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November 26, 2010

Game 12: USC vs. Notre Dame Preview

Game 12: For the Boys March at Dawn, From the South to the North, Led by Kelly, the Boy from Killanne!

College football's greatest intersectional rivalry returns to the Coliseum as USC seeks its ninth consecutive win against Notre Dame.

The USC Trojans (7-4, 4-4 Pac-10) play their final home game of 2010 this Saturday, November 27, against their traditional rivals, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (6-5) at 5 p.m. (PST) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a regional ABC television audience. It is the 82nd meeting in college football's greatest intersectional rivalry, with the Irish holding a 42-34-5 edge. However, the Trojans have won the past eight meetings, including a 34-27 victory in South Bend a season ago, and a 38-3 dismantling of the Irish in the last Coliseum meeting in 2008. In those eight consecutive victories, USC's lowest point total was 34 (in 2005 and 2009) and the Trojans' average margin of victory was 24.5 points.


A week ago, the Trojans were thoroughly embarrassed in a 36-7 defeat at Oregon State. USC was never in the game after failing to convert a fourth down opportunity deep in Beaver territory on its first drive. The Trojans trailed 20-0 at the half and saw quarterback Matt Barkley suffer an ugly high ankle sprain right before halftime, putting his availability for the season's final two games into question. Meanwhile, Notre Dame's defense allowed just a single field goal for the second consecutive week as the Irish upended Army, 27-3, at Yankee Stadium in New York. The victory guaranteed bowl eligibility for Notre Dame, even though the injury-riddled Irish offense continued to struggle for consistency since the loss of quarterback Dayne Crist to a knee injury against Tulsa on Oct. 30.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (14-10 career collegiate head coaching record; 7-4 at USC) is in his first season at USC, after serving as the head coach at Tennessee in 2009. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Notre Dame headman Brian Kelly is also in his first year in South Bend, but in his 20th season overall as a head coach (177-62-2 overall, 6-5 at Notre Dame). Kelly took Cincinnati to unexpected heights in recent years before leaving the Bearcats for the Irish last December. He seems like a great fit for Notre Dame's future, but the lingering effects of the Charlie Weis Era - especially on defense - have left the Irish dangerous but inconsistent.

Notre Dame Offense
Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, who came to ND with Kelly from Cincinnati, installed a more wide open, three-wideout, single-back set that looked especially strong during the season's opening weeks. However, as the Irish began facing better defensive teams and losing key players at a rapid pace, Notre Dame has been unable to maintain consistency, especially in the running game. The Irish rank 98th nationally in rushing, averaging just 118.5 yards per game. The passing attack has been more successful, ranking 27th in the country, even with the midseason loss of Crist. That's thanks to freshman Tommy Rees, who has started the past two games (and played the bulk of the game against Tulsa when Crist went down). Rees has thrown for eight touchdowns in those three games (four against Tulsa, when he completed 33-of-54 passes with three interceptions). The Irish have been much more conservative in their game planning the past couple weeks, however, rushing the ball 67 times and passing only 40 in wins over Utah and Army, protecting the young Rees. They'd like to do the same this week, certainly, but whether they can will depend on the success they have running the football.

Injuries have also affected Notre Dame's receiving corps, but a key factor is that junior star Michael Floyd has stayed healthy in 2010. Floyd is averaging 13.4 yards on his team-leading 62 catches, with nine TDs. He's big and fast - a threat on the deep ball and a physically imposing threat in the red zone. The team's next two reception leaders, sophomore wideout Theo Riddick (38 catches) and junior TE Kyle Rudolph (28), have each missed the past four games (Rudolph's missed five) with injuries, with Rudolph out for the season and Riddick still questionable for Saturday. John Goodman, Robby Toma, TJ Jones and Duval Kamara are contributors on the outside, combining for 58 catches and five scores. Sophomore Tyler Eifert took over for Rudolph at tight end and has 20 catches, two for scores.

