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Game 11: There Go The Irish!

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After starting the season 4-1, Notre Dame has – again – fallen on hard times. Will the annual grudge match against USC be an unlikely cure for all that ails Charlie Weis' squad?
The consensus No. 5 USC Trojans (9-1, 7-1 in the Pac-10) host their final home game of the 2008 regular season this Saturday, November 29, facing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (6-5) at 5 p.m. (PST) in the sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ESPN cable TV audience. This is the 80th meeting in the storied series between college football's greatest intersectional rivals, with Notre Dame holding a 42-32-5 edge. The Trojans have won the past six meetings by an average score of 41-15, including a 38-0 victory in South Bend a season ago – USC's largest margin of victory ever against the Irish and the Trojans' first shutout at ND since 1933. In the most recent Coliseum meeting, the Trojans dominated the fifth-ranked Irish, 44-24, in 2006.
USC enjoyed a rare Saturday of rest a week ago after scoring 35 unanswered points to throttle Stanford, 45-23, in Palo Alto on Nov. 15. Troy turned a 17-10 second-quarter deficit into a 45-17 lead (the Cardinal scored a meaningless touchdown on the game's final play) on the strength of a powerful rushing attack that buried Stanford with 243 yards in the second half. Halfway across the country last Saturday, the Irish suffered one of their most embarrassing defeats ever, blowing a fourth-quarter lead to eight-loss Syracuse in a 24-23 defeat. Notre Dame's 14 losses in 2007-08 represent the university's worst two-season stretch in history.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his eighth season (85-15, 56-10 in the Pac-10) having led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Notre Dame headman Charlie Weis (28-20) is in his fourth season in South Bend. Weis brought high hopes to Notre Dame when he arrived four years ago from the New England Patriots, and he delivered a pair of BCS bowl bids in his first two seasons. However, a string of nightmarish performances the past two years has put Weis squarely on the hot seat, according to many around the program, as the Irish make their biennial visit to L.A.
Notre Dame Offense
Offensive coordinator Mike Haywood has been MIA in recent weeks. The official line coming out of South Bend is that he's dealing with family problems. Behind-the-scenes murmurs, however, point to a falling out between Haywood and Weis thanks to play calls that have been changed on the sideline after called down from the box by Haywood. Rumors are flying that Haywood has even interviewed for the Washington head-coaching job. Currently, there's no word on whether Haywood will be in the booth Saturday, but Weis publicly took over play calling duties for the ND offense before the Navy game two weeks ago. Statistically, the offense has improved in 2008, averaging more than 365 yards (No. 57 nationally), almost 250 through the air. Sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen has started all 11 games in 2008 after being battered as a freshman a year ago. He's improved his completion rate to 60 percent and tossed 20 TD passes, but has thrown 15 interceptions.
Clausen has taken advantage of a maturing group of wide receivers to help improve the Irish pass offense. Sophomore Golden Tate leads the Irish with 50 grabs and is a deep threat who averages nearly 18 yards per catch. He's a favorite target on fade patterns in the end zone, and shares the team lead with seven TD receptions with freshman Michael Floyd. Floyd, a true freshman, was the real star of Notre Dame's receiving corps (46 grabs for 702 yards) before going down with a knee injury against Navy. He will not play Saturday. He's been replaced in the starting lineup by senior possession receiver David Grimes, who has 31 catches, but averages only nine yards per. Sophomore Duval Kamara has not been as big a factor as ND hoped, with only 16 catches. Freshman tight end Kyle Rudolph is already a mainstay, with 24 catches and two TDs.
The Irish rushing game is also markedly improved in 2008, but still manages less than 120 yards per contest, ranking No. 91 nationally. In fact, if you take out games against Purdue, Washington and Navy – all either poor rush defenses or immensely undersized – Notre Dame has averaged just 78.5 yards on the ground in its other eight contests. Sophomores Armando Allen and Robert Hughes split time with junior James Aldridge. The speedy Allen has set himself apart as the starter, averaging 4.5 yards on 126 carries. He's also a force as a receiver, notching 45 receptions, good for third on the team. Hughes is a bruiser (237 lbs.), while Aldridge is a combo back – but neither has been all that special. Allen is the real playmaker of the group however.
