Although both USC and Notre Dame are having disappointing starts to the season, the rivalry game between the two still has not lost its luster.
The Fighting Irish went to the national championship game a year ago and already have some quality wins this season. Despite being 4-2, the squad still has a chance to put together an impressive run.
Each side is loaded with talent and can gain a lot of momentum with a win in this game. However, it will be important to follow these keys to victory.
Throw the Ball
If we have learned anything about USC in the past few games, it is that the defense can be beaten through the air.
Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly and Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker each threw for over 350 yards against the Trojans in the last two games, plus a combined seven passing touchdowns. While Kelly is one of the top passers in the nation, Denker had never thrown over 200 yards in a game in his career.
Tommy Rees has had his troubles as Notre Dame's quarterback this season, but this seems like a perfect opportunity to get back on the right track and carry the offense.
The coaching staff has to find a way to trust the quarterback to throw the ball down the field to his playmakers. If the Irish can get this done, they can put up a lot of points against this USC defense.
Win the Turnover Battle
The formula for Notre Dame has been pretty simple: avoid turnovers and the team is much more likely to win the game.
While this is true for any team in the sport, it is more exaggerated for the Irish. In their four wins this season, they have a turnover differential of plus-four with two total giveaways. In the two losses, the team is minus-four thanks to five interceptions by Rees.
Plays like this certainly do not help:
The quarterback has been the biggest culprit, but everyone else has to help out as well. This means the defense has to do a better job of forcing takeaways when there is an opportunity.
If Rees can take care of the football and the rest of the squad makes big plays, Notre Dame will easily win this game.
Stop the Big Play
Even when the USC defense is playing well, one huge play can undo everything the unit had been working toward. This has especially been a big problem in conference play.
In three games against Pac-12 opponents, the squad has given up five touchdowns of at least 40 yards. This includes defense and special teams plays, although these have the ability to change the momentum as much as anything on offense.
Additionally, the Trojan defense allowed a handful of other plays of 40 yards or more that set up scores later in drives.
USC is quick enough to prevent this from happening, but it might take a change in strategy to a more conservative approach. On defense, this could mean keeping more players back in deep coverage instead of sending them on the blitz.
Offensively, the players simply have to avoid turnovers that could lead to touchdowns going the other way. Of course, solid tackling still prevents big plays in all three phases of the game.
Take Pressure Off Cody Kessler
Cody Kessler has not been the most efficient quarterback in his first year as a starter, but the sophomore is getting better. However, the key will be to not force him to do too much against this quality defense.
In the win over Arizona, USC ran the ball 45 times compared to only 30 pass attempts. Obviously, this had to do with a score that was 28-3 in the second quarter, but it kept Kessler from making many mistakes.
When the coaching staff does call a pass play, it would be smart to mix in a lot of screens and quick passes that could help improve the quarterback's completion percentage and get his confidence up.
While Kessler made a few big plays in the most recent game, he still completed only half of his passes and has a lot of room to improve. He must learn how to sustain drives to get even more consistency with the offense.
That will not happen if he is just throwing deep all game. In this tough matchup, the team must stay conservative to allow the young player to succeed.
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