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November 24, 2006

Game of the Week: Notre Dame at USC

"We just don't have enough skill for 5 wide. I think many of you will be surprised when ND beats SC using a more conservative game plan. Short passes and screens will open up the run just enough to win. D Walker will have a surprisingly good game. We will beat SC, and look like the better team on the field."
-- markleh on the The Four Horsemen Lounge message board on IrishIllustrated.com.

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Southern California coach Pete Carroll refuses to stage an open campaign for a spot in the national title game.

"We don't have any control other than the ability to win over what's going to happen in the next couple of weeks," Carroll said. "So I'm not going to set our sights and our goals in that matter because it's not up to us. It's up to the system to choose us to be in the championship game. If that happens, that happens."

Carroll won't need to plead his team's case if the Trojans make a convincing enough statement on the field.

USC currently holds the No. 3 position in the Bowl Championship Series standings, but the Trojans likely would leapfrog Michigan and take the No. 2 spot by beating No. 5 Notre Dame and UCLA in their final two regular-season games.

If history offers any indication, the Trojans should win each of the next two weeks to earn the right to face No. 1 Ohio State in the national championship game. USC has beaten Notre Dame four consecutive times and has won its last seven meetings with UCLA.

Then again, the Trojans won't be the only team at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum this weekend that still has dreams of a national title.

Notre Dame hopes a one-sided victory over USC will earn the Irish a shot at the national championship, even though Irish coach Charlie Weis admits the odds are against his team.

"I'd say you'd need to have a very, very convincing win to even get into the discussion," Weis said.

The long-shot possibility of a national title isn't Notre Dame's only incentive.

Notre Dame's seniors don't want to leave school without a victory over the Trojans. The Irish made that clear last week when senior quarterback Brady Quinn led the fans' chants of "Beat SC! Beat SC!" after a 41-9 victory over Army.

The Irish also want to avenge last year's heartbreak. USC escaped Notre Dame a year ago with a thrilling 34-31 victory only after Matt Leinart dove into the end zone in the final seconds with help from a Reggie Bush push.

"Everyone's kind of had this game in the back of their minds the second half of the season," Notre Dame defensive tackle Trevor Laws said.

Notre Dame returned the nucleus of the team that played in the 2005 classic, while USC had to replace Leinart, Bush and many other players who helped the Trojans play for the national title each of the last three years.

Yet the Trojans still enter this game as a seven-point favorite to continue their recent mastery of Notre Dame.

Both teams have potent offenses. Quinn has set almost every career passing record at Notre Dame and likely will finish second to Ohio State's Troy Smith in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Quinn engineers an offense that has averaged 36 points per game during its current seven-game winning streak.

"He's a classic thrower," Carroll said. "He's got a strong arm. He's got good feet. He has vision down the field. He's resourceful. He's hard to sack, hard to get down because he's such a good competitor and such a good natural athlete. He shakes guys off and finds a way to make another throw or another play of it when he gets hit in the backfield.

"You can pull out the New England Patriots film and see him make the same kinds of plays that Tom Brady makes."

Southern California is nearly as explosive as Notre Dame while averaging 31 points per game. The Trojans boast arguably the nation's best receiving duo in Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, though Notre Dame could make its own case with the tandem of Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight.

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The difference between these two teams is on the other side of the ball.

Notre Dame ranks 44th in the nation in total defense and 47th in scoring defense. USC is 11th in scoring defense and 21st in total defense.

Since falling to Oregon State in their only loss of the season, the Trojans have allowed a total of 19 points in their last three games.

"They have talent all the way around the board, but we do too," Notre Dame tailback Darius Walker said. "This will definitely be a good one."

USC is playing well enough to return to its familiar spot near the top of the polls.

But this time USC isn't at the No. 1 spot, which leaves the Trojans trying to figure out all the possibilities that can get them into the national title game.

Carroll doesn't want to bother with all the mathematical formulas that will land USC at the No. 2 spot in the final BCS standings. He just wants to add up the score at the end of the day Saturday and know his team tallied more points than the Irish.

"I don't know how to figure the thing out," Carroll said. "We're going to play these games, and at the end of it we're going to have a chance to have an extraordinary season. If that's worthy of the selection process for the BCS game, then we'll pack up and go."

