly emphasizes Saturday’s game as part of another goal.

“We had three goals this year: Beat Michigan, win all of our games at home, and then win the month of November,” he said in his Tuesday press conference. “So that will be the primary focus. All that other stuff will take care of itself.”