The Irish also lost their top running back, when senior Armando Allen suffered a season-ending hip flexor injury against Navy. He's still ND's leading rusher, with 514 yards and had also caught 17 passes. Sophomore Cierre Wood took over for him and has been decent, averaging a very similar 4.7 yards per carry and catching 18 passes (he has four total TDs). Thumping senior Robert Hughes has seen limited duty in an offense not designed for a player of his style.

The injury bug didn't wait for the season to kick off to strike the Notre Dame offensive line, as senior center Dan Wenger suffered a season-ending injury before the games began. The Irish offensive line has failed to consistently open holes for its rushing attack, but has allowed a serviceable 19 sacks. Senior left guard Chris Stewart is the leader with 33 career starts. Senior right guard Trevor Robinson has 25 career starts. The tackles are sophomore Zack Martin on the right side and senior Taylor Dever on the left, while junior Braxston Cave filled in for Wenger at center.

Notre Dame Defense
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has to be wondering whether his defense has grown up the past two weeks, or if the six points allowed to Utah and Army combined is a mirage based on struggling opponents. After allowing nearly 400 yards and 25 points per game in the first nine games of 2010, the Irish have allowed just 439 total yards and six points in the past two. Has a team that had struggled to stop the run up front and seemed to be running in molasses in the secondary through September and October really flipped a switch? That's what we'll find out on Saturday when ND's 3-4 defense takes the field against an opponent that has simply lit it up the past eight years.

Up front, junior ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore have stepped up of late, especially since the loss of starting nose guard Ian Williams in the Navy game. Johnson is second on the team with five sacks and Lewis-Moore is the defensive line's top tackler with 51 stops (two sacks). Junior Sean Cwynar took over for Williams in the middle and has been serviceable with 30 tackles. Key reserves in the rotation include senior Emeka Nwankwo at end and junior Hafis Williams, who can plug in at any spot on the line.

Notre Dame's linebacking corps is led by sophomore insider Manti Te'o, one of the top LBs in the nation. His 118 total tackles rank him 13th nationally, and his 21 tackles against Stanford are tied for the single-game high in 2010 (Luke Kuechly of Boston College). He's a true sideline-to-sideline player - speedy and a big hitter. Senior Brian Smith stepped back into the starting lineup three games ago after sophomore Carlo Calabrese was injured. Calabrese is back, so expect the pair to split time on Saturday. Calabrese is ND's third-leading tackler with 58 stops. Outside, senior Kerry Neal and junior Darius Fleming have had their moments. Fleming leads the Irish with six sacks, while Neal has 35 tackles.

The Irish secondary is led by senior safety Harrison Smith, whose 81 tackles are second on the team. He's also tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) with senior cornerback Darrin Walls, who has 38 stops. Senior Gary Gray (53 tackles) starts at the other corner with junior Robert Blanton (39 tackles) seeing plenty of time in the rotation at corner and in the nickel. Sophomore Zeke Motta starts at the other safety spot, with junior Jamoris Slaughter also playing a role there.

Notre Dame Special Teams
Senior placekicker David Ruffer has made all 20 field goal attempts in his Irish career, including 15-for-15 in 2010 - the only kicker in the Football Bowl Subdivision to remain perfect this season. He also handles kickoffs. Sophomore punter Ben Turk averages 38.3 yards per boot, with 22 of his 58 kicks being downed inside the 20. The Irish return teams have not been much of a weapon, as receiver Goodman averages just 1.4 yards per in his 11 punt returns (Blanton has returned a pair of punts in 2010, for a much more impressive 13.5-yard average), while running back Wood and freshman wideout Bennett Jackson handle kickoff retuns and are averaging just over 21 yards per chance between them.

USC Offensive Gameplan
Based on what we saw from Corvallis last weekend, I could have left this space blank last week and come closer to figuring out what USC was trying to accomplish against a below-average Oregon State defense. After an opening drive that mixed things up well until USC failed on a fourth-down opportunity inside the Beaver 30-yard line, the Trojans' playcalling and execution were timid and missing, respectively. When Barkley went down, senior reserve quarterback Mitch Mustain struggled in the second half, but it seemed as if USC waved the white flag in its first offensive series of the second half.


