Notre Dame (-6.5) at USC
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California
Kickoff: 8:00 PM ET
Last Meeting: 31-17 USC
So here we are 11 and damn zero. A national title appearance on the line and the arch-rival Southern California Trojans standing in Notre Dame's way.
It doesn't get any bigger than this for the Fighting Irish. They're the newly minted No. 1 team in the country and should still have a chip on their shoulder from last year's home loss to USC.
Here is the One Foot Down preview of this Saturday night's game.
This will be 84th meeting between Notre Dame and USC and also the 19th (22.6%) in which the Irish face the Trojans while undefeated. That's pretty impressive given that this rivalry is not played early in the season like the Michigan series and that for many years it was always the last or second to last game of the season for the Irish.
Notre Dame is 12-5-1 against the Trojans when coming into the game undefeated and 6-4-1 when facing USC in the regular season finale as an undefeated team. The Irish are also 5-2-0 against USC while No. 1 in the AP Poll with wins in 1947, 49, 66, 88, and 89. The two losses came in 1938 and the highly controversial defeat to finish the 1964 season in Ara Parseghian's first season in South Bend.
This is the all-purpose yardage for USC sophomore receiver Marqise Lee---2nd best nationally and first among BCS players. He has caught 107 passes for 1,605 yards, rushed for 107 yards, and has an absurd 704 yards on kickoffs (while averaging 29.3 yards per return no less).
Notre Dame will be playing with fire in a major way if they don't kick the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs.
Turnovers caused by USC this season---tied for 6th nationally. The Trojan defense hasn't been great this season but they can make you pay for turning the ball over. Golson & Company are going to have to be very careful while on offense.
Football Outsiders 2012 Advanced Stats
The total number of penalty yardage racked up by USC this season---8th worst in the country. That is 318 more yards than what Notre Dame has been penalized for in 2012.
3 & 5
These are the national ranks in sacks and tackles for loss by Southern Cal. The Trojans have 42 sacks and 88 tackles for loss in 11 games.
4 Players to Watch
WR Robert Woods
Woods was the top dog and one of the best receivers in the country last season and is still an elite talent despite becoming the team's second receiving option in 2012. He was a freshman All-American in 2010, a consensus All-American in 2011 and has produced 66 receptions, 721 yards, and 10 touchdowns this season.
Pray to God he turns pro this offseason because Notre Dame doesn't need to see another year of the Woods-Lee combo and I don't care who is playing quarterback for them.
WR Marqise Lee
Kirk Herbstreit was tooting Lee's horn all summer saying that he believed the Trojans wideout was not only better than Robert Woods, but perhaps the best receiver in the country.
I can't say he's wrong.
I mean Woods is having a season that 99% of wideouts would be absolutely giddy to have and Marqise Lee has TWICE the yardage of his teammate.
It's no secret. The Irish need to keep Lee in check and tackle very well when he inevitably catches the ball.
RB Curtis McNeal
I don't know if it's the fact that McNeal wasn't a huge recruit or if it's his size (5'7" 190) but it seems to me that USC has always been looking for reasons to not give the ball to him despite McNeal always being productive.
He was academically ineligible in 2010 and sat 3rd on the depth chart coming into last season. Due to injuries and the ineffectiveness of others McNeal was thrust into the starting role in 2011 and finished with a gaudy 1,005 yards on just 145 attempts (6.93 YPC).
This year he's been sharing carries with Penn State transfer Silas Redd and both of them have been banged up all season. Redd missed a game two weeks ago against ASU and only gained 8 yards on 3 carries against UCLA. McNeal on the other hand has 324 yards over the last two games so I expect to see plenty of him on Saturday.
One of the quieter yet immensely important members of the 2012 Trojan recruiting class, Morgan Breslin came to L.A. after two years at Diablo Valley Junior College where he could lay claim as the best JUCO player in the country after leading the country in sacks and tackles for loss in both 2010 and 2011.
The step up in competition hasn't slowed Breslin down as he leads USC in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (17.5) while also chipping in 49 tackles.
As mentioned above, the USC defense lives off turnovers. Now more than ever the Irish have to be religiously devoted to protecting the ball on offense.
