October 16, 2009

Game 6: Up Around the Bend

Game 6: Up Around the Bend

USC heads to Notre Dame, where an inspired Irish team awaits. Do Charlie Weis' boys have enough to pull off an upset and stop the Trojans' seven-game streak?

The USC Trojans (4-1, 2-1 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 5 in the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 6 by the Associated press, travel to South Bend, Ind., on Saturday, October 17 to face the No. 25 (AP/USA Today) Notre Dame Fighting Irish (4-1) at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) in historic Notre Dame Stadium and in front of a national NBC television audience. It is the 81st meeting in the storied series between college football's greatest intersectional rivals, with Notre Dame holding a 42-33-5 edge. The Trojans have won the past seven meetings by an average score of 41-14, including a 38-3 victory in the Coliseum a season ago and USC's 38-0 win in its last South Bend visit in 2007 - the Trojans' largest margin of victory ever against the Irish and first shutout at ND since 1933.

Both teams enjoyed a bye week last Saturday. Two weeks ago, the Trojans jumped to a 20-0 halftime edge on the way to an impressive 30-3 destruction of then-No. 19 California in Berkeley. True freshman quarterback Matt Barkley threw for 283 yards, junior RB Joe McKnight rushed for two scores, and junior receiver Damian Williams returned a punt 66 yards for a TD, while the USC defense held the Golden Bears to a fourth-quarter field goal. In its last outing, also on October 3, Notre Dame came from behind to defeat Washington, 37-30, in overtime in South Bend. The Irish defense came up huge, turning away repeated Husky scoring attempts inside the five-yard line in the second half, while junior QB Jimmy Clausen and junior receiver Golden Tate combined for an historic passing performance.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his ninth season at USC (92-16), having led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Notre Dame headman Charlie Weis (33-22) is in his fifth season in South Bend. After a pair of BCS bowl appearances in his first two seasons, Notre Dame and its legion of fans suffered through a 10-15 record in 2007 and 2008. Weis began the season squarely on the hot seat, but a solid start, featuring a series of heart-stopping victories the past three games, has turned the burner down just a touch.

One reason for that has been the turnaround seen thus far by an Irish offense that had been anywhere between anemic and inconsistent the prior two seasons. The maturation of Clausen has helped the Irish average 322 passing yards per game, and an improved rushing attack has lent balance. However, the ND defense - even with its impressive performance on the goal line against UW - has continued to be a work in progress, allowing more than 400 yards per game. The Irish could easily be 5-0 - but they could also very easily be 1-4 if not for some late game heroics in recent weeks. Can ND's defense slow down USC's attack enough to allow its potent counterparts on offense a puncher's chance on Saturday?

Notre Dame Offense
After the struggles of the past two years, Weis turned to the man he trusts the most as the Irish's new offensive coordinator - himself (Mike Haywood was relieved of coordinator duties after four seasons in South Bend). Thus far, it's hard to argue with Weis' results. Beyond the huge passing numbers put up by Clausen so far in 2009, Notre Dame is averaging nearly 150 rushing yards per game - a huge improvement over the past two years. Under Clausen, the Irish have given up only five turnovers this season and are holding the ball for more than 32 minutes per game - that's great ball control, especially considering that ND is also a quick-strike threat, as Clausen is not shy of looking for the long ball. The ever-hyped Clausen has blossomed in 2009, completing more than two-thirds of his passes, averaging 309 passing yards per game and throwing 12 TDs with just two interceptions.

Notre Dame's passing attack has even survived and thrived after losing its top threat, Michael Floyd, to an injury in the season's third game. Floyd had caught 13 balls for an average of more than 27 yards and five TDs in two-plus games. However, Tate has stepped up big, shredding the Washington defense two weeks ago. He has 33 grabs at an 18.2 yards-per average and four scores. Senior Robby Parris, junior Duval Kamara and freshman Shaquelle Evans have combined for 21 catches from the receiver position, but Clausen's No. 2 target nowadays is clearly sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has 21 grabs himself, three for TDs.

