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Irish Blogger Gathering: USC Week

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This week's IBG comes thanks to OC Domer, so head over there to check out the rest of the answers to these questions.

It's USC week, a huge game for Notre Dame, so let's get right to the good stuff.

1. Notre Dame played perhaps its best game of the year in a win over the Utah Utes two weeks ago. Utah remains ranked at #23 in the Associated Press poll. Notre Dame likewise took Michigan State (AP #11) to overtime before losing on a fake field goal. Therefore the Irish should have no trouble with this unranked Trojan squad. Agree or disagree? Show your work.

Strongly disagree … and I think everybody knows this intuitively. Thanks to injuries, Notre Dame is largely a different team than it was back in September vs. MSU. And, if being ranked #23 means anything (I’m not sure it does), then Utah surely didn’t play like a top-25 team in South Bend 2 weeks ago. Meanwhile ND and USC share one common opponent this year in #6 Stanford – who destroyed Notre Dame in South Bend two weeks before barely squeaking by USC in Palo Alto.

But none of that really matters come Saturday.

USC has an exploitable pass-defense, but their defensive line is excellent. The Irish offensive line has done a pretty good job in pass protection, but to say they’ve struggled to establish the run would be the understatement of the year. The Trojans have a good chance to shut down the run, focus coverage on Floyd, and force Tommy Reese to beat them with Eifert, Toma and Kamara as his primary weapons. They’ll make plays, but can they make enough?

On the other side of the ball, ND’s defense has been playing quite well as of late. Excepting the Navy debacle, they’ve done well to shut down the run since the Stanford game. USC now also has a second-stringer in at QB, but he happens to be a former #1 QB recruit who’s been around college football for 4+ years and is 8-0 as a D-1 starter.

On paper, the Irish will need great special teams play to win this one.

Off paper, the Trojans are coming off a miserable defeat to the hands of Oregon State and have the cross-town Bruin rivalry on the horizon. Both of these factors could bode well for Notre Dame, who is feeling strong heading into their regular season finale.

However, though Irish players and coaches will claim otherwise, the Irish have a lot of losing inertia to overcome in this rivalry. The older players are all too accustomed to losing to Southern Cal and the younger guys were in elementary school the last time Notre Dame won this one. That can’t be completely irrelevant from a psychological standpoint. Also, this game is being played at the Coliseum.

Even Vegas doesn’t have a line on who will prevail in Los Angeles this Saturday (when was the last time that happened?). But if it’s the Irish, it won’t be a trouble-less victory.

2. It is almost time for the OC Domer Player of the Year to be named. This award is intended to recognize the Notre Dame football player or players who played the best when it mattered the most. Suffice it to say that the primary criterion is a consistently high level of play, with significant bonus points awarded for exceeding expectations. Injuries have taken many of the pre-season favorites for this prestigious award out of the running. Who is your nominee for this award, and why?

This one’s tougher than in any year in recent memory. With injuries and average-to-underperformance all over offense, I’ll look to the defense. Manti has played pretty stellar football, but doesn’t get the bonus points because many expected that from him. Harrison Smith has had an excellent senior season. Despite preseason comments of adulation from coaches, his growth and consistency has come as quite a surprise (or even a shock) to many an Irish fan, including myself. Thus, I nominate HS.

3. With a delicate flavor similar to beef, though slightly sweeter than other meats, horse meat can be used to replace beef, pork, mutton, and any other meat in virtually any recipe, though most aficionados prefer it in marinated or spicy dishes. Nutritionally, horse meat has around 40 percent fewer calories than the leanest beef, while supplying 50 percent more protein and as much as 30 percent more iron; and horse fat is considered an excellent health-conscious deep-frying alternative, especially for delicately-flavored foods that are easily overpowered by heavier oils. What is your favorite horse meat recipe?

I think too many years of living in Trojan land has finally gotten to OC Domer. Let’s just hope that noted equestrian, Robert Hughes, isn’t reading this. That said, I offer this simple recipe for Traveler BBQ Pulled Horse (use pork if you’re not into the whole horse-eating thing) …

… Heat 2.5 pounds of his shoulder and 1 pint of Dad’s Root Bear in a crock pot for 6 hours and mix with your favorite BBQ sauce.

