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USC Football - Ten Things We Learned At Notre Dame

Johnie Freatman |
October 25, 2011 | 5:11 p.m. PDT

Associate Sports Editor


Starling's fumble recovery for a touchdown epitomized the improvement of the USC defense. (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
Starling's fumble recovery for a touchdown epitomized the improvement of the USC defense. (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
In the words of Lane Kiffin himself, USC’s resounding win over Notre Dame Saturday was the biggest of the Kiffin Era. Here are ten takeaways from a game that could change the complexion of this entire season.

10. One of the biggest takeaways is, well, USC’s newfound ability to force takeaways.

For the second straight week, USC’s defense rose to the occasion and made big plays that turned the tide of the game, forcing three pivotal second half turnovers. Both Notre Dame fumbles may have been self-inflicted but SC’s will to win was evident in both of them. While the rest of the players momentarily stood around in confusion, Chris Galippo alertly ran to recover a lateral that initially appeared to be a forward pass.

While everyone will remember the image of Jawanza Starling running down the field with nothing but green grass in front of him, a touchdown wouldn’t have been possible had a teammate not batted the ball away from Dayne Crist and toward Starling.

9. Once the most questioned unit of this USC team, the secondary stepped up with a truly remarkable performance Saturday night. 

The players kept everything in front of them and prevented Notre Dame from the long pass plays that have become a staple of the Irish offense. Potential All-American wide receiver Michael Floyd was bottled up all night and could only muster a season-low four catches and 28 yards against the suffocating coverage of Nickell Robey, who spots Floyd seven inches in height. Linebackers Shane Horton and Dion Bailey did an outstanding job in coverage filling in for the injured Torin Harris and Anthony Brown.

This overall performance is even more improbable given the utter lack of pressure the defensive line could generate. On most plays Irish QB Tommy Rees had plenty of time to go through his progressions, yet was constantly forced to throw the ball away or settle for dumping it down to a tailback.

8. You know Robert Woods is pretty darn good when he has a “quiet” 12 catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns, including a highlight-reel, game-sealing TD grab. 

Much of the attention has been given to the revamped running game while performances like this are quickly becoming expected of the dynamic Woods, who clearly showed who the best receiver in this rivalry is.

7. Just when Marc Tyler’s health is sounding the alarm bells about the ground game, Curtis McNeal delivered a game to remember. 

Perhaps just as important as the actual production by McNeal is the manner in which he did it. The 5-foot-7, 180-pounder just simply wouldn’t go down, playing until the whistle on every play and routinely dragging Notre Dame defenders for extra yardage. While his 128 yards can be quantified, what can’t be is the emotional lift his display of “heart” gave the team. Assuming Tyler is healthy, SC has now found a formidable 1-2 punch out of the backfield.

6. The importance of having a healthy Andre Heidari can’t be overstated. 

The complexion of USC’s offensive approach totally changed after Heidari’s injury. Instead of likely getting three points, USC had to punt from just beyond the Notre Dame 30 on one possession. On another, with USC up seven, Matt Barkley went for Robert Woods in the end zone on a third and eight from the ND 14. Though Woods made the diving catch, the aggressive play call was necessitated by the fact that a field goal (and easy route to a two-possession lead) wasn’t probable.

In order to beat Stanford, USC will need to take advantage of all their scoring opportunities and stay within their offensive flow, which is easier when the sure-footed Heidari is healthy.

5. Matt Barkley has matured to the point where he can beat teams without putting up huge passing numbers. 

Though it was a very efficient passing night from Barkley, he showed his complete repertoire of skills. On multiple occasions, he evaded would-be tacklers and scrambled for first downs, something he didn’t do much of his freshman year.

Most importantly, Barkley’s much-improved decision making was on full display. Instead of forcing the issue like he did in the past when a play wasn’t there, Barkley was content to throw the ball away. Oh yeah, he threw a pretty sweet block too.

4. The potential recruiting implications. 

One of the most talked-about aspects in the week leading up to the game was the abundance of recruits in attendance for Notre Dame, many of whom are also considering USC. They were left with a pretty resounding impression of USC football Saturday night and it will be interesting to see what Arik Armstead, among others, decides to do.

3. Lane Kiffin gets a signature win and shows he belongs as USC’s head coach. 

After a largely tepid response from many USC fans in his first two years, Kiffin’s coaching performance Saturday should, at least temporarily, silence his detractors. His gameplan on both sides of the ball worked to near perfection. In establishing the run early and often with McNeal and Tyler, Notre Dame was off-balance all night defensively and couldn’t commit to the pass or run, leaving them susceptible to the many play-action passes Kiffin would eventually call.

On defense, his personnel maneuvering turned a patchwork secondary into a force. With many questioning what he would do with only two healthy contributing cornerbacks, he employed nickel and dime packages with linebackers Dion Bailey and Shane Horton, no doubt throwing Notre Dame off-balance and ultimately stymieing Rees and the rest of the Notre Dame offense.

2. The tide has officially not turned in the USC-Notre Dame rivalry. 

After Notre Dame’s victory in Los Angeles last year and the sanctions USC is still embroiled in, some thought the pendulum was about to swing in the Irish’s direction. The Las Vegas oddsmakers that made Notre Dame a nine-point favorite may have subscribed to this idea. Though Notre Dame does possess a lot of talent and many are optimistic about what Brian Kelly can achieve there, there’s no questioning USC’s ability of late against their rivals. They have now won nine of ten against the Irish and 11 of 12 against UCLA heading into a matchup next month with the struggling Bruins. Rick Neuheisel, beware.

1. This is the most exciting time for USC football since “The Drive” against Ohio State early in the 2009 season. 

After six games of not knowing the real identity of USC, this version should make fans very excited. The fact is, SC dominated in all phases of a game that much of the country was watching. The program has flown under-the-radar for most of this season and the national media is now taking notice, with College Gameday returning to USC for Saturday’s game against Stanford.

This is a perfect opportunity for the program to knock off a national championship contender and show that not even the sanctions can threaten their status as a national power.


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