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USC Football Behind Enemy Lines - Q&A With Notre Dame Writers

Aaron Fischman |
October 20, 2011 | 7:48 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

ND beat USC 20-16 last season at the Coliseum. (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
ND beat USC 20-16 last season at the Coliseum. (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
In the latest chapter of one of the greatest rivalries in college football, the USC Trojans will take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this Saturday in South Bend, Indiana.

Neither USC nor Notre Dame is ranked in the Top 25, but that fact has done very little to diminish the immense excitement leading up to the game.

Both teams are playing well heading into the rivalry game.

The Irish have won four straight games, including their latest victory, nearly two weeks ago, over Air Force by a score of 59-33. Sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees threw four first half touchdowns, giving his team a 42-16 halftime lead, which they would not relinquish.

Last Thursday, The Trojans defeated the Cal Golden Bears 30-9. Although Cal outgained the Trojans 329 yards to 313, USC was able to force five turnovers en route to the win.

The last two years have witnessed highly competitive games between these two schools. 

In 2009, the Trojans jumped out to a 34-14 lead before then-quarterback Jimmy Clausen led a furious fourth-quarter comeback that just fell short (literally) at the Trojans' 4-yard line. USC escaped with the 34-27 win. 

Most recently, the Irish beat the Trojans 20-16 last year. The Trojans were playing without the services of injured quarterback Matt Barkley. Even so, USC receiver Ronald Johnson dropped a sure-fire touchdown pass that would have given the Trojans the late lead. 

To help us preview this year's exciting matchup, Keith Arnold and Jason Sapp have graciously agreed to share their insight. 

Arnold covers the Irish for NBC Sports. Sapp serves as the Web Editor for Blue and Gold Illustrated. He also played defensive end for Notre Dame from 2000-2003.          

1. Notre Dame has reeled off four consecutive victories. What has been the reason for its recent success after dropping its first two games of the season?

Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd (Shotgun Spratling)
Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd (Shotgun Spratling)
Arnold: The easy, obvious and almost only answer is turnovers. The Irish had ten turnovers in their first two games, a crippling number of mistakes that cost them both football games. Since then, they've just cleaned up the mistakes and played more efficiently. The result has been four straight wins, three of them in dominant fashion. 

Sapp: A key difference between the first two games of the season and the four contests that followed is taking better care of the football. 

Notre Dame managed to turn the ball over five times against South Florida in the 23-20 loss and another five against Michigan in a 35-31 loss. In the first victory of the season with a 31-13 win against Michigan State, the Irish limited the takeaways to three. They decreased that number to two in a 15-12 win over Pitt.

Since then, Notre Dame stretched its winning streak to four by not giving up any turnovers against Purdue or Air Force and beating those teams 38-10 and 59-33, respectively.

2. After its defeat over Cal last Thursday, USC comes into the contest after eight days of rest. Notre Dame has had nearly two weeks since their big win over Air Force. How, if at all, do you think the bye week has affected Notre Dame’s approach heading into the game?

Arnold: I don't think it's been a big factor, other than to let guys like Ethan Johnson and Manti Te'o get healthy. The Irish are finally on a roll, and some have questioned whether the bye week came at a bad time. Kelly-coached teams are 12-1 coming out of an off-week, so it likely won't hurt, and the extra time gave the coaching staff time to set up the weekend recruiting schedule, one of the most ambitious weekends I've ever seen.

Sapp: I don’t know if the actual approach to the game is any different besides any adjustments that were made to the offensive and defensive schemes based on the most up-to-date film on the Trojans, but Notre Dame benefited from the bye week in two ways 1) the "banged-up" players were able to get additional rest for their injuries and 2) many of the players got to go home and spend some time with family.

In addition to having the extra week to prepare for a talented USC team, Notre Dame was also on fall break this week so it was all football instead of taking on the usual rigorous load of academics and athletics.

3. The Fighting Irish D has performed extremely well in three of the team's four wins this season. What are the strengths of this defense? In which areas is it most vulnerable?

