USC Football: Notre Dame Preview and Analysis
USC (5-1) travels to South Bend, Ind. to face hated nemesis Notre Dame (4-2) in the latest edition of the Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.
The Trojans finally started playing better defense last week, defeating Cal 30-9 on Oct. 13 in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish are coming off their bye week, most recently blasting Air Force 59-33 two weeks ago.
What to Watch For:
After winning eight contests in a row against the Irish from 2002-2009, the Trojans’ luck finally ran out last year, when they lost 20-16 in heartbreaking fashion. With Matt Barkley sidelined by a sprained ankle, USC was driving for the go-ahead touchdown, but receiver Ronald Johnson dropped a sure touchdown from Mitch Mustain with just over a minute left.
The game left a lasting mark on both schools.
ND coach Brian Kelly saw his first season on the job go from near-disastrous to moderate success, all because he ended the losing streak to the Trojans. And Lane Kiffin calls the game the most heartbreaking of his head coaching career. He says it’s not being used as motivation for this year, but we all know better than to believe that.
This will be the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium in 21 years, which means the crowd will be electric. If there are a lot of false starts, you’ll know why.
Athletic director Pat Haden has a unique perspective of this rivalry, having spent many years around both programs. The fact that his return to the Cardinal and Gold took him out of the Notre Dame broadcasting booth makes it all the sweeter.
Haden also said that this rivalry isn’t as intense as it used to be. Which will inevitably make it ultra-intense this year, because no one wants to show that they’ve gone soft on the enemy.
Despite sporting a 5-1 record, the Trojans are unranked in the AP Poll, the first time that a USC team with the same record has been unranked. It is also just the 10th time that both schools enter the matchup unranked. That won’t last long though, because the winner will be ranked by the end of the weekend.
The injury bug finally caught up to USC last week, as Marc Tyler, Marqise Lee and Anthony Brown were all forced out of action against the Bears. Tyler (shoulder) and Lee (shoulder) will likely play against the Irish, but Brown broke his ankle and is out for the rest of the season. The Trojans need to stay away from the trainer’s table this week.
Speaking of which, Notre Dame is infamous for having grass that rivals the rough at any golf course. This not only diminishes the Trojans' advantage in the speed department, but also increases the likelihood of injuries when players get their feet caught in the mess. Somewhere, Desmond Reed is nodding his head and cursing the Irish grounds crew.
When USC is on Offense:
Barkley didn’t play terribly against Cal, tossing two touchdowns without a pick. But he wasn’t particularly sharp either, completing just over half his throws and missing open receivers on a number of occasions.
Barkley’s struggles resulted in a poor day for Robert Woods too. Woods finally showed he was human, making five catches for just 36 yards without a score.
In response to this, the pair spent extra time after practice working on their timing and connection, just as they had done over summer. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if both of them have monster games. Barkley in particular is ready to air it out against Notre Dame, since this may be his final game against the Irish.
If Lee is as healthy as he says he is, the receiving corps will be fine. But in case he is less than full strength, Brandon Carswell and Brice Butler have proved they can make plays when called upon. We might even get a Kyle Prater sighting if we’re lucky.
The USC receivers will be challenged by corners Gary Gray and Robert Blanton. The duo has performed well so far this year, picking off a pair of passes each. They are joined in the defensive backfield by safety Harrison Smith, the multi-year starter who sealed
With Tyler hampered by a bum shoulder, Curtis McNeal appears to be first in line to receive the majority of the carries. The resilient junior has crept up the depth chart and is second on the team in rushing, with 289 yards on an impressive seven yard average.
Tyler insists he’ll be ready to carry the ball if needed, and George Farmer will surely get more opportunities to showcase his world-class speed as long as he can hold on to the football--not a given, as we saw last week. Consider this an APB for Dillon Baxter, who has officially gone missing from the Trojans' offense.
