SOUTH BEND, Ind. >> Quarterbacks have received most of the attention whenever the University of Southern California and Notre Dame have their annual showdown in college football. The running backs have often decided the outcome.
It should be no different Saturday night when the No. 11 Trojans (6-1) and No. 13 Fighting Irish (5-1) meet as ranked opponents for the first time since the 2009 season.
While quarterbacks Sam Darnold of USC and Brandon Wimbush of Notre Dame will command much interest, the Trojans’ Ronald Jones II and Irish workhorse Josh Adams will be key.
Both coaches — USC’s Clay Helton and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly — love their guys but they spoke glowingly of their opposition.
“He is a big, fast running back who is hard to bring down — you have to gang-tackle him,” Helton said of the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Adams, who has 776 rushing yards and is averaging 9.02 yards per carry (second nationally) for Notre Dame’s fifth-ranked rushing offense (308 yards per game).
Kelly has been enamored with the 6-foot, 200-pound junior Jones since he tried to bring him to South Bend from McKinney (Texas) North High School.
“He’s got speed, explosiveness, great vision — I love Ronald,” said Kelly of Jones, who has four 100-yard games, including 111 in last week’s 28-27 comeback victory over Utah, among his 640 rushing yards and eight TDs. “I think he’s as good as anybody in the country, and you know, he runs in an offense that can throw the football.”
Some other things to watch Saturday night:
Darnold has won 15 of the 17 games he has started. He has thrown nine interceptions and been susceptible to fumbles (he had three in the first half against Utah) but is completing 62.7 percent of his passes for 2,063 yards and 15 touchdowns.
“He has a knack of making plays when it looks like you’ve got everything covered,” Kelly said.
Wimbush is expected to make his first start after a foot injury sidelined him for Notre Dame’s last game, a 33-10 victory at North Carolina two weeks ago. He has rushed for 402 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns and thrown for 782 yards and six TDs with just two interceptions.
Last year, when Notre Dame finished 4-8, its defense managed just 14 takeaways (104th nationally). Under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko, Notre Dame already has 14 turnovers (17th), including six interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. The Fighting Irish have outscored opponents 73-10 in points off turnovers. The Trojans have 10 interceptions this season, fifth best nationally, led by sophomore cornerback Jack Jones with four. They have forced 16 overall turnovers (ninth nationally) — the exact number committed by the USC offense. Still, opponents have scored just 24 points off USC turnovers.
IN THE RED ZONE
Notre Dame has scored on 24 of its 26 trips into the red zone (92.3 percent; 18th nationally) and stopped the opposition on five of 20 red-zone trips (75 percent; 28th nationally). Notre Dame, Alabama and TCU are the only schools that are ranked 30th or better in both categories.
The Trojans feature two sets of brothers: TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe and WR Josh Imatorbhebhe and Helton and quarterbacks coach/pass game coordinator Tyson Helton. Each team also features a starter named Cameron Smith. USC’s Cameron Smith is a junior inside linebacker who has a team-leading 62 tackles. Notre Dame’s Cameron Smith starts at wide receiver and has eight receptions for 60 yards and a touchdown.
Notre Dame won the first game in the series, 13-12, in 1926 and owns a 46-37 edge in the series (there have been five ties). The two teams have combined for 22 various national titles and 14 Heisman Trophy winners. The history of it all was not lost on the coaches and players in this year’s edition:
Helton: “What a special game to be a part of – it makes the hair stick up on the back of your neck just thinking about it.”
Kelly: “It’s got brand power. It sits up there with the great rivalries of college football.”
Darnold: “It’s special – I don’t think there’s anything like this rivalry. It’s going to be fun to get out there (to South Bend) and live the dream I had as a youngster.”
Notre Dame linebacker Nyles Morgan: “When you play USC, there’s a different edge to everybody. The animosity is intense.”