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October 18, 2013

USC vs. Notre Dame preview

Game 7: 'Gonna Have Myself a Big Time, Again Tonight'

Records be damned, it's another classic prime-time showdown between the Trojans and Irish in South Bend. Whose season will move forward with higher hopes?

The USC Trojans (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12 South) renew college football's greatest intersectional rivalry when they face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (4-2) on Saturday, October 19 at 4:30 p.m. PDT at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind., and in front of a national NBC television audience. It's the 85th meeting in the storied series, with the Irish holding a 44-35-5 edge, including wins in two of the past three games. A season ago, Notre Dame frustrated a Matt Barkley-less USC offense in a 22-13 victory at the Coliseum - the Irish's second straight win in Los Angeles. In the most recent South Bend meeting, however, the Trojans won their fifth straight visit to ND, toppling the Irish 31-17 in 2011.

A week ago Thursday, a reinvigorated group of Trojans rode a 28-3 first-half run to an eventual 38-31 victory over Arizona in interim coach Ed Orgeron's debut following the Sept. 29 dismissal of Lane Kiffin. The USC offense, under the direction of Clay Helton, showed excellent balance and a more daring streak of playmaking than under Kiffin, while the defense's solid three quarters were nearly derailed by a number of missed assignments that allowed Arizona to close within a touchdown in the final minutes. Meanwhile, the Irish enjoyed a bye last weekend after a dramatic 37-34 win over Arizona State in Dallas on Oct. 5.

Orgeron, who was in his 11th season as a USC assistant (1998-2004; 2010-13), spent three years as a head coach at Mississippi (2005-07), notching a 10-25 mark. But if he's 2-0 as the Trojans' interim coach after Saturday night, you can expect a groundswell of support from a Trojan fan base itching (perhaps too much) to find out who the next head coach will be. In South Bend, Notre Dame headman Brian Kelly (203-70-2 in 23 seasons as a collegiate head coach, 32-13 at ND) is in his fourth season with the Irish. With his spread attack on offense and a stout 3-4 defense, Notre Dame rode a wave of talent (and some good fortune) to the BCS championship game a season ago before being humbled by Alabama. After losing starting quarterback Everett Golson to poor grades and all-everything linebacker Manti Te'o to the NFL, expectations for the Irish were tempered coming into 2013. Still, Notre Dame remains a solid football team that should be plenty motivated to notch its first home victory over USC since 2001.

Notre Dame Offense
Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin has seen the Irish take a predictable step backwards this season after losing six starters from 2012, including Golson. The Irish are ranked 80th nationally in both total (387.5 yards) and scoring (27.3 points) offense. Worse, Notre Dame is No. 95 in rushing (137 yards per game). The loss of Golson meant the reinsertion of senior QB Tommy Rees at the helm of Notre Dame's version of the spread. Many Irish fans thought they'd seen the last of the inconsistent Rees when Golson took the job in 2012, but he lived to fight another day. Unfortunately, he's pretty much the same old Tommy, completing just 51.7 percent of his passes, with 13 TDs and six INTs - not to mention he's simply not the running threat Golson was. When the Irish need a running quarterback, senior Andrew Hendrix gets the nod. He's rushed six times (for 12 yards) and thrown six passes (completing one) while appearing in five games.

While more than a half-dozen players have started at wideout or tight end for the Irish this season, ND is really a three-headed monster. Senior speedster T.J. Jones leads the group with 33 grabs and is averaging 14.6 yards per. He has four TD receptions, as do junior WR DaVaris Daniels (25 total catches, 15.4) and junior TE Troy Niklas (14 catches, 17.9). Beyond that trio, keep an eye out for sophomore Chris Brown (seven catches) and 6-foot-4 freshman Corey Robinson.

Notre Dame also features a trio of junior running backs who split duty. Trojan fans will remember the big and fast George Atkinson III from his kickoff return for a touchdown in South Bend two years ago. This year, he's the Irish's leading ball carrier (and big play threat), averaging 5.8 yards on 56 carries. He's scored two TDs and also caught six passes out of the backfield. Former Trojan Amir Carlisle has become a dependable all-around option, carrying the ball 38 times and recording seven receptions, while Cam McDaniel is more of an undersized, high-motor thumper who actually leads the Irish with 63 carries.