Alternatively, I’m kinda stuck on the visual of just watching Manti feast on Traveler’s raw carcass in front of the ‘SC bench.

4. Do you miss Pat Haden, who left the Notre Dame television broadcasts to become athletic director at USC?

Haden was knowledgeable, insightful and thoroughly well prepared. He called it as he saw it and anybody that perceived him as demonstrating an anti-ND bias was simply looking for bias. If anything, he often went too far out of his way to couch any Irish criticisms (of which they were frequently deserving during his tenure in the booth) in the most delicate of terms. I happen to know that Haden truly loves Notre Dame. As a Catholic kid, he almost decided to play for Our Lady’s University and holds the place very close to his heart. He never goes to campus without visiting the Grotto to light candles.

That said, I can’t say I miss him because Mike Mayock has proven to be a significant upgrade over a quality predecessor. I like him more and more with every game. Haden had a good run, but is back where he belongs and all will be right in the world when NBC finally does something about Tom Hammond.

5. USC is the Notre Dame rival I love to hate. What Notre Dame rival do you most despise, and why?

Michigan. Hands-down. Michigan is the only Irish rival for whom I reserve true scorn.

As an aside, I grew up despising USC as a die-hard UCLA fan. Surely, there’s plenty to dislike about the Trojans, and if you wanna hate them, you’re more than entitled. But bear in mind a few things about USC: (a) they never refused to play us, (b) like Notre Dame, they accept nothing less than championships – conference title’s mean nothing to them, and (c) their fan behavior as a whole, though far from perfect, is still a far cry from the consistently less-than-civil supporters of some of our other rivals.

6. Reggie Bush got a car, his parents a house. Cam Newton's Dad was looking for $180,000 in straight cash homey. Can Notre Dame compete for athletic recruits in this environment? Or do you believe these incidents are the exceptions to an otherwise clean recruiting landscape?

Two problems with the premise of this question:

Though the ND administration learned its lesson about the rigors of compliance in the wake of the Kim Dunbar affair back in the ‘90’s, the inference that Irish players are so far removed from some of the less scrupulous perks of being a big-time college football player may be a bit naïve. I’m quite sure that nothing even near the same stratosphere of what has been learned about guys like Bush and Newton, but I would like to maintain a modicum of realism on this topic.

Also, the question suggests that if ND can compete for recruits in this day and age, then these the Newton and Bush thing must be isolated incidents. I think we all know that these situations did not occur in a vacuum, but I still believe that ND can compete for recruits in this environment. They have plenty to offer that separates them from the other schools. Some of what they offer tempts the rarer teenagers who can think long term and value spirituality. Still, some of what they offer is universal in that every top athlete wants the guaranteed national exposure and die-hard fan base that comes with the Notre Dame territory.

I actually think USC can (and will) play clean and get the same level of recruits after the sanctions are lifted. What they offer is a glamorous Los Angeles lifestyle, the biggest football show in town, a hell of an alumni network, and an increasingly valuable degree to boot (if the player actually graduates). Bush didn’t go to ‘SC because he thought he was going to get paid, he took the money once he was there.

Auburn and a lot of other schools that don’t have something truly unique to sell, on the other hand, might have no other recourse than to let pay-for-play continue if they want to compete for the top guys.

Sports agent, Josh Lucas’ Sports Illustrated tell-all showed everyone how rampant the problem of paid student athletes can be. Still, what stood out to me in his article were the repeated instances of guys who wouldn’t take a dime; specifically, UCLA and USC superstar wide receivers J.J. Stokes and Keyshawn Johnson. Hell, star UCLA lineman Jonathan Ogden just wanted to go to a Janet Jackson concert.

There are enough top-level guys who don’t need a lot of money to play college football to go around, and that includes guys who come from families with few economic means. When Notre Dame wins games, they get more than their fair share of those guys.