Sad Kiffin. Harry How/Getty Images
Avoid Negative Plays
If Notre Dame can protect the ball and keep moving the ball forward good things are going to happen. What can't happen is to get into a lot of second or third and longs because USC blew up a running play for a loss of 4 yards.
Limit USC's Big Plays on Offense
The absence of Matt Barkley is great for Notre Dame but it brings up an interesting plan of attack for Bob Diaco. Do you sit back and prevent the big plays or get right after a young and inexperienced quarterback and try to rattle him early and often?
Knowing Bobby D we will get mostly the former gameplan mixed in with a little of the latter. But keep in mind that players like Lee can take a simple crossing route 80 yards to the house. Above all else, the defense cannot let this happen.
2 Sides of the Line
USC was very close to returning an incredibly experienced offensive line this season but Matt Kalil's early entry into the NFL spoiled those plans a little bit. The Trojans still brought back 4 starters but they've had some issues replacing Kalil at left tackle and the unit as a whole hasn't really played great.
5th-year senior Khaled Holmes (6'4" 305) started 2010 at guard and has been one of the country's top centers since 2011. He was injured for the Stanford game this season and the line deeply missed his presence.
At left guard former walk-on and 5th-year senior Abe Markowitz (6'1" 305) has seen some time, but it is true sophomore Marcus Martin (6'3" 325) starting after a freshman All-American season a year ago.
The left tackle spot was held by true sophomore Aundrey Walker (6'6" 300) after being a backup last season, but he's given way to true freshman and highly-recruited Max Tuerk (6'6" 285) who has become the first true frosh to start on the offensive line in Trojan history.
The Trojan line hasn't blocked for many yards this season (159.3 per game, 65th nationally) but that's because USC isn't very committed to the run---and why would you be with Barkley, Woods, and Lee? Nevertheless, when they do run the ball they've been pretty successful with 5.15 yards-per-carry (22nd nationally and slightly better than Notre Dame) and 4 games over 200 yards this season.
The SC offensive line has given up 15 sacks (t-31st nationally & same as ND) but they have Barkley out of the lineup because a terribly missed block. They are also tied for 67th nationally giving up 61 tackles for loss.
This is a solid but not great Trojan offensive line. We'll see how they handle being without Barkley and having to deal with the best Irish front seven in many years. This is a matchup Notre Dame has to win convincingly for 4 quarters but I expect it to be a tough fight for both sides.
The USC defensive line came into this season without much experience but as always they are very talented and utilize a nice rotation of players.
Fifth-year senior Wes Horton (6'5" 255) is back at defensive end after starting over 20 games prior to 2012. At nose tackle 2011 backup and redshirt sophomore George Uko (6'3" 285) is this year's starter while the other side of the line is manned by true freshman defensive tackle Leonard Williams (6'5" 270) and the aforementioned junior Morgan Breslin (6'2" 250) at defensive end.
Breslin has been among USC's best. Kirby Lee/US Presswire
Redshirt freshman Greg Townsend (6'3" 260), redshirt junior Kevin Greene (6'4" 255), and sophomore J.R. Tavai (6'2" 265) are in the rotation at end, while redshirt freshman Anwaun Woods (6'1" 315) sees plenty of time on the interior.
As mentioned above, USC is in the top 5 nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss. Their starting front four account for 49.4% of those tackles for loss and 67.8% of those sacks. In short, they are fast and they get after it with the best of 'em.
Yet, something is missing. Outside of the TFL's and sacks the entire USC defense is fairly average. They're run defense is 50th nationally in yards per game, and 41st in yards-per-carry allowed. Even taking into account the Oregon game (60 carries, 426 yards) the advanced stats show a defense that isn't as dominant as those gaudy TFL and sacks suggest.
Size and discipline could be an issue for the Trojans as Stanford was able to power their way for 202 yards on 37 carries---rushing production that Notre Dame is very capable of putting up while also throwing the ball better than the Cardinal. USC's defensive line starters average 265 pounds which isn't tiny for a 4-3 scheme, but it's much worse when they're being backed up by three linebackers averaging 227 pounds.
This will be a good matchup of size and power versus athleticism and speed. If the Irish can establish a strong ground game and Golson can escape a few negative plays, Notre Dame should have a solid day on offense.
In 2010 at the Coliseum the Trojans were without Matt Barkley and despite a +3 turnover margin they were out-gained by 35 yards and lost by 4 points to Notre Dame. USC had also lost on the road the week before and had their season's expectations blown up before facing the Irish---same script as this year.
