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November 23, 2012

Game 12: 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling'

Game 12: 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling'

Can No. 1 Notre Dame finish the script-flip its performed on unranked USC by toppling the Trojans and heading to Miami?

The USC Trojans (7-4, 5-4 in the Pac-12) wrap up their disappointing 2012 regular season against the consensus No. 1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (11-0) at 5 p.m. (PST) on Saturday, November 24 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ABC television audience. The 84th meeting in college football's greatest intersectional rivalry is also Notre Dame's first visit to Los Angeles as the nation's top-ranked team since 1988 (a 27-10 Irish win over then-No. 2 USC). The Irish hold a 43-35-5 edge over USC in the series, but the Trojans have won nine of the past 10 meetings, including last season's 31-17 victory in South Bend - Notre Dame's first home night game in 21 years. However, USC fell to ND, 20-16, in rainy Los Angeles in the previous Coliseum meeting in 2010.

Last Saturday, the Trojans again doomed their own cause with unforced turnovers and poor special teams play, falling behind 24-0 in an eventual 38-28 loss to crosstown rival UCLA. The Trojans rallied to trail 24-20 early in the third quarter and 31-28 midway through the fourth quarter, but weren't able to overcome solid performances by Bruin QB Brett Hundley and TB Johnathan Franklin. Meanwhile, the Irish overwhelmed Wake Forest, 38-0, in South Bend - ascending to No. 1 in the BCS later in the evening when Kansas State and Oregon were upset by conference rivals Baylor and Stanford, respectively.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (32-17 career collegiate head coaching record; 25-11 at USC) is in his third season at USC. 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 third year in South Bend, but in his 22nd season overall as a head coach (198-67-2 overall; 27-10 at Notre Dame). Kelly took Cincinnati to unexpected heights in recent years before leaving the Bearcats for the Irish in December 2009. While Kelly's Irish have improved in each season, ND's run to the top as the 2012 regular season comes to a close was wholly unexpected. But a stellar defense has carried the Irish to a series of close victories, and Notre Dame has performed its best against key opponents, including an OT victory against Stanford and a road win at Oklahoma.

Notre Dame Offense
Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin (who moved over from defense prior to the season) oversee an offense that's not been asked to do much more than manage games and capitalize on the opportunities the Irish defense gives them. That's not to say there's not talent here - Notre Dame's veteran offensive line has been strong, while a platoon of running backs and receivers have taken turns making plays. The Irish rank 33rd nationally in rush offense, averaging just more than 200 yards per game, and 50th nationally in total offense, with nearly 420 yards per game. Redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson has grown on the job, utilizing his athleticism early on to overcome his learning curve in the passing game. He's completing 59 percent of his passes, with 11 TDs and five interceptions, and had his best outing throwing the ball last Saturday. He's also ND's fourth leading rusher with 258 yards and five TDs. Junior Tommy Rees is familiar to Trojan fans after starting the last two USC-ND games, and Kelly's not afraid to put him in for a series or two.

Senior Theo Riddick has had great success in 2012 switching from wideout to running back, leading a three-headed monster at the position for the Irish. ND's single-back set has created the room the speedy Riddick's needed to be effective, and he has gained 734 yards on the ground, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, with four TDs. He's retained his pass catching skills as well, ranking third on the team with 32 receptions, with one score. Junior Cierre Wood remains a powerful 1-A option for the Irish, averaging 7.1 yards per carry on his 102 totes (4 TDs). Sophomore burner George Atkinson III, who USC fans will remember for his kickoff return TD a season ago against the Trojans, is also averaging 7.1 yards per carry on 49 opportunities and is tied with Golson for the team lead in rushing TDs with five.

The Irish have mixed solid experience with youthful athleticism in their receiving corps in 2012. Junior wideout TJ Jones and senior tight end Tyler Eifert are tied for the team lead with 40 receptions and four receiving TDs, with both averaging at least 13 yards per catch. Eifert is the Irish's money player on third down and in the red zone. Senior slot receiver Robby Toma has also performed well, catching 22 passes. The loss of DaVaris Daniels to a broken collarbone against Boston College left the Irish without a key downfield threat. Sizeable targets John Goodman and Daniel Smith have been used sparingly, but three of Goodman's six catches have resulted in TDs.

