The USC football offense will need to bounce back in more ways than one against a Notre Dame defense struggling to find a pass rush.
The Irish have a wealth of returning starters on the defensive side of the ball, with ten of 11 regular starters from the 2014 team back for this season. That number has since been reduced to nine with the season-ending injury to defensive lineman Jarron Jones
Have a Good Day
The most important of Notre Dame’s returning talent is arguably Sheldon Day, the wrecking ball on the defensive line who battled injuries for the better part of two seasons.
In fact, he missed the game against USC last season as the Trojan front dominated the Irish up and down the Coliseum floor.
With Day back in the mix, the Notre Dame front seven is a much stronger unit. As an individual though, Day has proven to be as good as advertised. He has eight tackles for loss already this season and has credited the Irish coaches with moving him around and utilizing stunts to get him in good positions to make plays.
Having said that, the Irish front is not without their problems. Though they have faced several run heavy teams this season, there has been a disappointing level of pressure on the quarterback.
Against Texas the Irish generated four sacks, but since then they have managed just five in five games. None of those came in the pivotal loss to Clemson.
All-American Linebacker Bid
Day may be the big man up front, but junior linebacker Jaylon Smith has been the most active member of the Notre Dame defense this season, racking up a team-best 42 tackles. He is second on the squad in tackles for loss with 5.5, has forced a fumble, logged a sack, hurried the quarterback twice and broken up a team-best three passes.
Sep 19, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) breaks up a pass for Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets running back Clinton Lynch (49) in the fourth quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports
Last year Smith was a Butkus Award finalist and second-team All-American. This year he began the season as a preseason All-American selection and he has done nothing but deliver on that promise.
Further bolstering the linebacker unit for Notre Dame is redshirt senior Joe Schmidt. The former walk-on missed the USC game last season, but the Irish have a remarkable 12-2 record when he has been a starter, with both losses coming against ranked teams.
Lost Starter, Gained Starter
The Irish lost a single starter to graduation last year, that one being cornerback Cody Riggs. The advantage for Notre Dame is that KeiVarae Russell returned from a suspension for academics last season and actually give the Irish a more experienced starter than they started with.
Russell started every game of his freshman and sophomore seasons, earning Freshman All-American status in 2012.
Opposite Russell is junior Cole Luke, who has nabbed two interceptions in his second season as a starter thus far.
Elsewhere in the secondary, Max Redfield came close to losing his starting job last season as he struggled from the safety spot. However, a strong offseason and start to the season has the junior back on track.
What the stats say
[table id=47 /]
* Denotes statistics from 2014
- USC’s passing downs sack rate is abysmal, ranked 116th in the nation. Their third down conversion percentage is not much better, ranked 101st. On the plus side, Notre Dame has not generated a great deal of pressure on opponents this season. Their passing down sack rate of 6.7% ranks 73rd. Unfortunately for the Trojans the same cannot be said of the Irish’s third down defense, which is No. 10 in the nation.
Projected starting lineups: USC football vs. Notre Dame
Notre Dame Defense[table id=51 /]
USC Offense[table id=50 /]
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