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Avoiding the Notorious Number Nine: Will Notre Dame Finally Beat USC?

Well here we are, preparing for the last regular season game of the year. For the Irish that means crisscrossing the country and heading from New York to Los Angeles (with a long stop in Indiana of course) for a battle with the Trojans of Southern California.

It’s been a crazy season for both of these programs as each team will be bringing a new head coach to the game for the first time in this rivalry’s 84 year history.

This is also the first game since 2001 in which neither team comes in ranked in the Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh. 2001’s contest was also the last game in which Notre Dame defeated USC.

Yes, it has been eight straight victories for the Trojans and the rivalry has been just as lopsided as that fact shows. Aside from a dangerously close game in 2005 and a one touchdown victory last season, USC has blown Notre Dame out in six contests over the past decade.

This game has such an odd feeling to it because of both team’s overall struggles this season (not completely surprising for either program), the abundance of injuries and the fact that it is the Irish who carry the momentum coming into battle.

Speaking of injuries, they to the game’s first bullet point.

Who’s In and Who’s Out?

The big story in this game concerns whether sophomore quarterback and team leader Matt Barkley will play after suffering a high ankle sprain in the Trojans’ loss to Oregon State last weekend.

Reports are that Barkley may be able to play, but I still think it is unlikely. Not many athletes in any sport are back in action a week later after suffering that type of injury and hobbling around on a walking boot.

Either way this probably is not good news for USC. If Barkley plays he will likely be severely limited in his mobility and unable to perform at his best.

Without Barkley, USC will have to rely on a talented yet inexperienced Mitch Mustain to lead their offense.

Even though USC’s strength is their running game (26th nationally at 192 yards per game), their offense is heavily predicated on staying balanced and using play-action passes and smart decisions through the air to spread the ball around to a host of different playmakers.

I’m not alone in thinking that without Barkley the USC offense as a whole takes a huge hit.

Also, leading rusher Marc Tyler is questionable with an ankle sprain of his own and freshman star Dillon Baxter, the team’s third leading rusher, remains ineligible for the time being (recent reports claim he will be suiting up against the Irish).

On the Notre Dame side, the Irish have been playing without their starting quarterback for three games now, as well as without their star tight end, starting running back and two top wide receivers. On defense, nose tackle Ian Williams has been out and middle linebacker Carlo Calabrese has played sparingly because of a leg injury.

Against USC, the Irish should get TJ Jones, Theo Riddick and a fully healthy Calabrese back for action. It appears Ian Williams will only be available for a bowl game.

All in all, there are a lot of injuries at key positions for both teams so there should not be any excuses from either side.

Lane & Monte Kiffin

I can’t wait to watch an entire Notre Dame game against USC with Lane Kiffin as the Trojan coach. Naturally, I never liked Pete Carroll all that much, but you had to respect the way he coached his teams (strong, fast and smart defense; good running game with balanced passing) and always had them prepared, especially against the Irish.

I’m excited to see how Kiffin prepares and deals with this rivalry, because he has some very large shoes to fill. Will he make any brash moves or immature decisions? Does he go for any random two-point conversions?

What’s the chance he cracks at least one smile and doesn’t have that "Nobody respects me so I’m going to try and look really mean and people will think I mean business!" look the entire game?

The funny thing is, before the season so many people were saying how it was the hiring of Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator that would make this a strong USC team in 2010, yet the defense has been abysmal this year.

The Trojans have a slightly better run defense than the Irish, but have a shockingly bad pass defense (114th ranked) and little better total defense (92nd ranked). To put that into perspective a little bit, Irish fans were irate at last year’s nightmare of a defense which ended up 86th in total defense.

Whether or not it is true, this appears to be the first time in a long time that Notre Dame has an edge on defense. Yes, it feels very weird typing that.

USC still has a very good front seven (although it is not up to the high standards Irish fans are used to seeing in the past six or seven years), but their secondary is very young and has been taken advantage of numerous times this year.

That young secondary is definitely the biggest weakness for either team on either side of the ball.

What’s the Gameplan?

Defensively, Notre Dame will have to make it goal number one to slow down the USC running game. With a shaky situation at quarterback, the Trojans will likely use many of their different running backs to try and pound the ball down field.

The second goal should be to limit or not give up any big plays of 20 or more yards, particularly through the air. Notre Dame might be able to survive if USC keeps running the ball, but if they are able to throw in some big passing plays, however few they may be, the Irish could be in trouble.

USC still has plenty of playmakers and highly skilled athletes, but without a healthy Barkley or productive quarterback under center, their offense is far less intimidating. If Mustain starts, it may be unlikely but not out of the possibility that Notre Dame could put together its third straight imposing defensive effort.

Offensively, there is so much to be curious about.

On the one hand, Notre Dame has been running the ball fairly well in recent weeks and it would appear having a true freshman starting in his first true road game ever means the Irish are going to protect the ball and pound it themselves with Wood, Gray and Hughes.

However, as already noted, USC has a strong front seven and a secondary that is ripe for the picking.

It is my opinion that Kelly will probably try to stay balanced, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he continues to pick on the Trojan secondary all night long. If I had to bet, I would say that Rees throws at least 25 balls and maybe more.

Further, this is one of those games where I am glad that Notre Dame is running a spread offense instead of the pro-style attack from years past.

In the past, Notre Dame simply could not run the ball against USC and the offenses’ success was largely in the hands of a quarterback who needed to make tough NFL-type throws and take advantage of the deep ball.

