The Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the USC Trojans meet on Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to renew one of the most storied rivalries in college football. But both schools enter their final regular-season game seeking to salvage a disappointing 2014 and following poor results from the previous week.
The Trojans were trounced by local rival UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, while Notre Dame missed a field goal attempt to end a hotly contested home game against No. 24 Louisville. The losses dropped both schools to a 7-4 record and out of contention for a high-profile bowl game.
While the Trojans may feel deflated by the loss to the Bruins, the Fighting Irish have endured a particularly frustrating final stretch in 2014. After being ranked No. 5 in the nation after six games, Notre Dame suffered a heartbreaking loss on the road against No. 2 Florida State on Oct. 18. The Fighting Irish would hold off Navy in their next match, but would then drop their next three to Arizona State, Northwestern and then Louisville.
A victory for either side would be a major boost after failing to live up to high expectations. USC entered the season as the No. 15 team, and Notre Dame was not far behind at No. 17.
There will be plenty of star power on display on Saturday. Steve Sarkisian’s squad boasts perhaps the best NFL prospect in the nation, as Leonard Williams has been dominant on the USC defensive line with six sacks and three forced fumbles. Most draft experts have Williams going No. 1 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft.
"I'm just going to choose at the end of this season, after the bowl game," Williams said of possibly skipping his senior season to go pro, according to the Associated Press. "Of course I've thought about it. I've been hearing about it all season."
Star wide receiver Nelson Agholor will look to bounce back from a lackluster effort against UCLA. The junior, who is seventh in the nation in total receptions, muffed a punt return and caught just three passes for 24 yards on Saturday. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, who recruited Agholor in 2012, praised him this week, saying he is “as good as there is out there.”
The Trojans also have a fine running game led by Buck Allen. The junior is coming off consecutive weeks of rushing for less than 100 yards, but he has enjoyed a strong season overall, rushing for 1,244 yards and nine touchdowns.
Notre Dame has some standout offensive players as well. Wide receiver William Fuller has caught 66 passes for 962 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. The sophomore is 19th in the nation in receiving yards and has been quarterback Everett Golson’s top target.
Tarean Folston has led the ground game with an exceptional second half of the season. The sophomore running back has rushed for 539 yards at nearly six yards a carry in the past five games.
On defense, lineman Isaac Rochell, linebacker Jaylon Smith and cornerback Cole Luke have bolstered the defense and started each game. Rochell has 7.5 tackles for a loss this season, while Smith leads the team in tackles (89). Luke has been a consistent cover man in the secondary, and even contained Louisville star wide receiver DeVante Parker.
The rivalry has belonged to Notre Dame in recent years. After eight straight wins by USC during the Pete Carroll era, Notre Dame has won three of the past four meetings. All three wins have been by less than 10 points.
Notre Dame leads the series, which dates back to 1926, with a 45-35-5 record.
Point spread: USC by 7
Over/under: 62.5 points
Prediction: USC will likely spread the ball around, but expect quarterback Cody Kessler to target Agholor early and often. Folston should be a major weapon for Notre Dame, but he may struggle to find holes against a stingy USC defensive line. Defense will likely overshadow offense on Saturday.
Predicted Score: USC over Notre Dame, 28-24
An International Business Times staff reporter contributed to this report.