Though Notre Dame's rushing numbers aren't quite where they need to be for the Irish to compete at the highest level, the ND line has at least been able to maintain continuity in 2008, with four of five spots featuring 11-game starters. The front five has vastly improved in pass blocking, as Notre Dame has allowed just 16 sacks in 2008 after allowing an astounding 58 a season ago. Tackles Mike Turkovich, a senior on the left side, and Sam Young, a junior on the right, have combined for 59 consecutive starts. Left guard Eric Olsen and center Dan Wenger, both juniors, have also solidified their roles. Freshman Trevor Robinson was forced into action at right guard when Chris Stewart, the starter for the first eight games, was injured against Pitt. He's struggled, but will continue to learn on the job Saturday.
Notre Dame Defense
Much like the offense, the Irish defense had a lot of room for improvement coming into the 2008 season. Led by coordinator Corwin Brown and former Georgia Tech defensive guru Jon Tenuta, whose official title is the lengthy "assistant head coach for the defense/linebacker coach," Notre Dame has made a big leap from the lower depths of the Bowl Subdivision rankings to No. 28 in total defense (316.5 yards allowed per game) and No. 31 in scoring defense (20.8 points). The Irish rank No. 14 nationally in pass efficiency defense. Still, ND has struggled against good rushing teams, especially of late. Notre Dame has allowed more than 173 yards per game on the ground in its last four, including 170 rushing yards to Syracuse's previously anemic rush offense. The Irish do like to blitz quite a bit out of their 3-4 set, but have just 16 sacks on the year (only 4.5 from defensive linemen).
Up front, the Irish are led by senior defensive end Pat Kuntz. He has 3.5 sacks among his 37 tackles. Senior Justin Brown mans the other end spot. He's started eight games this season and has 21 stops. Freshman Ethan Johnson has also made three starts and rotates with Brown and Morrice Richardson, a junior. At nose tackle, sophomore Ian Williams has become a mainstay, even though he's struggled at times. He has 37 stops, and plays a vast majority of the snaps ahead of junior Paddy Mullen.
Notre Dame's vocal and physical leader on defense is senior inside linebacker Maurice Crum. He has 62 tackles in 2008 and is the heart and soul of the Irish defense. However, his job got much tougher when fellow inside backer Brian Smith went down for the rest of the regular season with an injury against Navy. Smith had really become a key playmaker for the Irish, with 53 tackles. Junior Toryan Smith took over as a starter against Syracuse and remains in the role this weekend. Undersized sophomore Harrison Smith mans the strongside spot, and he's been decent, notching 49 tackles and tying Kuntz for the team lead with 3.5 sacks. Junior John Ryan and sophomore Kerry Neal have battled for the starting weakside backer spot all year. Neal sees the most snaps, but Ryan has come on of late.
Senior safeties Kyle McCarthy and David Bruton have had excellent seasons, helping the Notre Dame pass defense improve and providing necessary support against the run. McCarthy leads the team with 96 tackles from his strong safety position, while Bruton is second with 88. Bruton also has three interceptions. Junior Raeshon McNeil has become the Irish's best cornerback, with 33 stops, two picks and 10 passes broken up. On the other side, senior Terrail Lambert's star-crossed Notre Dame career will come to a close soon. Freshman corner Robert Blanton has seen an increasing role, while reserve safeties Sergio Brown, a junior, and Ray Herring, a senior, will rotate in.
Notre Dame Special Teams
Sophomore placekicker Brandon Walker was put on the spot last weekend against Syracuse, as the Irish were forced to try a pair of long field goals late on a cold, windy day. He missed a 49-yarder and a 53-yarder in the fourth quarter, after his 26-yard miss in the third helped keep Syracuse in the game. Overall, he's 13-of-23, but has made 12 of his last 16 attempts. Junior Ryan Burkhart handles kickoffs, and though he only has one touchback in 63 kicks, the Irish boast the top kick return defense in the nation. Classmate Eric Maust handles the punting, and is averaging just less than 41 yards per boot, but has had two blocked. Tate and Allen share all return duties. They've been more of a threat on punt returns, but the Irish return teams are basically average at best.
USC Offensive Gameplan
With USC on a bye last weekend, the opportunity arose to review and further scrutinize the Trojans' recent offensive performances against Cal and Stanford. And while there were some mystifying choices – in strategy, tactics and personnel – in both games, it became clear that the Trojan players do truly deserve a good bit of the burden that's been placed wholly on the shoulders of Steve Sarkisian by some (many?) Trojan followers. Of course, repeated penalties can be partly blamed on preparation, but the dropped snaps, dropped passes and fumbles – like Stanley Havili's at Stanford, which helped the Cardinal remain in the game for nearly an extra quarter – lay with the players.