Occasionally the line would give an Irish quarterback time to throw and the signal caller would be on fire, but usually the offense was stymied.

Can you imagine that scenario right now with Rees at quarterback and no Rudolph or Allen on the field?

What I like about this offense is that it gives Notre Dame more options, forces USC and other opponents to prepare for a wider range of plays, and allows a quarterback to thrive on an abundance of short passing plays to move the chains.

I like that we’re heading into this game against USC knowing we aren’t relying on the same poor running schemes and the same handful of passing plays like in years past. Now, USC has to prepare for all kinds of wacky screen passes, misdirection plays, reverses, etc.

In fact, I think Brian Kelly ran the jet sweep with a wide receiver on numerous occasions against Army specifically because he wants USC to be ready for another wrinkle in this offense and also because it will give the running backs a little more room to work with Trojan defenders being wary of Floyd or Riddick taking the ball.


*Manti Te’o suffered a broken nose against Army, but there is no doubt he will be playing this weekend. Imagine if he had signed with USC?

*If USC wins this weekend, they will set the record for most consecutive wins for an opponent against Notre Dame with nine. The Trojans currently share the record with Michigan State, who defeated the Irish eight in a row from 1955 to 1963.

*The Los Angeles Coliseum was renovated in 2008 and now holds a football capacity crowd of 93,607. Over the past three seasons, the Trojans have only sold out one game (Ohio State 2008) and didn’t sellout against then No. 2 Oregon earlier this year.

The last time Notre Dame played at USC in 2008 it was just short of a sellout with an attendance of 90,689. The Trojans are averaging 78,805 (84.1% capacity) spectators this season and are coming off a season-low 68,744 for their last home game against Arizona State.

There are over 20 million people in the surrounding Los Angeles metro area.

*Cierre Wood needs 81 yards to pass Armando Allen in rushing and for the overall team lead.

*This will be Michael Floyd’s first career game against USC after missing the first two with injuries. The Minnesota native has 154 receptions, 2,344 yards and 25 touchdowns in 27 career games.

*USC running back Allen Bradford is tied for sixth nationally with 7.1 yards-per-carry.

*Matt Barkley is tied for ninth nationally with 25 touchdown passes.


If Barkley does not play, then I think Notre Dame has a very good chance at winning this game. Some USC supporters may say that Barkley was regressing before his injury anyway, but I still think Mustain won’t be as effective in this type of situation.

In many ways, I am envisioning a game very similar to the one Notre Dame played against Michigan State earlier in the year, in the respect that I think USC has a similar kind of offense to the Spartans and brings a comparably strong front seven and weaker secondary also like the team up in East Lansing.

Notre Dame started and finished that game against Michigan State strongly, but played terribly in the middle and made a few boneheaded mistakes to give the victory away.

Will the Irish do the same against USC?

I continue to flip-flop on if I’m more worried about how the Irish defense and offense will perform.

Like I said, I really think the spread offense is going to give Notre Dame a boost. I’m a little worried about how Rees will handle the pressure, but he is one of those freshman who just has ice in his veins and these types of games don’t seem to wreck his concentration.

I continue to worry about the running game because Rees is zero threat to keep the ball on option reads, but this negative should be balanced by a handful of reverses, end-arounds and jet-sweep plays that I am sure Kelly will utilize. If the Irish can manage at least 125 yards rushing, their chances for victory are that much greater.

On defense the tendency over the years has been to automatically assume that USC is going to score a lot of points. Yet, this time around I’m a lot more confident that the Irish will be able to contain USC’s running game and put Mustain in some tough third and long situations.

USC has the home-field advantage and a better punt/kick return game, but the Irish have better coaching, kicking, special teams coverage, plus a little bit of momentum from the recent two victories over Utah and Army.

I really think this is a bigger game than a lot of people realize.

I thought USC would do really well this year (11-2, maybe 10-3) and that they would have to in order to set the tone for the next two years when the sanctions really start to take effect.

I don’t think this program can take a fifth loss that lightly when you’re coach is Lane Kiffin, you can’t go to bowl games and your major selling point is that USC will still be an elite team through these troubled times.

Win out, beat your two main rivals, finish 9-4 and this season doesn’t look awfully bad for a team that was really in a major transition this year.

For Notre Dame this is a big game for obvious reasons.

They want to end the year strong, end the losing streak, and beating USC would do both while giving the program and its players a ton of confidence for the future.

If they could somehow manage to beat USC and win their bowl game, I believe this team will have more confidence and legitimate swagger, poise and belief than the 2006 team that was coming off a 9-3 season and BCS bowl appearance and into a top five preseason ranking.

So yeah, this is a big game. Don’t let the unranked labels fool you if you’re a fan of either team. USC really wants to win this game, but the Irish really need it too.

In the end, I’ll take Brian Kelly versus Lane Kiffin, plus the Fighting Irish with their "we have more to play for and a lot of confidence right now!" momentum versus the Trojans’ and their lack of inspired play of late and without their starting quarterback.

As short as three weeks ago it appeared that this Irish season was going up in flames and the questions about Brian Kelly as a head coach would be painfully loud during the off-season. Now, Notre Dame has a chance to finish off their best November in years, beat their biggest rival and achieve somewhat of a miraculous turnaround to the 2010 season.

Can they really do it? Can this team stop the streak and prevent USC from standing alone in the Irish record books?

How does a 3-0 November sound to you?

Notre Dame 27

USC 24