The Irish aren't exactly streaking into this game. They have lost three out of four, nearly losing a couple of weeks ago to Navy for the second straight year. Last weekend, they embarrassed themselves with a home loss to 2-8 Syracuse, the first loss ever by a Notre Dame squad to an eight loss opponent. The offense, which was hot in the middle of the season, has gone into the tank. The defense has improved from last season, but they haven't exactly played a Murderers' Row schedule worth of offenses, with only one previous opponent (Pitt) ranking in the top half of the country in both total and scoring offense. Do they stand a chance of even making this game close? Here's a look at the match-ups.
Notre Dame Offense vs. USC Defense
After some early season struggles, the Notre Dame offense started to click in the middle of the season, as wide receivers Michael Floyd and Golden Tate became integrated into the scheme, and QB Jimmy Clausen became comfortable with throwing some select routes. Clausen has great physical ability, and is a smart kid. He is as good at throwing the fade route as any QB I've seen, and he likes to throw the eight yard slant and the twelve yard out as well. He does a great job at throwing the ball away when there is nothing there and he's out of the pocket. He has several times this season been able to check down at the last minute to make something out of nothing.
Something happened at halftime of the North Carolina game though. At the half, Clausen was 16 for 21 with 199 yards passing and two TDs. In the second half, the Tar Heels mixed in a lot of three man rushes, dropping eight guys. Clausen struggled, throwing a couple of INTs, one which was returned for a TD, and losing a fumble. The Irish squandered a 17-6 lead and eventually lost. Before that second half, Clausen was 120-191 for 1447 yards, 14 TDs and 6 INTs. That's a QB rating of 144.4. After halftime of that game, he is 118-202 for 1289 yards, 6 TDs and 9 INTs for a QB rating of 112.9. That is a dramatic decline.
The problem with Jimmy is not that he's a bust, it's that he is only a sophomore. He has vastly improved at several parts of his game over last season: accuracy, getting the ball out quickly, checking down. He's just not yet at the stage of development where going through the reads comes naturally to him. He is currently a one read or check down QB, which is not uncommon for true sophomores, especially those that were bludgeoned in their freshman year.
He is the least of Notre Dame's problems on offense. The running game is the problem. The Irish don't do anything special with their running game. It consists of inside and outside zone rushing, mostly outside, with the occasional misdirection counter handoff here and there, which we'll probably see more than usual. A couple of times in the past few weeks, ND has shown the Wildcat offense with RB Armando Allen in the McFadden position. It has not been successful.
The Irish have a pretty good stable of running back in Allen, James Aldridge, and Robert Hughes. Allen is especially a playmaker, a guy who reminds me of a poor man's Reggie Bush with his running style. But Notre Dame's problem is that they don't block. Their offensive line hasn't improved at all when it comes to getting a push for the ground game, and it hasn't helped that true freshman tight end Kyle Rudolph is a terrible blocker because he's so light. The off the field issues of TE Will Yeatman, who is suspended, have really hurt them there.
The Irish are 91st in the nation in rush offense at 119 yards per game. That may look like a big improvement over last year's 75 yards rushing per game. It is and it isn't. The difference is that the Irish gave up 58 sacks last season, and only 16 so far this year. Some of that has to do with better pass blocking, some of it with Clausen getting the ball out quicker. But the running game is no better. Take out the 482 yards that ND rushed for against the horrendous rush defenses of Navy and Washington, and you're down to 92 yards per game.
The inability to run the ball has forced the Irish to lean on Clausen. The good news early was that Clausen is a talented player, and he has great targets in Floyd and Tate. Clausen likes to throw the ball up the field, and is good at it. Once North Carolina adjusted by doing less blitzing, dropping more men in coverage and forcing Clausen to go through the reads, and other teams followed suits, the offense struggles. This type of defense has also neutralized ND's effective screen game, because they are not being blitzed like they were before, and that blitzing often creates open space on the outside. The way that an offense should combat that is by gashing the defense with the running game, but the Irish aren't capable of it, and their opponents know it.
Add the injury of Floyd in the Navy game, which will keep him from playing against the Trojans, and the Irish lose Clausen's favorite target: a big kid who adjust to the ball very well and who is a tough match up for a CB.
This offense reminds me of some of John Robinson's offenses in his second tour at SC. Talented skill guys. A QB who is good enough to win with. Finesse offensive line who can pass block but can't run block. The lack of a running game making the offense predictable, restricting it to a few bread and butter pass plays that any defense can diagnose and minimize. As a result, Saturday could be the last time you see Charlie Weis on the Notre Dame sideline.