Along the front five, Notre Dame has started the same crew in all six games this season. The group is led by three returning senior starters from the 2012 squad: left tackle Zack Martin; left guard Chris Wall and right guard Christian Lombard. Junior center Nick Martin and sophomore right tackle Ronnie Stanley have helped out a group that's allowed just four sacks in six games, but the quintet has struggled to find consistency in opening holes for the running game - though the Irish have looked better in the run game against Oklahoma and Arizona State in recent weeks.

Notre Dame Defense
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco garnered interest for a number of head coaching spots after putting together Notre Dame's fearsome 2012 defense and winning the Frank Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach. He returned to the Irish in 2013 - along with eight of his starters. And while the Irish's numbers are off quite a bit so far in 2013, this is still a very capable group - especially against the run out of their 3-4 set. Notre Dame ranks No. 23 nationally against the run, but has struggled mightily against the pass (No. 87 in yards allowed; No. 65 in pass efficiency defense). Much like last year, the Irish are very much an assignment football team on defense and, as such, their tackle-for-loss (28), sack (10) and forced turnover (7) totals are very middling.

Still there is plenty of talent, especially in the front seven. On the line, senior Louis Nix III and junior Stephon Tuitt are the leaders. Nix patrols the inside (20 total stops), while Tuitt is tied for the team lead with 3 sacks and leads ND with 4.5 TFL among his 18 stops. Sophomore Sheldon Day (7 tackles) has started four times at the other DL spot, while senior Kona Schwenke (six tackles) has started three games and rotates in often for Nix.

With a defense designed to funnel rushers to playmaking LBs, the Irish suffered a big loss in the ASU game when middle linebacker Jarrett Grace, who is tied for the team lead with 40 stops, suffered a season-ending broken leg. Grace was becoming a playmaker in the Te'o mold, if not quite in the same talent zone. He's replaced by senior Dan Fox (36 stops, three starts in 2013), who has plenty of experience. At the other inside spot, senior Carlo Calabrese is the team's co-leader in tackles and has also recovered a fumble. Reserve insiders Kendall Moore and Joe Schmidt may see expanded time in Grace's absence. Senior OLB Prince Shembo had a huge game against the Sun Devils, notching a career-high three sacks. He may be the closest thing ND has to a true playmaker at the LB spot. On the other side, freshman Jaylon Smith has been impressive (27 stops) even while going through the expected growing pains.

The Irish have a lot of solid experience at cornerback, but are still seeking the right combination among their inexperienced safeties. Senior Bennett Jackson and sophomore Keivarae Russell both returned as starters at corner in 2013 and give the Irish as good a cover duo as they've had in some time. They've combined for 58 stops (35 from Jackson), while the senior also has a sack, an interception and a forced fumble. At safety, junior Matthias Farley is the statistical leader with 25 tackles and two interceptions. But inconsistency has plagued him, as well as senior Austin Collinsworth (13 stops) and sophomore Elijah Shumate (21 tackles).

Notre Dame Special Teams
Junior Kyle Brindza has added punting to his duties in 2013 and now handles all of the Notre Dame kicking efforts. He's perfect on 16 PATs and has hit eight-of-11 field goal attempts, with a long of 53. He also has 20 touchbacks in 34 kickoff attempts and averages 41.5 yards on punts. Atkinson is a dangerous kick returner, averaging 28.1 yards per attempt. Jones, the wide receiver, handles punt returns and is averaging 10.1 yards in seven opportunities.

USC Offensive Gameplan
How refreshing was that? Passes down the middle of the field? Check. Using the tight ends? Check. Giving talent an opportunity to show itself at all skill positions? Check. Running power plays to the strength of the offensive line? Check. USC's season-best 546 total yards (297 passing, with only two scholarship wideouts available, and 249 rushing, split among five talented backs) against Arizona gave Trojan fans renewed hope for the remainder of the 2013 season. But it wasn't just the play selection or execution - it was also the freedom that the Trojans played with. Sure, there are still things to correct - especially on the offensive line - and depth can still rear its ugly head whenever the Trojans get nicked up. But the performances of QB Cody Kessler, receiver Nelson Agholor, and the Trojans' full stable of tailbacks - now including spiritual leader and thoughtful veteran Silas Redd - bring a renewed optimism.

Adding to that optimism (despite, it appears, losing Tre Madden to a hamstring injury for at least this week's game) is the expected return of wide receiver Marqise Lee from a knee sprain suffered at ASU. Fellow wideout Darreus Rogers also appears set to return, giving Kessler even more options downfield against the Irish secondary. With Notre Dame's strength on defense against the run, having as many healthy receivers as possible will be crucial to the Trojans' hopes on Saturday night.

