Jimmy Clausen's Heisman hopes and Charlie Weis' job status have stolen the headlines for Notre Dame the past few weeks leading up to their annual match up with rival USC. If the Irish are going to pull off the upset on Saturday, however, the Irish defense needs to steal the show.
Defense coordinator Jon Tenuta has brought an aggressive, blitz-happy style of defense in South Bend that is starting to pay dividends for a team that has taken its lumps on defense in previous years.
"They're the most aggressive they've been," Pete Carroll said. "Last year they started really coming after people and this year they've picked up on that. They're pressuring well over half of the time which is a tremendous percentage of pressure from the defense."
In the past five meetings against USC, the Irish defense has given up an average of 38 points, and this year, Notre Dame goes against a team that leads the Pac-10 in total offense with 430 yards a game. To continue that success, USC's veteran offensive line will be tasked with picking up rushers in order to protect their freshman quarterback.
"If you can protect really well then there are some opportunities, because coverage is more limited," Carroll said. "It's just whether or not we're able to handle the heat they bring. If we can, we have a chance at moving the football."
For the offensive line responsible for picking up the blitzes, the defensive pressure is nothing new.
"They pressure a lot," Jeff Byers said. "We've seen a lot of pressure. Since you're a freshman here, you're getting every blitz in the package because that's what Coach Carroll likes and (our) defense calls. You've just got to pick it up, it's part of the game."
"It's really not difficult because we go up against the same pressure every day," center Kris O'Dowd said. "We're not seeing anything new. Our job this week is to get hints from watching film and study their defense to find out there tendencies and getting that down pat."
The blitzing has helped Notre Dame rank 26th in the country in turnover margin but the Irish defense is giving up chunks of yardage to opposing offenses to the tune of 403 yards a game. Despite the statistics, the Trojans believe Notre Dame's defense is about more than the statistics.
"They've got some more juice and that Washington game was a big one for them and their defense played really well for them," O'Dowd said. "It's more of a heart factor for us, and I have complete confidence in our offense and what we can do."