Arnold: The Irish defense has played well in 22 of 24 quarters this season. The fourth quarter implosion against Michigan was a runaway train filled with broken coverage and crucial mistakes. The yardage numbers against Air Force looked ugly, but in reality the starters only gave up 19 points to the Falcons, before the second and third units got carved up in garbage time. 

Physically, this is one of Notre Dame's most impressive defenses of the last 15-20 years. The front seven is big and strong, anchored by a stout defensive line and Manti Te'o in the middle. The secondary is veteran with Harrison Smith calling the shots. If you're looking for weaknesses, USC will have an opportunity to make some easy short throws in linebacker Prince Shembo's zone, and Gary Gray has struggled in man coverage after having a great season last year. 

Sapp: The strength of the defense is the front seven.

Notre Dame is finally in a position where it not only has depth along the defensive front, but talented depth with a number of young players getting involved often. 

The Irish had failed to find consistent success recruiting defensive linemen, which may have been a primary culprit in the dismissals of Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, but Brian Kelly addressed the need early and it didn’t take long for touted freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt to get involved.

Add the stout play of junior Manti Te’o, the split contributions of classmates Dan Fox and Carlos Calabrese opposite of him in the middle, and the athletic edge play by senior Darius Fleming and sophomore Prince Shembo – and the defense becomes a tough opponent to run or short-yardage pass against.

The area where the defense is the most vulnerable is defending the deep ball, which will certainly be part of USC’s offensive strategy with a weapon like Robert Woods.

4. As the everyday starter, how has sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees' game improved from a season ago?

Tommy Rees leads a talented Irish offense.
Tommy Rees leads a talented Irish offense.

Arnold: He's played really well of late and looks comfortable running Brian Kelly's passing offense. Last year, Rees' worst outing of the year was against the Trojans and even though he rallied Notre Dame in their final drive, the Irish won in spite of their freshman quarterback, not because of him. 

Like any young quarterback, Rees has made too many mistakes with the football. But after some bad reads and forcing some throws to Michael Floyd, he's thrown nine touchdown passes against only two interceptions in Notre Dame's four-game winning streak, and even though he turned the ball over against Michigan, he still drove the Irish for a potential game winning touchdown pass with 30 seconds left in the game.

Sapp: The biggest different for Rees, besides the natural maturation process, is the level of confidence that he plays with and the consistency that he’s developing. He takes what may be considered risky passes at times in double and even triple coverage, but it’s not necessarily due to a lack of making the proper read. He generally feels comfortable making those types of throws and feels he can complete them, with a higher success rate as of late.

He’ll continue to work on going through those progressions instead of locking in to target No. 1 or 2, but like USC, Notre Dame also has a plethora of receiving weapons in junior Theo Riddick, sophomore T.J. Jones, junior Tyler Eifert and others that he can choose from.

5. Talk about senior wide receiver Michael Floyd. What has he meant to the Fighting Irish throughout his four-year career? Where does he rank among the nation's best receivers?

Arnold: Floyd has been one of Notre Dame's most dominant offensive weapons since the moment he stepped onto campus. (Fun fact: Floyd always liked USC as a high schooler, but the Trojans wouldn't offer Floyd a scholarship without him coming to camp in Los Angeles.) His first two seasons, injuries took away from his statistics, but Floyd was still one of the best big-play threats in the country. Since Brian Kelly took over, Michael's yards-per-catch have gone down, but he's become a much more versatile weapon. 

I haven't watched every big-time receiver in the country enough to accurately compare them all, but I'd be hard-pressed to find a better all-around receiver than Floyd. He's a physical mismatch, he's got the power to run over defensive backs, enough speed to go over the top of them, and he's one of the best blockers in the country. Having watched him since his prep days back in Minnesota, it's been fun watching his career evolve at Notre Dame. 

Sapp: Notre Dame may have had a top-five recruiting haul in 2011, but the biggest recruit of the bunch? Michael Floyd.

