Notre Dame vs. USC Preview: Irish Seek First Series Winning Streak Since 2001

USC (+8) at Notre Dame

A winning streak against Southern California?

Yeah, that sounds nice as it would be the first in ten whole years.

Notre Dame finally broke the long losing streak last year with a win in L.A., but has lost its last four games inside Notre Dame Stadium against the Trojans.

Except the awful 2007 season, the Irish have played Southern California very close at home in the past two meetings---and now the tables might be slowly turning in this long storied rivalry.

This will be the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium in over 20 years, it may be the the biggest recruiting weekend in many years (more on this later in the week), and the Irish should be very refreshed coming off a bye.

Here is the OFD preview of the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

How Has USC Been Doing This Year?

Give Southern California some credit---they have only played BCS teams this season. In fact, their entire 2011 schedule is comprised of BCS teams only.

In an era where a team like Wisconsin can prance to a 6-0 record with wins over UNLV, Northern Illinois, and South Dakota, we should celebrate USC's scheduling practices.

Halfway through the season, USC sits at a solid 5-1 but hasn't looked as impressive as their record would suggest.

The Trojans opened their season at home against Minnesota, jumping out to a 19-3 lead by half, but failed to score any points in the second half against possibly the worst BCS team in the country. Much was made of quarterback Matt Barkley (34 of 45 for 304 yards and 3 TD) and Robert Wood's (17 receptions for 177 yards and 3 TD) big day---but USC needed an interception with just over a minute left to secure a 2-point victory over the Gophers.

In week two USC took a three point lead into the fourth quarter against Utah, and was able to ice the game with a blocked would-be tying field goal on the last play of the game that was taken back for a touchdown. The Trojans followed up their first Pac-12 win with a 38-17 victory over Syracuse in a game where Barkley threw 5 touchdown passes.

In week four, USC traveled to Arizona State to play a team that was carrying a 11-game losing streak to the Trojans and had just come off a deflating loss to Illinois.

USC scored two touchdowns in the third quarter to take a one-point lead, but Arizona State would go on to score three unanswered touchdowns, including a pick six that iced the eventual 21-point victory.

Southern California now has at least one 20+ point loss in each of the last three seasons, and it was the third such loss in 19 games of the Lane Kiffin-era in Los Angeles.

In their last two games USC has won a pair of conference games against two basement dwellers in Arizona and California.

The Trojans at one point had a 22-point lead over the Wildcats, but let Arizona score four touchdowns over the last quarter and a half while hanging on for a 48-41 win in a game in which both teams gained over 500 yards.

This past Thursday USC took advantage of 5 California turnovers at AT&T Park, ultimately winning comfortably 30-9 despite being outgained by 16 yards in the contest.

Notre Dame Defense vs. USC Offense

It's no secret that the Trojan offense begins and ends with true junior Matt Barkley. He comes into this game with the 19th best passer rating in the country, as well as the 11th most touchdown passes and 13th most passing yards.

There's been some chatter in recent weeks about Barkley's lack of consistency and inability to rise to super-duper star status, but he's upped his completion percentage by over 5 points, and is on pace to blow away his career high in yards with just single digit interceptions---all while carrying the offense with an erratic offensive line and poor running game.

Barkley might not be the type of player that Andrew Luck is, but he is very dangerous and one of the top quarterbacks in the country.

At receiver, Barkley has been hooking up with a rising superstar in Robert Woods. The former consensus #1 wide receiver recruit and 5-star prospect has 60 receptions, 783 yards, and 6 touchdowns this year after a freshmen All-American season in 2010 with 65 receptions, 786 yards, and 6 touchdowns (yes, he equaled his freshman stats in half the games this year!)

There is a lot of worry with the USC passing game and its many weapons, but the Trojans really employ a strategy that includes a ton of balls thrown to Woods, with some sprinkled toward talented freshman Marqise Lee. The Trojans much favor playing with two tight ends and a fullback---relying on their two top wideouts to do the bulk of the producing. As such, the third USC receiver in senior Brandon Carswell has as many receptions (14) as Notre Dame's running back Cierre Wood.