Up front, an experienced group has done well opening holes for the ND rushing attack and has allowed just 15 sacks on the season. Three returning starters - junior left tackle Zack Martin, junior left guard Chris Watt and senior center Braxston Cave - have been joined in each contest in 2012 by sophomore right tackle Christian Lombard and senior right guard Mike Golic Jr.. It's a group that's gained more cohesion as the year's gone on, and they present the strongest straight-ahead physical challenge to the Trojan defensive front since the Stanford game.

Notre Dame Defense
Prior to the 2012 campaign, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco added assistant head coach to his title and was joined by cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks as co-defensive coordinator. All they've done is put together the best ND defense in a generation. Beyond their national statistical rankings - No. 1 in scoring defense (10.1 points per game); No. 5 in rushing defense; No. 6 in total defense; No. 11 in pass efficiency defense; No. 13 in sacks - there are plenty of astounding numbers. Notre Dame's defense has allowed eight touchdowns in 2012, including only two rushing scores. The Irish have allowed just seven TDs (and 11 field goals) in 29 red-zone opportunities for their opponents. In 105 different drives started more than 60 yards from the end zone, ND opponents have scored one touchdown. Following a turnover by the Notre Dame offense, the Irish defense has forced as many turnovers (3) as they've given up touchdowns. Seven Irish opponents have failed to gain 100 yards rushing. Nine of ND's 11 opponents have fallen 100 total yards short of their season averages against other opponents. Finally, the Irish have allowed 35 total points in five games away from Notre Dame Stadium, winning each game by 15 points or more.

It starts up front with an active group led by athletic sophomore Stephon Tuitt and long-time starter Kapron Lewis-Moore, a senior, at ends. Tuitt's 12 sacks rank him fourth nationally, while Lewis-Moore counts 4.5 sacks among his 34 stops. Junior nose guard Louis Nix III is the group's leading tackler, with 42, and has been a rock in the middle. Depth is provided by freshman end Sheldon Day (20 tackles, two sacks) and redshirt freshman Tony Springmann, who is capable both at end and in the middle.

The big story, though, is at linebacker where senior insider Manti Te'o has forged a Heisman-caliber season on defense. Teo's 98 tackles leave him two shy of becoming only the second Notre Dame player in history to record three 100-tackle seasons (Bob Crable, 1979-81). His six interceptions lead all linebackers nationally and are tied for second overall. The heart and soul of Notre Dame's 2012 renaissance also has 5.5 tackles for loss and a pair of fumble recoveries. Next to him, two juniors - Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese - have teamed well. The duo has 100 tackles and four tackles for lost split almost evenly. On the outside, junior Prince Shembo has excelled as an attacker, notching 10 tackles for loss (including seven sacks) among his 43 stops. Across the way, junior Danny Spond has seen most of the action and has 36 tackles..

The Irish secondary started the year with plenty of experience at safety but a little green at corner. An Achilles injury to strong safety Jamoris Slaughter in the season's third week forced redshirt freshman Matthias Farley into action, but he's done rather well (34 tackles, one key INT against Stanford) in teaming with senior free safety Zeke Motta, the group's leader. Motta is second on the team with 56 stops. At corner, junior Bennett Jackson has been very solid (55 tackles, four interceptions), while true freshman KeiVarae Russell became the first Irish rookie to start at the position in school history. He's performed well enough to hold that spot all season, with 47 tackles and an interception. There's not a ton of experienced depth behind this group, which leads to some intrigue against USC's star receivers.

Notre Dame Special Teams
Sophomore placekicker Kyle Brindza handles PATs (25-of-26), field goals (18-of-25, with a long of 47) and kickoffs. He's been generally solid and has plenty of leg. Senior punter Ben Turk is having his best season yet for the Irish, averaging 40.3 yards per boot. Freshman receiver Davonte Neal has been unspectacular as a punt returner, averaging 2.4 yards on 18 opportunities, while Atkinson hasn't been as spectacular on kick returns as he was in 2011, averaging just 20.5 yards per attempt.

USC Offensive Gameplan
When a team commits 16 turnovers in four games without any apparent hope for change in sight, that ridiculous lack of execution begins to reflect on the coaching staff's preparation. When a team's running back is in the midst of averaging 7.7 yards per carry, yet said team throws six consecutive passes on a pair of three-and-outs midway through the third quarter of a four-point game, that lack of recognition reflects on the coaches' strategic capabilities. When those things happen to coincide with a game against a hungry and suddenly capable rival, it helps lead to things like "UCLA 38, USC 28."

