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Notre Dame Football

Scouting Report | USC

November 22, 2022
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A lot of people were critical of the way Lincoln Riley handled his exit from Oklahoma, but even those people can’t argue against the results he has produced at his new program.

USC is 10-1. It’s their first 10 win season in five years and he has the Trojans in contention for the College Football Playoff in year one in Los Angeles. To make the CFP, he has to get by Notre Dame first.

The Irish owned the Trojans for most of the last decade, but with Riley running things and the addition of some transfers who have been elite for the Trojans, this is the best USC team they’ve had since 2016.

They have an explosive offense that has carried them while the defense has been spotty and the discipline (103rd in penalty yards per game) has been troubling. Ranked 14th in FEI, they’ll be in any game because of their quarterback.

Injuries

RB Travis Dye is out for the year with a knee injury. The Oregon transfer was the lead back and was having a big season.

Offense

The Irish have already faced two top offenses this season. USC is the third and they are right there with Ohio State as one of the best in the nation.

They are first in EPA, second in points per drive, third in FEI, and they’ve scored more than 40 points in nine of 11 games.

Expected Strengths

It all starts at QB with Caleb Williams. The Oklahoma transfer and former 5-star recruit is one of the best in the country. He’s 10th in PFF grade, 5th in ESPN’s QBR, and 9th in passer rating.

He’s a big time athlete at the position. There might not be a more difficult quarterback to sack with his ability to escape the rush and when he improvises he can create explosive plays as a runner or passer. He averages 6.2 yards per carry, can make any throw on the field, and at times look like a young Patrick Mahomes.

They are 7th in EPA per pass and it’s not just Williams. The receivers are super talented led by another pair of transfers, Jordan Addison and Mario Williams.

Addison is 11th in yards per route run. He’s reliable and a playmaker. Williams averages 18.8 yards per reception. Former 5-star Kyle Ford has emerged as contested catch threat in recent weeks and he’s averaging over 20 yards per reception.

It’s a group where they legitimately have five players who are quality players.

The running game has been very good as well. They are 1st in EPA per rush, 1st in opportunity rate, and 4th stuff rate. The offensive line has done a fine job and is a semi-finalist for the Joe Moore Award.

A lot of that success has to do with teams having to deal with the pass and them running into lighter boxes, but even without Dye, the backs are good. Former Stanford back Austin Jones is a quality player and averaging over six yards per carry.

They are 2nd in 3rd down conversion percentage. It’s very tough to get them off the field and they can exploit any small mistake and turn it into a conversion.

Potential Weaknesses

The one game where they looked flustered this season was against Oregon State. Unlike anyone else this season, the Beavers were very aggressive blitzing Williams and did so on 40.9% of drop backs. He was 4 of 15 with 2.3 yards per attempt vs the blitz in those situations.

No one has blitzed him that much since then, which feels a bit crazy given the results, but there is the danger of getting burned with the big play and his running ability that probably scares defensive coordinators into thinking they should play more conservatively.

Utah also sacked him four times when they blitzed in USC’s only loss this season.

Overall on the season, William’s YPA when blitzed is 3.4 yards lower than when teams don’t blitz him.

Scheme

Lincoln Riley is from the Air Raid coaching tree and you can see the foundation of that, but the run game as well as play-action/RPOs are a much bigger component to his offense than anything you’d see from Mike Leach or the previous coordinator, Graham Harrell.

Almost 50% of drop backs involve some kind of play-action/RPO concept. They are 52.9% pass on the season.

Key Players

QB Caleb Williams - Only three interceptions on the season, but two have come in the last two games.

WR Jordan Addison - His numbers aren’t as gaudy as they were at Pitt, but he’s just as good.

RB Austin Jones - In his first game as RB1 he had 177 yards from scrimmage.

WR Kyle Ford - A month ago he was a forgotten man. In the last four games he has 13 catches for 276 yards.

Key for Notre Dame

Limit the explosives, pressure on Williams

Oregon State didn’t allow them to have a reception longer than 22 yards. If you let them make it a track meet, they are going to win that race.

OSU also pressured him on 43.2% of his drop backs. His three worst games were the ones where teams pressured him the most (Washington State and Colorado were the other two). Notre Dame’s defensive line has to win the battle up front and they have to affect him with the blitz.

Defense

Riley brought along his defensive coordinator from Oklahoma, Alex Grinch. He had familiarity with the Pac-12 as the former DC at Washington State and he also helped turn Oklahoma’s swiss cheese defense into a respectable unit.

This USC defense is more like the one he inherited at OU. It’s not very good.

They are 109th in EPA, 123rd in defensive success rate, 99th in points per drive, and 91st in FEI.

Expected Strengths

They have two players who have played at an elite level.

DL Tuli Tuipolotu has been a “dude” for them. He’s a disruptive presence who already has double digit sacks on the season and he’s had some games where he has looked unblockable at times. They are 36th in sack rate, but he’s the main catalyst behind that.

They lead the country in interceptions. It’s a defense that is designed to create negative plays and they have a 17.5% Havoc rate.

Colorado transfer Mekhi Blackmon is one of the top cornerbacks in the Pac-12. He has 13 passes defended (three interceptions) and has only given up an NFL passer rating of 43.3 when targeted this season.

Potential Weaknesses

The list is long. USC wins because of offense.

They are 128th in EPA per rush and 120th in opportunity rate. Notre Dame will have success running the ball on them.

They are 104th in first downs allowed per game and 100th in 3rd down percentage. They are also 90th in red zone touchdown percentage and 91st in points per Eckel (a measure of quality possessions and opportunity creation).

Without the turnovers this defense would be in significant trouble and most of those come from their pass defense, which is below average as well. I wouldn’t expect Notre Dame to throw it on them more than 20 times.

They are 111th in plays of 30 yards or more allowed vs Power 5 competition. It’s a big play defense in both directions.

USC is below average at the linebacker position and those guys will have a tough time matching up with Michael Mayer and Notre Dame’s backs.

Scheme

They play more zone than man on the back end and will do plenty of pre-snap movement up front. They have blitzed a lot more in the second half of the season than they did at the start of the year and part of that is matchups, but part of it is that they have been looking for answers.

Key Players

CB Mekhi Blackmon - He has the 4th best coverage grade by PFF.

DE Tuli Tuipolotu - 11.5 sacks, 24 Havoc plays. That pretty much says it all.

LB Shane Lee - An Alabama transfer who leads the team in tackles, he’s a bit stiff in coverage.

Key for Notre Dame

Bully them

The Pac-12 is a lot like the Big 12 used to be. It’s a finesse conference and USC is a team that plays that style on defense. They literally aren’t built to play against the style of football that Notre Dame plays on offense.

The Irish need to keep to their formula, control the clock, and keep that prolific offense off the field.

Special Teams

K Denis Lynch has been a problem for them. He is 12 of 18 on field goals this season and has missed five less than 40 yards.

P Aadyn Sleep-Dalton only averages 40.1 yards per punt.

Their special teams aren’t good. They are 111th in opponent punt return average and don’t have a dedicated special teams coach. Notre Dame will have a big edge in this area on Saturday.

Overview

USC is back…to winning like they expect to. This isn’t a team that is reminiscent of the Pete Carroll era, though. This is much more like the teams Riley took the College Football Playoff at Oklahoma with a Heisman trophy candidate quarterback leading a group that has to win with offense.

The Trojans won a shootout with UCLA and lost one to Utah. Notre Dame is going to play a different style of game with a better defense. It’s going to make for a very interesting matchup.

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