Nonetheless, some choices by the offensive staff that put USC's players in questionable situations still baffle. The Trojans did get needlessly greedy against Cal, when the patient stuff preached all week leading up to the game (rushing and controlled passing, especially rollouts for Mark Sanchez) was working. Yes, USC did ignore the success its running game could have against the Stanford defense for far too long (and the play-action passing success that would come with it). USC's empty-backfield set has resulted in one (or four) too many sacks in recent games (proper credit: Patrick Turner's TD catch against Cal did come from an empty backfield set). And I can't for the life of me figure out why the Trojans' biggest threat to fumble, Joe McKnight, has been on the field in obvious, deep-in-USC-territory, kill-the-clock situations at the end of the first half in each of the past two games. Fortunately, it hasn't hurt USC … yet.
This week, against a Notre Dame defense that struggles against the run, yet blitzes often because of a lack of pressure on quarterbacks by its defensive line, it would seem that the Trojans could parlay early success in the running game (as well as in the short passing game, where USC's speed in underneath routes could devastate the not-so-fast Irish linebackers) into some big passing plays as the game moves along. Will the Trojans be able to avoid drive-killing mistakes? Will the coaches be able to put the right players in the right places to make plays consistently? Is this one of those weeks where things come together for the offense? With the bye week and the additional focus provided by Senior Night and a struggling rival across the field, there's definitely the possibility that USC could put together one of it's best offensive performances of the season.
USC Defensive Gameplan
Even with a tough first half at Stanford, the Trojan defense remained a decisive force on the Farm, essentially shutting the Cardinal down for about 35 minutes of game time before Stanford's final-play touchdown. While the return of senior safety Kevin Ellison from injury this week is very welcome (since Ellison has been a fantastically underrated Trojan throughout his career, and he deserves great recognition on Senior Night), part of the reason the star-laden USC defense has continued to play so well in his absence has been the play of Will Harris, who stepped into Ellison's spot a few weeks back. Harris has been absolutely spectacular and gives USC fans reason to hope there won't be a huge drop off in the secondary in 2009.
This weekend, the Trojans face a one-dimensional Irish attack that has lost its biggest playmaker. All those years during the 1980s and 1990s, who would have ever thought that the Irish would come into the Coliseum with an offensive attack you'd call soft? Notre Dame is, simply, a poor rushing team that relies on a finesse passing offense – and without Floyd, doesn't have any great playmakers outside to make USC pay for repeatedly bringing the house against Clausen and the Irish running backs.
Unless Tate and his counterparts at receiver become big-time playmakers this weekend, and the Irish rushing attack somehow reverses field and actually performs well against a good defense – something it's not yet done in 2008 – the Trojan defense should absolutely dominate this game.
The Pick
Once again, it's the Trojans and the Irish in the Coliseum. Yes, the Irish are down. But while national pundits like to talk about how the game has "lost its luster" in recent seasons – another talking point meant to lessen USC's perceived value in the national title race that's been beaten into the ground by the ESPNs of the world – that storyline conveniently ignores the fact that during USC's six-game winning streak over the Irish, the teams have met as top-10 foes three times (2002, 2005 and 2006). Before this stretch, the most recent SC-ND battle with both teams in the top 10 came in 1989.
Of course, for long-time fans of either team, there is very little that can truly devalue the meaning of this rivalry. Anyone who's been to the game, whether in South Bend or in L.A., knows and understands just how different the vibe is – on the field and in the stands – for this game than any other on either team's schedule. And, with the history in this game, everyone on both sides know that what looks improbable – in 2008, a Notre Dame victory, for instance – is never impossible.
However, for the Irish to be competitive this week, they will need an unexpectedly solid performance from a struggling offense and a turnaround by a rush defense that has become weaker and weaker as the season has gone on. Adding to that, Notre Dame absolutely, positively has to win the turnover battle. The problem is that they'll have to do it on the road, which has been nightmarish for ND in 2008. The Irish are 2-3 away from Notre Dame Stadium (and one of those wins was on neutral turf, against Navy in Baltimore). One big reason: the Irish have committed 19 turnovers and forced just two on the road in 2008 (at home, they've forced 18 and committed just six). No matter how you add up the numbers, they just don't look good for the Irish. Divine intervention (or an officiating crew made up of O'Reillys and O'Malleys) appears to be their best hope of avoiding a seventh consecutive loss to the Trojans.
USC 45, Notre Dame 7
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight 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@alumni.usc.edu.