With Barkley doubtful (Thursday's practice reports said that he took some reps and is a "game-time decision), it appears Mustain will make his first start at USC in his final home game as a Trojan. The offense received a couple of boosts when it was reported that Marc Tyler is healthy enough to start and that Dillon Baxter was deemed eligible to play after paying $5 to a charity in the most celebrated golf-cart controversy since the filming of "Caddyshack." This is the ND defense's first real test in weeks, and I expect them to come out looking to pressure the quarterback, whether it's Mustain or Barkley in the backfield.

So, what to expect? Does anyone remember the last attacking 3-4 defense that visited the Coliseum? The Cal Bears, who nearly ended Oregon's magical season two weeks ago, were thoroughly exposed by USC's offense on Oct. 16, as the Trojans rolled up 42 first-half points. I'm not saying that will happen Saturday night, but I expect a very similar offensive gameplan to the one used against Cal. USC will likely come out throwing the football to test ND's linebackers and secondary. USC has out-athleted Notre Dame each of the past eight seasons, and the matchup that's always meant the worst for the Irish has been the Trojan passing attack against what has been a slow-footed ND secondary. Expect Robert Woods, Ronald Johnson and other USC receivers to get an early workout in this one.

USC Defensive Gameplan
Though the Trojans were throttled in Corvallis, statistically the USC defense didn't play that poorly. The USC offense gave up one of Oregon State's TDs, and the fact that it couldn't stay on the field nor effectively move the ball helped put the Beavers in great position to score time and again. USC held OSU to three field goals on drives that earlier this season would have likely ended in an opponent's touchdown. Oregon State had just 328 total yards, but that was more than enough to put up 36 points with the opportunities it was given by USC's poor offensive effort.

Against the Irish, USC's focus should be putting heat on Rees. The ND rushing attack has struggled all season and though Wood is a decent back, the USC front four should be able to control the line of scrimmage when the Irish want to run the football. Rees, though green, is capable of big things as his seven TD passes against Tulsa and Utah attest. But he's also prone to be forced into mistakes, as his three key interceptions in that Tulsa loss also show.

Expect USC to show different looks and bring blitzes from various spots in order to confuse Rees. The Irish's biggest playmaker is Floyd, and Rees will look for him and tight end Eifert in a pinch. Get the heat on Rees, limit Floyd (easier said than done with how the Trojan secondary has played in 2010), and don't let Notre Dame's running attack get any kind of flow going.

The Pick
This is the first time since 1941 that a USC-Notre Dame game has featured first-year coaches on both sidelines. It's also only the ninth time in the poll era that USC and Notre Dame are both unranked as they face off. While I am certain that the TV talking heads will talk - at length - about the "luster" being off the rivalry, anyone who's ever been to an SC-ND showdown can tell you that the luster is really never off when the ball is kicked off and these two teams line up across from one another.

Anyone who expects the same USC team to show up on Saturday night that showed up in Oregon a week ago is deeply confused. I expect a tightly focused and very fired up Trojan squad to take the field on senior night at the Coliseum. Let's face it, in a probation season that has seen four losses already, what defines "success"? It's pretty clear that the answer will come on the fields of downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena the next two weekends.

The first part of the answer should be a positive one. Though it will be interesting to see how the Kelly Era plays out in South Bend - and I, for one, expect it to play out pretty well - the Trojans still have an athletic advantage over the Irish that is definitive. Mustain will find Woods and Johnson running much more freely than they did a week ago, and the USC defense will do enough to slow down Rees and Floyd. By 9 p.m. Saturday, I expect to be able to add Mustain to a list that reads Otton, Fox, Palmer, Leinart, Booty, Sanchez and Barkley - Trojan quarterbacks who've defeated the Irish in the past 15 seasons.

USC 27, Notre Dame 17

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 10 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. You can follow him at https://twitter.com/THrants or he can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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