What's more, Marqise Lee suffered a shoulder injury after scoring a beautiful touchdown against California last week and did not return. He is questionable for the game Saturday night but is likely to try and play.

Up front on the offensive line, USC has replaced three starters after losing Butch Lewis and Kristofer O'Dowd to graduation, as well as Tyron Smith to early entry in the NFL Draft.

Redshirt junior Matt Kalil is a former five-star prospect who is returning and anchoring the line at left tackle, while Khaled Holmes is also a returning starter (RS Junior--4-star) who has moved to center.

The rest of the line is starting a 3-star true freshman, and two 4-star redshirt sophomores.

The depth concerns seem a little overblown (6 linemen who have seen action have been on campus for three years---mixed with a handful of talented youngsters), but the line is fairly inexperienced and hasn't exactly been playing at a high level. They are decent in pass blocking but are struggling big time opening holes in the running game.

And that running game took a big hit with a shoulder injury to starter Marc Tyler who is likely out against Notre Dame. I've never been impressed with Tyler (368 yards at 4.4 per rush this year---48 yards on 17 carries last year vs. the Irish) but he is a senior leader.

Without Tyler, the Trojans will look to redshirt junior Curtis McNeal to step up and carry the ball the most. McNeal is very short, but runs with good power and speed. With the blocking problems USC has, he might actually be a better fit for their team---I have been impressed with his acceleration and shiftiness.

Beyond McNeal, USC has four more running backs to look to, but all are very young and inexperienced---even if highly talented.

5-star high school sensation Dillon Baxter was supposed to blow up last year as a freshman, but had pretty tame numbers in 2010, and is barely seeing the field this year.

Also, D.J. Morgan was another highly recruited kid who sat out last year and has been fairly pedestrian this season.

Recently, Kiffin burned the redshirts on George Farmer and Amir Carlisle (both of whom were believed to be locks to sit out this year with the log jam at running back).

We probably won't see the much smaller Carlisle, but Kiffin switched Farmer from receiver to tailback last week in what has to be an attempt to make Notre Dame think a little bit about another blazing fast athlete on the field.

It won't be too complicated of a plan to stop USC. The Irish have the defensive line to control the line of scrimmage and should do very well against the run.

The challenge will be to get pressure on Barkley and to contain Robert Woods at receiver with double and triple teams. As anyone who has watched Notre Dame this year can attest, the Irish will be more than happy to take away the big play and force Barkley to dink and dunk his way down the field, all without much help from the running game.

Notre Dame Offense vs. USC Defense

As is usually the case, USC will be bringing a tough front four to this game.

The Trojans lost starter Jurrell Casey to the NFL and had to use a medical redshirt on another starter at tackle in Armond Armstead, but the Men of Troy bring back two starters in DaJohn Harris and Nick Perry, as well as moving starting linebacker Devon Kennard to defensive end.

Redshirt junior Wes Horton also gets a lot of playing time at defensive end and has plenty of experience, while redshirt junior Christian Tupou missed last year with an injury but has starting experience too.

Overall, this isn't a deep group (it appears they are not playing three sensational freshmen in Woods, Heyward, and Townsend) and they're probably not dominant---but this is a very good front line. USC made Rees' life hell last year, generally did a good job shutting down the run, and a lot of those players return this year.

At linebacker, USC doesn't have great depth or experience but is very athletic and has been getting good production out of their starters.

5th year senior Chris Galippo is the lone returning starter and he anchors the middle. He's flanked by two redshirt freshmen in Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard---and these young players are one-two respectively in tackles for the Trojans. USC also gets some production out of senior Shane Horton, but there is little help behind these four at linebacker.

At the cornerback position, USC might be hurting a little bit.

The talented Nickell Robey is back after starting as a true freshman last year, while redshirt sophomore Torin Harris has some experience.

However, redshirt freshman Anthony Brown is out with an injury and the Trojans will have to rely on a JUCO transfer (Isiah Wiley) and former walk-on (Tony Burnett) both of whom have little experience.

USC might be weak at corner, but they are very solid at safety with two returning starters and true juniors in T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling. There are three other players in the rotation (Jones, McAllister, and Wright) so the depth here is good---and don't be surprised to see some of these guys at corner against the Irish.

