We circled October 17th on our calendars immediately following Notre Dame's thrashing of Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl last Christmas. Saturday is the day that Irish fans have been looking forward to all season, a day we will learn just how far Charlie Weis and his crew have progressed.
Everyone is aware that Notre Dame has dropped 7 in a row to Pete Carroll's USC Trojans, only being within striking distance late once in those games. A year ago the Irish dropped a 38-3 contest in the Los Angeles Coliseum, a game Notre Dame didn't pick up a first down until the second half. All signs point to the Irish getting prepared to get run out of their own building, right?
Notre Dame sits as a ten point underdog as I write this, that down a bit from the nearly two touchdown spread the game opened up as earlier in the week. How big of an obsticle stands in the way of an Irish victory on Saturday?
Notre Dame Defense vs. USC Offense:
We all know the struggles the Irish defense has had this season, stopping the run will be the biggest concern on Saturday. The Irish rank in at 100th overall in team defense, allowing 403 yards per game. On top of that they have been giving up 29.75 points per game since shutting out Nevada in week one.
USC brings a very strong running team to South Bend, averaging 208 yards on the ground per game so far (good for 17th best in the nation). Matt Barkley, despite being a freshman has been no slouch, putting up 958 pass yards in his four starts this season. The only game he missed was on the road against Washington, the only game USC has lost so far this year.
Barkley has led USC to a come from behind victory in Ohio State this year, a game that kept USC unbeaten at the time. Barkley has gone 63/107 this year with three touchdown passes and two picks.
Joe McKnight and Allen Bradford lead the USC running game that has been the USC bread and butter this year. McKnight has scored six touchdowns while going for 473 yards, Bradford also has a touchdown and 183 yards on the ground this year. The biggest thing for Notre Dame will be slowing down USC on the ground this week, if they can't do that then this will not be much of a game.
The Trojans are also no slouch throwing the ball, putting up 222 yards per game through the air. Barkley will look to Damian Williams as his go-to guy, Williams has 24 receptions for 359 yards and a score this year. Joe McKnight often catches passes out of the backfield and USC will use Stanley Havili with regularity as well.
I am aware how bad the Irish pass defense will be but Pete Carroll is smart enough to make sure the Trojans use their strong point, not only the Irish weakness. Slow down the run and Notre Dame will be in business, I will take my chances against a freshman quarterback on the road (even if he has already won in Ohio State this year).
Right now Kyle McCarthy leads the Irish with 49 tackles. Part of it is the scheme, sure, but if he leads Notre Dame in tackles on Saturday it will mean USC running backs are constantly getting to the second level and picking up 4 or 5 yards with regularity. If Kyle McCarthy leads Notre Dame in tackles by a wide margain on Saturday, the Irish will be in bad shape.
Notre Dame Offense vs. USC Defense
This is where the flash of the game will be seen. Notre Dame's high powered offensive attack with the punishing defense of USC. Can Charlie Weis crack USC? The Trojans bring a team full of superstars on defense, the Irish will not be able to score with quite the same ease we have seen them do so far this year.
USC has allowed just 238 yards a game this season, over 150 yards less than the Irish have surrendered. The Trojans don't lack talent star-power on defense, even in a year after they lost the likes of Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, and Rey Maualuga who are now getting great playing time on NFL rosters. Despite that this defense is still superb.
We have all heard of Taylor Mays by now, the star safety has 28 tackles and an interception for USC but what other stars do we have to be on the lookout for this Saturday?
Nick Perry leads USC with 6 sacks, the defensive end is having a standout season for the Men of Troy. On the other end Everson Griffen has added 4 sacks and 17 tackels total. Linebacker Michael Morgan has 9.5 tackles for loss which is good enough for 7th best in the entire nation.
We all know what Notre Dame has done with the football this year, whether its Jimmy Clausen's hopeful Heisman Trophy run or the new-found running game that has escaped the Irish for some time now.
Notre Dame doesn't have the same advantage in one-on-one matchups against USC like they have had against most of their opponents this season. USC has a star-studded field on defense and Charlie Weis has his work cut out to try and figure out a way to put up enough points on a team that has only allowed 3 touchdowns all season.
I expect to see some Wildcat formation this weekend but don't expect it anywhere near as often as we saw against Purdue. The Irish may try and get to the line quickly and shift to this set, just to try and create confusion with USC.
The jist of Notre Dame's offense will be in finding Armando Allen through the air and Golden Tate on shorter routes, giving him a chance to catch the ball on the run. USC has better tacklers than Washington had two weeks ago but this will very likely be the best chance the Irish have to put together scoring drives, find the teams biggest playmaker and find him enough to open up the threat of Kyle Rudolph.
This is a huge game for both teams, if USC can run the table they may have a chance to still play for a national title. Notre Dame is looking to get back to the BCS for the first time since 2006, this win would put them in great position to do just that.
It won't be easy, I don't suspect a shootout either. Notre Dame will change their defense to try and force the Trojans to throw more and beat ND through the air. I don't expect Jimmy Clausen to have a great game, simply because almost nobody would at the collegiate level against this USC defense.
Logic tells me that until Notre Dame can stop someone, they won't be able to compete with best teams in the nation. My heart tells me this is the week Jon Tenuta steps up the scheme and figures out a way to slow the Trojan running game and Charlie Weis finds holes up and down the Trojan defense and ND wins going away.
As much as I hate to, I have to go against my heart...
Nick (4-1) Says: USC 31 Notre Dame 14
Mark (4-1)Says: USC 27 Notre Dame 17