The Trojans' apparent slumber through the game's opening 22 minutes, where a pair of giveaways by Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee put an already struggling USC defense in short-field situations, was just USC's latest poor start on offense (see: 14-0 Utah; 10-0 Arizona; and 21-3 Oregon). With Barkley now out of this Saturday's game with an injured shoulder (Has anyone told Kiffin that Barkley's down yet? Or is he still looking intently at his play sheet?) and only USC's horrifically conservative and inept performance against Notre Dame two seasons ago in much the same situation to learn from (but with a fifth-year senior backup quarterback, rather than a redshirt freshman like this week's starter Max Wittek), does anyone really know what to expect from USC's offense?

In a normal situation, you'd expect Kiffin to ease Wittek into the role, while leaning on the hot Curtis McNeal in the running game. However, with ND's rush defense so stout, that appears to be a rather ugly option. The improved Irish secondary still appears to be the team's weakest defensive link - as it has been for much of the past decade or so. Wittek has exuded a quiet confidence since arriving on campus and, based on interviews so far this week, doesn't appear ready to shrink from this moment. Fans who stuck it out in the Rose Bowl rain to the end last week saw glimpses of his very strong arm, and the sizeable kid is apparently pretty mobile, too. Will Kiffin give him a shot to make something happen in a true "nothing-to-lose" scenario for USC? Or will the Trojans try to surprise the Irish as they did a season ago by going directly to the running game early on? It'll be intriguing to find out.

USC Defensive Gameplan
The Trojan defense was put in a pair of bad situations early by USC offensive mistakes a week ago against UCLA. However, the USC 11 did itself no favors throughout most of the game, especially on a number of third (and fourth) and long conversions by the Bruins. There were times the Trojan defense looked so helpless in stopping Shaq Evans and Joseph Fauria near the sideline 15-20 yards downfield, you'd have thought UCLA had invented the deep corner route last week in a laboratory. And when the Trojans had a chance to make a game-turning stop trailing by three in the fourth quarter, UCLA went 83 yards like a hot knife through butter to salt the game away (mmm, Thanksgiving).

The most frustrating thing about the Trojan defense is the clear abundance of playmakers in each and every position group. The Trojans rank fourth nationally in sacks, feature a pair of playmaking outside linebackers and, arguably, the Pac-12's top cornerback and safety. Yet, with all that, USC's defense often appears to lack a killer instinct, especially on those key drive-stopping plays that - somehow, someway - seem to always end with an opponent's player wide open in space. (Yes, in case you're wondering, I'm pointing out the strategic shortcomings of this current Trojan coaching staff yet again).

That said, the Notre Dame offense is the least accomplished that USC has faced since mid-October. Neither Notre Dame's personnel or scheme measure up to the Pac-12's best, and USC is capable of playing well against much more explosive offenses (see Arizona State two weeks ago). Notre Dame wants to run the football, period. The Irish are averaging 235 yards rushing in its last seven games, struggling only against Stanford (150 yards on 44 carries). USC must load up to stop the run and try to make a play against the still not-overly-accurate Golson in the passing game. If the Irish are able to rush the ball effectively from the get-go, it will be a long night for Trojan fans.

The Pick
This year's matchup, going in, has to feel good for Irish fans everywhere. So many times in the past decade, it's been the highly ranked Trojans facing a so-so group of Domers, giving ND boosters little reason for realistic hope. But, in 2012, it's Trojan fans who are pointing to things like 1964 and 1980 (major Trojan upsets of undefeated Notre Dame teams in the regular season's last game at the Coliseum) in search of hope, rather than looking intently at the current teams on the field.

There's one difference, though: the talent and speed gap which has favored USC throughout that past decade, while not as drastic as it has been in some seasons, still favors the Trojans. Yes, even with young Wittek at quarterback, the Trojans still have the better athletes almost across the board. The difference this year is what Kelly's done with his Irish troops compared to what Kiffin's done with his Trojans.

But, while physically, there's a much better hope for a Trojan upset in this contest than many Irish fans want to believe, in the end, you have to look at the results - both in wins and losses and in who has made the key plays at the key times (and who hasn't). Notre Dame is a disciplined, hard-hitting football team that hasn't made a lot of mistakes on offense (only 14 turnovers committed in 11 games; USC's committed more in the past four, and that was with a senior at quarterback) and has performed spectacularly - especially in the biggest moments - on defense all season. While the Trojans certainly have a puncher's chance on Saturday night, USC's penchant for mistakes at the worst times on both sides of the ball means the Irish's dream season is likely to end in Miami - not Los Angeles.

Notre Dame 23, USC 14

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 12 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@me.com or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)


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