Also popular in the passing game is the Irish's leading rusher, Armando Allen. He has 10 catches to go along with 386 yards rushing in four games. He missed the Purdue game with an injury, but returned to limited duty against Washington and should be good to go full speed on Saturday. The speedy junior is far and away Notre Dame's biggest threat in the backfield - he had 139 yards rushing in a loss to Michigan and 115 in a win over Michigan State. Burly junior Robert Hughes is ND's sees most of the carries as Allen's No. 2, while senior James Aldridge returns to action Saturday, listed as the starting fullback. Notre Dame has also mixed Tate into the running attack fairly regularly, especially in a variation on the popular Wildcat formation. Sophomore Jonas Gray may also see a carry or two, while senior FB Bobby Burger is likely the Irish's best lead blocker.

ND's offensive line has had a much better 2009 than years recently passed. Led by senior RT Sam Young and the return of senior LT Paul Duncan, a 2007 starter who missed all of 2008, the Irish have allowed just nine sacks through five games - a far cry from 2007-2008 results. At the same time, the senior-laden group is also improved in run blocking. Senior Chris Stewart, who started at RG in 2008, has handled a shift to LG well thus far, allowing last season's LG, Eric Olsen, to shift to center for his senior campaign. Last season's starting center, senior Dan Wenger, has been effective in a utility role at guard and center. Only sophomore RG Trevor Robinson entered 2009 without starting experience - and he may have the highest ceiling in the group.

Notre Dame Defense
Defensive coordinator John Tenuta's unit entered 2009 breaking in new starters throughout the front seven, and with questions in the secondary that precipitated the move of 2008 starting LB Harrison Smith to free safety for 2009. Predictably, the Notre Dame defense is seeing some serious growing pains. Playing out of a 4-3 set and featuring a high-risk blitzing style, the Irish have forced nine turnovers, but have only nine sacks. They aren't especially effective on third down, allowing a near 40-percent conversion rate, and teams are rolling up more than 263 passing yards and almost 140 rushing yards against ND.

Up front, the Irish returned starters in nose tackle Ian Williams and defensive end Kerry Neal, both juniors. The Notre Dame front four is slightly undersized in the middle, but Williams has been joined by sophomore Ethan Johnson at tackle, who has been solid so far, with 16 stops and was especially good against Washington. Sophomore Kapron Lewis-Moore has taken over one end spot, and is the leading tackler up front with 17, including three for loss. Neal has lost his starting job to senior John Ryan. Both rotate, and have combined for 20 tackles and two sacks. Depth is an issue here, and this group can be worn down with a successful ball-control attack.

Junior Brian Smith is the leader of his unit (he's played both on the weak side and in the middle and should start Saturday at the MIKE position). He has 26 tackles, while senior Toryan Smith has 14 stops, a sack and a fumble recovery. On the strong side, sophomore Darius Fleming has shown flashes of brilliance, with seven tackles for loss, but is also prone to freelancing himself out of position. He missed the Washington game with an injury but is expected to be at full speed on Saturday. Prized freshman Manti Te'o saw his first extended action against Washington and impressed, notching 10 tackles from the weak side, and may make his first start Saturday. Senior Scott Smith also provides depth on the strong side.

The Irish secondary features three of the team's top four tacklers to date (which may or may not be a good thing). Senior strong safety Kyle McCarthy is tops with 49 stops and three interceptions - as well as being the group's emotional leader. Harrison Smith has taken well to his shift to free safety, notching 32 tackles. Sophomore cornerback Robert Blanton has shown signs of emerging, with 22 tackles and an interception. Senior corner Darrin Walls has returned to the Irish lineup after missing 2008. He started 11 times in 2007, and took over for last year's starter, Raeshon McNeil, also a senior. Reserve safeties Sergio Brown and Ray Herring, both seniors, as well as sophomore corner Jamoris Slaughter, also rotate in.

Notre Dame Special Teams
Freshman placekicker Nick Tausch has solidified the Notre Dame kicking game. Tausch is 10-of-11 on field goals thus far, including making all three of more than 40 yards. He's also part of why the Irish are holding teams to just 21 yards per kickoff return. Punting has been a different story, as freshman Ben Turk has stepped to the top of the depth chart, ahead of returning starter Eric Maust, a senior. The Irish are averaging just less than 40 yards per punt, but opponents are averaging more than 24 yards per return. Tate is a threat as the punt returner, though he hasn't gotten loose so far in 2009. Freshman Theo Riddick handles kick returns, with some help from senior Barry Gallup, Jr.