Week 13 Game of the Week: No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 3 Southern California
Notre Dame running game vs. USC run defense: Walker struggled to find running room during the first half of the season, but the junior tailback has now rushed for at least 100 yards in five of his last seven games. He has been particularly impressive the last two weeks while gaining a total of 315 yards and scoring three touchdowns. Then again, those two performances came against Air Force and Navy. Walker faces a much tougher test Saturday. The Trojans are yielding just 3 yards per carry this season and have allowed only one player Oregon State's Clinton Polk to rush for 100 yards against them. Edge: USC.
Notre Dame passing game vs. USC pass defense: Quinn has thrown 21 touchdown passes and only one interception in his last seven games. Although tight end John Carlson is expected to miss Saturday's game with a knee injury, Quinn still has two star wide receivers in Samardzija and McKnight. The wideouts have combined for 1,655 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns this season. The Irish have struggled to protect the passer at times this season and will have to watch out for Lawrence Jackson The USC defensive end has recorded four sacks in his last two games. USC has 10 interceptions while allowing only eight touchdowns passes this season. Cal QB Nate Longshore completed less than half his passes and was intercepted twice by USC last week. Edge: Notre Dame.
USC running game vs. Notre Dame run defense: An ankle injury will prevent Emmanuel Moody from playing this weekend, which leaves C.J. Gable and Chauncey Washington as the Trojans' main rushing threats this week. Gable started the season opener and then tumbled down the depth chart before reasserting himself with a 91-yard effort against Cal last week. Washington had rushed for 119 yards and three touchdowns against Oregon the previous week. Notre Dame struggled to stop the run early in the season, but the Irish are allowing just 2.9 yards per carry in their last six games. The battle in the middle of the line featuring Southern California C Ryan Kalil and Notre Dame DTs Derek Landri and Trevor Laws carries plenty of intrigue. Edge: Even.
USC passing game vs. Notre Dame pass defense: This is the game's biggest mismatch. Notre Dame is ranked 81st in the nation in pass-efficiency defense and doesn't have enough talent in the secondary to contain a star-studded USC receiving corps. Trojans wideouts Jarrett and Smith have combined for 1,484 yards. USC QB John David Booty[/db] is no Leinart, but the first-year starter has thrown six touchdown passes and only one interception during the Trojans' three-game winning streak. Notre Dame DE Victor Abiamiri will have to put plenty of pressure on Booty to take some of the heat off the Irish cornerbacks. Edge: USC.
Notre Dame special teams vs. USC special teams: Notre Dame's kicking problems have developed into a major concern. Carl Gioia has missed two extra-point attempts and had two other PATs blocked in Notre Dame's last two games. Gioia also is only 1-of-4 on field-goal attempts from at least 40 yards. Irish punter Geoff Price is averaging 45.7 yards per attempt. Notre Dame's Tom Zbikowski returned a punt for a touchdown against USC last year. USC's Mario Danelo is 12-of-13 on field-goal attempts, though he's only 1-of-1 from at least 40 yards. USC punter Greg Woidneck averages 38.8 yards per attempt. Edge: USC.
Notre Dame coaches vs. USC coaches: The one-sided nature of this rivalry ended as soon as Weis replaced Tyrone Willingham as Notre Dame's coach. After getting blown out by USC each of Willingham's three years at Notre Dame, the Irish came excruciatingly close to knocking off the Trojans last season. In the end, however, the Trojans still won the game. That's the difference between the two coaching staffs at this point. Weis' presence makes Notre Dame fans confident the Irish eventually will win high-stakes games against top-flight opponents. Carroll's staff already has accomplished that. Weis' reputation as an offensive guru and Carroll's status as an outstanding defensive mind make this one of the most interesting coaching matchups of the season. Edge: USC.
Notre Dame will win if: The Irish need to establish some sort of ball-control offense by combining Darius Walker rushes with a flurry of short passes. The best way to take the pressure off Notre Dame's defense is by keeping it on the sidelines. On defense, the Irish have to put pressure on Booty early and often.
USC will win if: Notre Dame has struggled this year when its offensive line fails to create running room for Walker or give Quinn time to throw. If USC's defensive line outperforms Notre Dame's offensive line, the Trojans should beat the Irish.
X-factor: Notre Dame WR David Grimes. Samardzija and McKnight deservedly receive most of the attention, but Grimes has developed into an effective secondary option in the Irish passing game. The sophomore caught eight passes for 79 yards in a come-from-behind victory over UCLA last month and added three catches for 72 yards and a touchdown against North Carolina the following week. Grimes caught five passes for 56 yards against Army last week. Now that John Carlson's knee injury has left the Irish without a proven receiving threat at tight end, the Irish need someone who can keep opposing defenses from focusing entirely on Samardzija and McKnight. Grimes is the most likely player to emerge as that complementary receiver.
Notes: USC is ranked third and Notre Dame is sixth in the latest Associated Press poll. The last time these two teams were ranked so high by the AP at the time of their game came in 1988, when the top-ranked Irish beat the second-ranked Trojans 27-10 on their way to a national title. USC owns a 19-0 record in November games during Carroll's six-year tenure. USC has scored at least 20 points in an NCAA-record 62 consecutive games. Notre Dame leads the all-time series 42-30-5, though USC has won the last four meetings. USC leads 19-17-14 in games with the Irish at Los Angeles. USC has won a Pac-10 record 32 consecutive home games. A win over USC this weekend would give Quinn 30 career victories as a starting quarterback, which would break the school record of 29 that he shares with Tom Clements (1972-74) and Ron Powlus (1994-97). If the game comes down to a USC kick, the Trojans better look out for Notre Dame's Derek Landri. The senior defensive tackle has blocked three extra-point attempts and one field goal this season.
Megargee's pick: USC, 38-28
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: USC, 31-28
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Notre Dame, 28-17
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: USC, 34-31
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