With Barkley out and without Tommy Rees derping it up all over the field can we expect Notre Dame to win comfortably on Saturday, or even win convincingly?
I'd pump the brakes on that idea.
First, USC has a very talented defense. Their defensive line is disruptive, the linebackers are fast, and the secondary may be the best unit on the team. If you believe the Football Outsiders' advanced stats this is just an above average defense, but the talent is there to play really well for one football game.
Second, USC has better running backs and skill position players than in 2010 and they can greatly aid a redshirt freshman making his first career start.
Don't forget about Woods. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
The biggest factor of this game will be the chess match that goes on while USC has the ball.
Will USC be patient enough to rely on their productive ground game without Barkley behind center? They were very conservative throwing the ball with an inexperienced QB in 2010 against Notre Dame---will the Trojans use the same gameplan on Saturday?
How patient and/or aggressive will the Notre Dame defense be on 1st and 2nd down? Will the Irish try to rattle a young and inexperienced quarterback from the first snap, or sit back and force Wittek to make smart decisions on long sustained drives?
I have no doubt that defensive coordinator Bob Diaco would like to sit back in this game and measure up Wittek's abilities early on. This will be the chess match because even if Notre Dame plays a lot of deep Cover-2 players like Marqise Lee can break one tackle on a slant and do some serious damage.
Now more than ever the middle of the Irish defense needs to limit yards after catch and tackle well like they've done all season.
On the other side of the ball Golson & Co. have to protect the ball and get physical with the running game, engineering a couple long scoring drives. Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and Tyler Eifert will have to step up and have big games while Everett Golson is going to have to make a few big plays with his arm or legs.
It also wouldn't surprise me if the Irish go up-tempo at points during the game because that's been very effective against USC this year, and Notre Dame might not be as worried about giving the Barkley-less offense more time to score.
In this game I like Notre Dame's chances for three reasons: Strength on both lines, mental toughness, and Barkley not playing.
Notre Dame's advantage on both lines isn't overwhelming by any means and a quick reminder of last year's game (albeit when the Irish were suffering some injuries) should temper any enthusiasm that ND will dominate up front. However, the Irish should be able to control and over-power USC more often than not.
The Irish have shown incredible mental toughness this season and their confidence has to be sky high right now. Hopefully it's not too high though (cue replays of last year's USC game) but Notre Dame has been punched in the mouth a bunch of times this season and responded with big plays and much resilience. Who knows where USC's mental makeup is right now. They have the chance to play spoiler and of course it's a rivalry game but will they believe they can win without their star quarterback?
Matt Barkley has been the starting quarterback in Los Angeles for four years. Remarkably, he's been fairly healthy since 2009 but he'll miss Saturday's game with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder.
Barkley missed the Washington game in 2009, the second half of the Oregon State game in 2010, and the following week's game against Notre Dame. USC went 0-3 in those games and only gained an average of 292 yards.
Yes, USC has several outstanding playmakers on offense but Barkley is really, really important to their success and it's tough to see them overcoming one of the top defenses in the country without him.
Wittek will be facing a defense that has kept 7 of their 11 opponents under 100 yards rushing (and 10 of 11 under 150 yards---the outlier is Michigan's 161 yards) while holding opposing quarterbacks to a 104.4 passer rating. The Notre Dame defense has also forced 14 interceptions and given up just 6 passing touchdowns ALL SEASON.
Moreover, it hasn't been talked about a ton outside of USC circles, but the Trojans offense has been terrible at protecting the ball this season. Of course some of that blame falls on the now injured Barkley with his 15 interceptions on 387 attempts, but the Trojans have also lost 14 fumbles in 2012.
To put that in perspective, that's the same amount of turnovers (29) in 11 games that the Fighting Irish coughed up in 13 games last year.
Perhaps Wittek is able to protect the ball against Notre Dame but in order to do that he'll likely have to sacrifice the production through the air that USC has been living off of on offense for the entire Barkley era.
It'll be a hard fought and close game yet I can't see a first-time starter leading his team to victory in this game. I think USC covers the spread but (and I can't believe I'm typing this) the Irish should win and punch their ticket to the national title game.
Notre Dame 24