USC Offensive Gameplan
The rapid maturation of Barkley continued at Berkeley. The Trojan offensive playbook cracked open a few more pages, and the freshman quarterback looked more than capable of handling it. Aside from a few missed throws that could have led to USC touchdowns rather than field goals, the Trojans were effective moving the ball through the air and on the ground. McKnight responded well to an expanded workload after the loss of Stafon Johnson to a freak weightlifting injury.

Looking at the match-up of Trojan offense vs. Irish defense, USC's speed remains the big difference. While Notre Dame's defense has performed well in the red zone - a concern with the Trojans' struggles there in recent weeks - it has been victimized time and again by opposing teams' athleticism both through the air and on the ground. The Irish rank No. 100 in total defense and No. 110 in pass defense - unimpressive considering the quality of the offenses they've faced thus far. They have been able to force key turnovers, but with USC's skill players and powerful offensive line, turnovers appear to be absolutely crucial to any Notre Dame hopes of consistently slowing the Trojan attack.

Similar to Cal's defense - a much faster and more athletic group - Notre Dame appears most vulnerable to intermediate passing routes, from the sidelines to crossing routes in the middle of the field. Notre Dame's speed is suspect in the back seven, and they've had trouble getting pressure on quarterbacks without extensive blitzing - a staple of Tenuta defenses. Look for the Trojans to come out throwing, with Williams and his cohorts at the receiver position (welcome back, Ronald Johnson) getting the most early targets they have seen so far in 2009. If the weather sours, the Trojan rushing attack should also be more than capable against the Irish's undersized and not overly athletic front four. Unless Notre Dame is successful in confusing Barkley with blitz packages, or unless the Trojans turn the ball over extensively as they did in Seattle last month, USC should be able to score in the 30s - at least - once again in South Bend.

USC Defensive Gameplan
Speaking of maturation, Clausen has come into his own thus far in 2009, racking up huge passing numbers and making magic happen late in the past three Irish victories. As with any moderately successful ND quarterback, Clausen is now getting mention in the Heisman Trophy conversation. At the same time, the Irish have finally had some moderate success running the football for the first time in years - and Weis' adoption of a "Wildcat" package has helped out.

However, this USC defense has continued to get better with just about every game. Not only do the Trojans lead the nation in sacks, but they also rank in the national top 10 in just about every key defensive category (they are No. 25 in pass defense, but No. 8 in pass efficiency defense). The biggest surprise has to be the restructured front seven, which has been simply dominant thus far. This does not bode well for the Irish - the Trojans have notched 11 sacks against ND in the past two meetings, and have held the Irish to 98 total rushing yards in those games.

The Irish will come out throwing. But they will also look to continue their ball control efforts that have been so successful thus far. Weis remembers the game plan in 2005 that almost helped ND pull out a classic victory - stick with the run, even if it's not working, to make USC respect it, and then use the pass to keep drives alive. Notre Dame will try a similar game plan this weekend - with a few more deep looks thrown in to take advantage of Clausen and Tate's working rhythm. Will it work? That 2005 USC defense was a much younger, weaker and injury-riddled group than the current Trojan unit. If the Irish don't shorten Clausen to more three- and five-step drops this week, and instead maintain the vast usage of deeper dropbacks and slower developing pass plays, the Trojan defensive line could have another field day in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus.

The Pick
The Irish and their fans are as inspired as they've been coming into a USC game since the 2005 showdown. The feeling is that the Notre Dame magic has returned, with the Irish running off a string of exciting victories, led by a charismatic quarterback. With how the past two seasons have gone, you can't blame them for being thrilled with their 4-1 mark so far.

However, the reality is that a string of last second wins against the likes of Michigan State and Purdue really aren't that impressive. Yes, I know USC lost at Washington. Any simpleton can point to that - and ND's overtime win a week ago - and make the basic "We won, you lost" analogy. However, all it takes is one viewing of each game to understand the differences in performance that occurred. UW blew the game at Notre Dame almost as badly as SC blew the game up in Seattle.

Come Saturday, none of this will matter. When those two teams take the field in South Bend, the buzz is like almost nothing else I've ever experienced in sports. Both teams will be focused and amped. If the Irish magic really is back, then look out for another 3-4 turnover performance from USC, followed by a career-defining performance from Clausen. I do expect the Irish to have some success with their passing attack, but I don't believe they will be able to ball-control the Trojans to death. Barring an unexpectedly poor performance in a big game by USC, expect the Trojans' decided advantage in athleticism and defense to be the difference.

USC 34, Notre Dame 17

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.



 

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