The biggest change since the departure of Charlie Weis has been the improvement of Notre Dame’s defensive front seven. A lot of this improvement can be attributed to the maturation of Te’o, who has proved to be every bit as good as advertised.
He leads the Irish in tackles by a wide margin, and paces the team in sacks with four. He’s like Vontaze Burfict, minus the personal fouls and nonsense. Khaled Holmes will have to make sure he identifies Te’o on every single snap, or something bad is likely to happen to Barkley.
The rest of the unit has gotten tougher as well. Thanks to a stacked class of defensive end recruits, the Irish can throw a number of pass rushers out against the Trojans, including freshman phenom Aaron Lynch. Notre Dame has 15 sacks on the year.
USC’s offensive line didn’t yield a sack against Cal, but the Bears were able to get consistent pressure on Barkley, which contributed to his less-than-stellar performance. The protection needs to improve this week.
When Notre Dame is on Offense:
The Irish entered the season with a bit of a quarterback controversy, but that quickly fixed itself when Dayne Crist got chewed out on national television. Tommy Rees has proved to be pretty effective leading Notre Dame’s offense, averaging over 250 yards a game through the air. But he has been prone to throwing picks in bunches, something the Trojans will need to key in on.
For the first time in a long time, the Irish have a reliable running back they can hand off to. It’s just an added bonus to Notre Dame that they were able to snag him out of So Cal. Cierre Wood was heavily recruited by USC out of Santa Clara High in Oxnard, but chose not to join the Trojans’ crowded backfield. The junior has rushed for 650 yards and six touchdowns.
Coming off a down performance against Arizona, USC’s defensive line amped up the intensity against Cal. They were able to get consistent pressure on Bears' quarterback Zach Maynard, picking up three sacks in the process.
The good news this week is that Rees is not at all a threat to take off and run, so if they can get past his protection it shouldn’t be too hard to corral him. Nick Perry leads the line with four sacks, and is looking more and more like a first round pick.
The bad news is that the Irish operate out of the spread a lot, which means there are going to be a lot of quick, safe throws. And it’s not easy to get good pressure on the quarterback when he doesn’t have to hold onto the ball that long. This is why Notre Dame has only given up five sacks on the season.
No Trojan faces a tougher assignment than Nickell Robey. As the No. 1 corner, it’s his primary responsibility to guard Michael Floyd, who dwarfs him by seven inches and 60 lbs. With Brown and Torin Harris unavailable, Tony Burnett and Isiah Wiley will also get their shots at the senior, who has 53 catches for 639 yards and four touchdowns.
USC will actually have to account for the opponent’s tight end this week. Tyler Eifert is the first real threat at the position the Trojans have faced this season. One of Rees’ favorite targets, the rangy Eifert has 32 catches for 363 yards and three touchdowns on the year.
This responsibility likely falls into the capable hands of strongside linebacker Dion Bailey, who finally showed off the coverage skills that made him such a prized safety recruit, snaring two picks off Maynard last week. Well on his way to a number of Freshman All-American honors, Bailey has become the unit’s best playmaker with less than a year of experience under his belt.
There are a lot of reasons to pick Notre Dame. Their defense is statistically better. Not much, but better. The offense is just as good as USC’s, again when you look at the numbers. And they are playing at home in front of a crowd that is going to be rocking.
But I won’t be picking them this time. There may come a day when I am forced to pick Notre Dame over USC. But that day hasn’t come yet.
First of all, it’s always a good bet to take the better quarterback when the rest of the matchup is fairly even. And Barkley is better than Rees, without question.
Kiffin wants this one badly, and his players know it. I’m sure extra work went into his game planning, and his intensity will rub off on the rest of the team.
Finally, USC has Matt Kalil and Notre Dame doesn’t. It may sound ridiculous, but I’m convinced he is going to save the game again. It might be in the second quarter, or it might be the last play of the game. Four blocks in six games is not a fluke.
USC wins, 31-28. Just add it to the growing list of classic games between the schools in the past decade.
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