There's been a tendency to dismiss this USC defense as sub par and undisciplined in comparison to the Carroll years, and that's obviously true---but they are still dangerous.

The Irish offensive line should win the battle against USC's defensive line, but it won't be easy. Neither will be running the ball. If Notre Dame can rush for close to 150 yards or more, while giving Rees time to throw, then there will be a distinct advantage for the guys in blue and gold (and maybe green).

But remember, USC gave this offense fits last year with its pass rush and pseudo-junk defense that had blitzes from all over the place, linemen dropping into coverage, and plenty of confusion. Saturday might be a lot like the Pitt game, but the Trojans have even more talent.

Prediction

No Irish fan needs to be reminded just how big the win at the Coliseum was to end the 2010 regular season. Following the 2009 loss at home where a valiant comeback fell short, it looked like Notre Dame was never going to beat USC ever again.

"We're a lock to lose in L.A. next year and for the next four or five years!" many exclaimed.

Boy, how times have changed.

Pete Carroll is gone, sanctions are in.

USC has lost some swagger, and Notre Dame has gained more.

Brian Kelly now battles Lane Kiffin.

Clearly there are many reasons to be optimistic about a victory over the Trojans. When was the last time the Irish were favored in this game---let alone damn near double digit favorites?

But there are also reasons for concern: Barkley can tear our secondary apart if he's given enough time. USC has speed on the edges that can wreak havoc on the Irish defense. The Trojans are big and athletic up front with a history of harassing quarterbacks in gold helmets and shutting down running games.

The traditional rankings and stats seem to suggest this will be a close game.

USC is a stout 19th in run defense, 105th in passing defense, 46th in scoring defense, and 56th in total defense.

Notre Dame is 48th in run defense, 67th in passing defense, 30th in scoring defense, and 52nd in total defense.

On the other side of the ball USC is 77th in rushing offense, 20th in passing offense, 54th in scoring offense, and 36th in total offense.

Notre Dame is 31st in rushing offense, 29th in passing offense, 36th in scoring offense, and 22nd in total offense.

The stats from Football Outsiders tell a different story however.

Through October 9th (does not include this past week of games):

S&P Rating Notre Dame Southern Cal
Overall 5 45
Defense 6 32
Offense 22 32

What's more, the FEI Ratings have Notre Dame at 13th in the country, and USC at 59th.

There's a lot in Notre Dame's favor right now, including coming off a bye week, having some big momentum after back-to-back blowout wins, having the game at home during the night when it will be cold, and most of all---coaching.

It's really weird to listen to some USC fans who aren't very confident about this game, and coaching has a lot to do with it. I really like Brian Kelly's chances with a healthy team with momentum, against a Lane Kiffin-led team with a fair amount of injuries and less depth across the roster.

Matt Barkley will have an opportunity to do a lot of damage (I guarantee he hits Woods for a couple long passes and abuses the Irish in the underneath zone coverage), but he'll have to be on his A-game all night.

Both Barkley and Rees are going to be able to move the ball through the air. The difference will be in who gets better protection, who protects the ball, and who gets quality snaps out of their running game.

The Irish ground game of Wood and Gray, sprinkled in with some possible Hendrix rushes is going to be a big advantage and should help keep USC off-balance. Notre Dame has improved as an offensive unit and its spread formations and plays should give the Trojan fits.

In the end, this is a game Notre Dame needs more and let's hope the atmosphere propels the players to execute the way we know they can. Also, this may be the first time in years where Notre Dame has a legitimate advantage on both lines---this is very important.

This Notre Dame team is getting better and I'm not sure that is the case for USC---a team that hasn't really looked great at any point this season and just went through the motions against California, struggled with Minnesota, and lost to their only ranked opponent this year.

Factor in the coaching and that USC might not respond well to a couple early scores in the cold weather with the Irish clogging up their running game, and Notre Dame should win this matchup.

It's going to be a great game and hopefully a great time for everyone involved. Let's hope the first night game in over 20 years goes splendidly.

Notre Dame 37

USC 27

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