However, when you dig deeper into Notre Dame's game-by-game stats, you see that those rushing defense numbers have been skewed by a pair of opponents - Purdue and Arizona State - that simply do not run the football very effectively, when they're even interested in trying. Against Michigan and Oklahoma, on the other hand, the Irish gave up 378 total rushing yards, at a 4.7 yards-per-carry clip. Even weak offenses like Temple and Michigan State rushed for nearly four yards per carry. Don't be surprised to see USC give its offensive line and stable of backs the opportunity to establish the running game early on. After all, USC is averaging more than 200 yards per game on the ground - and the Irish are not a big TFL defense. If the Trojans can get positive yards consistently on the ground, it will simply open up the middle of the field for the passing game - where Notre Dame's biggest defensive weakness resides.

USC Defensive Gameplan
After limiting its first four opponents to just 11 points and 13 first downs per game, the Trojan defense has allowed 46.5 points and 25 first downs per game in its last two outings against the read-option oriented attacks operated by the Pac-12's Arizona schools. With the coaching change that followed the ASU debacle, many fans were heartened to see the Trojan defense hold Arizona to 17 points through three quarters on Oct. 10. But some poor coverages and missed assignments led to two fourth quarter TDs by the Wildcats, closing USC's final margin to just a touchdown. Perhaps more alarmingly, the Trojans made heretofore struggling Arizona QB B.J. Denker look fantastic, as the Cats rolled up 508 total yards, including 363 through the air.

Notre Dame's offensive scheme should put far less pressure on the USC defense than what they experienced in the past two games - but this is not the slogging ND offense of old. Kelly's team plays aggressively and has the athletes to take advantage of USC's weaknesses - if Rees is on. That's one reason why Denker's performance was so troubling - prior to facing USC, Denker's numbers were actually worse than Rees'. Now, certainly, the Irish don't have a Kadeem Carey-level player at running back to take the focus off of the QB - but then again, they also tend to favor a more balanced attack from the get go.

Expect the Irish to try to get physical in the running game, seeing their size advantage across the front line. However, don't expect USC to wilt against ND's rushing attack. That leaves it to Rees - and the Irish front five's pass protection. While USC's 19 sacks rank 13th nationally, the Irish have allowed just four sacks all season - No. 5 in the country. While Rees is not a running threat, he can't be allowed to sit back and scan the field. The return of Anthony Brown at corner should help, and if Morgan Breslin is able to be part of what I expect to be a more active rotation along the defensive front, the Trojans could have some success. However, keep an eye on Niklas, the Irish tight end, in the deep middle - where the Sun Devils hurt the Trojans repeatedly. USC must account for him, especially in third-down situations.

The Pick
The more I look at this game, the better I like USC's chances - if the Trojans can avoid turnovers and the coverage breakdowns that helped keep Arizona in the game a week ago. This Notre Dame team is vastly different than the one that visited the Coliseum last November - Rees is a step down from Golson, and the Irish defense isn't quite as stout.

However, the intangibles and history seem to favor the Irish. Let's take a look:
• Notre Dame will be extremely well prepared by Kelly and the team and crowd likely to be even more lathered up due to the Trojans' unprecedented five-game winning streak in the shadow of the Golden Dome.
• Weather could be an issue, as showers are possible (it hasn't rained during a USC-ND game in South Bend since 1999).
• USC has traveled to South Bend with at least two losses 17 times - but has only won twice in that circumstance (the last time was in 1997, coincidentally the first time I traveled to see this game in South Bend).
• Only John Robinson (1976) and Paul Hackett (1998) won their first games as USC head coach against ND - and both of those were in the Coliseum.
• This is only the 11th time USC and Notre Dame have met while both were unranked - the Irish lead 7-3 in that circumstance.

What will it take for the Trojans to win a sixth consecutive game in South Bend? If USC hops on a plane with the Shillelagh Saturday night, it'll be due to consistent running from Redd and Buck Allen, with a possible home run play in the rushing game from Justin Davis. It will also be due to Kessler finding one of the Trojans' superior athletes at wideout for at least one big play. On the other side, USC will thank its defensive front seven for stopping the Irish running attack and forcing Rees into throwing situations, and then getting after him. It will also thank its secondary for fewer coverage mistakes, especially down the middle of the field - and at least one key interception. Doable? Yes. Likely? Ehhhh. I'll say this: if Kiffin were still coaching this team, the Irish would win this one going away. I'll keep on believing in Coach O for at least another week.

USC 24, Notre Dame 23

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 13 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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