Notre Dame Defense vs. USC Offense
Because of the fact that Notre Dame has faced a bunch of mediocre to poor offenses, it's hard to tell whether their improved numbers mean a better defense or just better numbers. They brought in long time Georgia Tech DC Jon Tenuta to help them incorporate an all out zone blitz scheme, but then realized that they didn't have the kind of defensive linemen necessary to run it. They call their defense a 3-4, but it's really more like a 4-2-5, which is what they ran under Rick Minter. LB Toryan Smith lines up with a hand on the ground on the weak side on every play. Harrison Smith plays at a LB spot on the line on the strong side on most plays, and he started the season as a free safety on the depth chart.
Whatever the alignment is, the scheme is simple: confuse the QB, overwhelm the running game with bodies. They blitz and stunt from all angles and all positions. They don't zone blitz as much as past Tenuta teams, but they'll mix it in there. They are better against the run than they were last season, but that's not saying much. They do play assignment football better than they did last season though, and that was apparent in comparing this year's performance against Navy to last year's. Generally, the problem with this scheme is that it's high risk/high reward and this year, it hasn't paid off when it comes to sacking the QB. The Irish only have 16 sacks this season, which is not even on pace to match last season's paltry number of 19.
Still, the Irish have given up fewer yards and points this season by a wide margin, which is counterintuitive considering that they blitz a lot and don't get sacks. They do get some pressure though, and have caused balls to get thrown early. Their secondary is pretty good as well. That combination has meant that opponents have only completed 51% of their passes, and thrown only ten TDs. They have clearly improved their run defense as well despite the loss of Trevor Laws to graduation. You can only attribute that to good coaching, because with the exception of the injured Brian Smith, who will not play, the Irish front seven is basically devoid of talent, which is why they don't get many sacks.
Again though, the question becomes whether ND has those numbers because they are good or because their opponents stink. The only top 25 pass efficiency team ND has played is Navy, who has thrown the ball 74 times all year. The only other top 50 team is North Carolina, who averages a shopping 25 attempts per game. None of ND's other opponents is even in the top 70!!! The average pass efficiency ranking of ND's opponents 86th in the nation. SC is ranked 9th.
This Notre Dame team is not very good. Their 6-5 record has actually been inflated by an incredibly easy schedule. Probably the best team that they've played is a Michigan State team that got murdered by Ohio State and Penn State. After that Pitt? BC? North Carolina? San Diego State, Michigan, Purdue, Washington, and Syracuse are brutal, and that's almost half the schedule. Navy lost to Duke and Ball State and should have lost to Temple. Despite the schedule, the Irish only have six wins, and their record could be worse.
This is not going to go well for Notre Dame. Teams that don't run the ball don't stand a chance against SC unless they make the game a low scoring defensive struggle, and the Irish likely don't have the capacity to do that against a good offensive line. Syracuse had 170 yards rushing against the Irish, and my guess is that the Trojans top 225. Meanwhile, Mark Sanchez will have time to make the throws, and the Irish have not faced a team with close to elite level skill position talent this season.
I'll leave you with some thoughts on Charlie Weis. I think Weis is a good play caller, and a great recruiter. I think he knew he would be good at those things coming in, which is why he entered the season with a lot of bluster in the press conference introducing him as the ND coach. What Weis has learned is that player development is far more important in college than it is in the NFL. Guys get to you in the pros as near finished products at most positions, meant to be fine tuned and unleashed. In college, you get high school kids with all difference levels of coaching coming in, and they all need to be developed. Weis has not been able to do that.
People would say that Tyrone Willingham left Weis with next to nothing for these past two seasons, and they would be right. But Notre Dame has good enough talent to beat every team on this year's schedule, except USC. They are a little light talent wise on the defensive line, but they could have easily gone 8-4 or 9-3 with this group if their talent had been developed from year one of the Weis regime to now. It has not been. That's why whether Weis is fired this season or not, it's only a matter of time before he is gone. And it's why this team doesn't have any more of a prayer against SC than last year's team did. All the teams that have defeated SC since 2002 have maximized what they have, whether they were the powerful Kansas State team of 2002, or the lowly Stanford team of last season. Does a team that lost last week to 2-8 Syracuse have a shot at maximizing their talent this week? I haven't seen anything all season, from a tight game with an awful San Diego State team to start the season to a crushing loss last week on Senior Day, that would lead me to believe that they can do it.
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