His decision to not enter the NFL may have not only been the best decision for him, but it was an even better one for Notre Dame. Looking at the stat sheet doesn’t give you an honest reflection of what the senior wideout does on Saturdays. In addition to leading the team in the majority of the receiving categories with 53 catches for 639 yards, averaging 12.1 yards per catch, with four touchdowns and 106.5 yards per game, it’s the plays that he makes away from the football that truly make him one of the best receivers in the nation.

With his 6-3, 225-pound frame and athleticism, he’s able to make big blocks on the edge and has been the key block on a number of the rushing touchdowns by junior Cierre Wood and senior Jonas Gray. Even when he’s not catching the ball and laying out an outsized defender, he’s drawing the bulk of the attention and creating opportunities for the remaining receiving corps.

6. Junior running back Cierre Wood has been very consistent for the Irish out of the backfield this season. What makes Wood’s running style so effective?

Notre Dame RB Cierre Wood (Shotgun Spratling)
Notre Dame RB Cierre Wood (Shotgun Spratling)
Arnold: He's just a good all-around running back. Wood has speed, good vision, and runs tough between the tackles. Both he and Jonas Gray have put up dominant numbers, and the Irish are averaging a ridiculous six yards per carry after half a season in a spread offense. While Wood certainly is a talented back, a lot of credit should go to the Irish offensive line, a group that's played incredibly physical in the running game and done a great job of protecting the quarterback as well. 

7. Over the years, these rivals have played such competitive, entertaining games. More specifically, the teams split their last two meetings, with each game being decided by seven points or less. As a participant in this heated rivalry during your playing days, how intense is the rivalry between these two teams?  

Sapp: This is the rivalry game for anyone who has ever donned that gold helmet.

Sure, Boston College, Michigan and Michigan State are always games that get Notre Dame nation going, but none like the battle against the Trojans. While it’s been a withstanding rivalry for the Irish, it has possibly been a smaller one for USC before the last two contests – besides the 2005 “Bush Push” game, of course.

Regardless of the win last season, Notre Dame feels that the Trojans still have their number after the eight-game streak and that cloud is still hanging over their collective heads.

Cornerback Gary Gray probably described the game the best this week. And it only took eight words.

"They don't like us. We don’t like them."

8. From Notre Dame's perspective, what are the keys to beating SC?

Arnold: The Irish will win if they can keep their turnovers to a minimum, limit USC's explosive offensive plays, and win the battle at the line of scrimmage. For the first time in a really long time, the Irish have the personnel to do that - it'll just be a matter of executing the game plan. While it's been the Trojans' pass defense that's taking heat, if the Irish can run the ball against the USC front seven, the Trojans are in trouble. 

(Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
(Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
Sapp: Besides the obvious task of limiting Woods to the least amount of production possible because you’re not going to stop him, it’s going to come down to limiting their other weapons even more.

If the Irish defense can effectively locate Wood from snap to snap and have enough support in other areas, then the offense should be able to score points.

The true barometer of any game, and I may be a bit biased as a former collegiate defensive lineman, is in the trenches. The Irish will certainly be battle tested with many of the players in the Trojan defense being recruits that I spoke to during their recruitments when Notre Dame was pursuing them.

9. Who will win Saturday's game between the Fighting Irish and the Trojans? Please include an expected score.

Arnold: I've been shocked to see so many people predict an easy Irish victory. After years of seeing Las Vegas list the Irish as touchdown or more underdogs, it is finally USC that's an 8.5-point dog. I'm not one to make predictions, but the Irish have some favorable matchups on Saturday night. That said, this is a rivalry game that the Trojans can really get up for. If you're pinning me to a score, I'll say Notre Dame 34, USC 24.

Sapp: My prediction in our magazine – Blue & Gold Illustrated – was Notre Dame 24, USC 20, but that was also put in print two weeks before the actual contest.

I can see this one being more of a shootout with the offensive weapons on both rosters and there certainly won’t be a need for any additional gimmicks for the heated rivalry between these two traditional powers.


Follow Keith and Jason on Twitter. Thanks to both for their time!

Reach Aaron by email, or follow him on Twitter.

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