by John Vannie
The USC Trojans return to Notre Dame on Saturday to renew the long standing rivalry between these schools. USC has won the last five contests and is heavily favored to add a sixth. The Irish will start Evan Sharpley at quarterback in an attempt to jumpstart their offense, while the Trojans will make a game time decision between starter John David Booty and Mark Sanchez. USC’s attack has sputtered of late due to injuries and inconsistent play, but the Trojan defense remains one of the nation’s best.
After dominating Nebraska in its season opener with a powerful offensive line, USC’s recent performances have been more pedestrian due to the loss of key starters up front. The most significant casualty is All-American left tackle Sam Baker, whose hamstring injury will likely keep him out of Saturday’s game. His backup, Charles Brown, is also hurting and may not be ready. To make matters worse, guards Chilo Rachal and Zach Heberer are at less than full strength. Coach Pete Carroll has resorted to moving players over from the defense in order to create depth.
Sanchez played reasonably well last week while replacing Booty, who has a broken finger on his throwing hand. Booty has practiced this week and could start or provide relief if Sanchez falters. Running back is also an area of concern for Carroll, but the Trojans are blessed with depth at this position. Chauncey Washington, Stafon Johnson and freshman sensation Joe McKnight will see action for USC.
Defensively, the Trojans will likely be missing middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, but strong side backer Brian Cushing will return to action after missing several games. Thomas Williams will replace Maualuga in the middle, and leading tackler Keith Rivers remains on the weak side. The secondary has also been impacted by injuries, with cornerbacks Terrell Thomas and Shareece Wright in various stages of disrepair. Wright may be well enough to play on Saturday.
Notre Dame has injury issues of its own and will not be sympathetic toward the Trojans. Although Jimmy Clausen will be available to back up Sharpley despite an ailing hip, tailback James Aldridge will miss the game. Linebacker Maurice Crum, the hero two weeks ago against UCLA, will try to play after sitting out most of last week’s game against Boston College.
Notre Dame’s Offense vs. USC’s Defense
The Trojan defense is similar to UCLA in that it has the speed to cover opposing receivers and the strength to shut down the run. USC has surrendered only 66 rushing yards per game and does not figure to have a problem stopping the Irish. The receiving corps will get a boost with the return of David Grimes, but the Trojans simply do not give up long plays in the passing game. Sharpley will have to demonstrate arm strength and accuracy on short routes to move the chains, but he will also have to contend with tall and fast USC linebackers who excel in coverage.
Surprisingly, the statistics show that USC has not recorded many sacks or interceptions this season. The Trojans are not a blitzing team, but the front four is still very talented. Tackle Sedrick Ellis has four sacks and will require a double team in the middle, while rush end Lawrence Jackson will provide another stern test for Notre Dame’s struggling offensive tackles. End Kyle Moore will occasionally drop into coverage, and he actually leads the team with two interceptions.
Although Sharpley has moved the Irish offense during his relief appearances, the risk of interceptions will be high if he must throw the ball 40-50 times on Saturday. A competent running game seems like a fantasy without Aldridge, and whoever carries the ball for Notre Dame will not be able to run wide against USC’s speedy defenders. If the Irish offense is going to score, it will need field position assistance from the defense or special teams.
Overall, the USC defense has no real weakness. Turnovers by the offense, untimely penalties or great individual plays by opposing receivers have hurt the Trojans this season, but Notre Dame’s attack is neither physical nor fast enough to achieve a sustained level of success against them.
USC’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
The Trojans have put together a solid ground game this season at nearly 200 yards per game, but that success has been undermined of late with the injuries up front. The loss of Baker and Brown negates an advantage on the left side where USC prefers to run the ball and Notre Dame has given up large chunks of yardage. Still, the Irish will need Crum in the lineup at full speed to contain the talented Trojan backs.
Sanchez has greater mobility than Booty and is more likely to make plays outside the pocket. If he starts, his inexperience will create turnover opportunities for Corwin Brown’s defense. Booty is the more accurate passer, but is not immune to mistakes under pressure. Notre Dame will have an opportunity to generate an effective rush against the depleted Trojan front wall, and it must take full advantage.
Surprisingly, no Trojan wide receiver has emerged as an all-world threat this season in the wake of Dwayne Jarrett’s departure, but 6’5” Patrick Turner is capable of a big game. USC’s most dangerous and talented pass catcher is tight end Fred Davis, who leads the team with 29 receptions, 17 yards per catch and four touchdowns. The Trojans will also utilize underrated fullback Stanley Havili when they need a third down conversion.
Carroll will also be able to put two new offensive weapons on display. Freshmen McKnight and Ronald Johnson have been in the system long enough to see extended action at tailback and wide receiver, respectively. Both have outstanding speed and will attract attention from the Irish defenders.
McKnight and Johnson have also become an integral part of USC’s return teams. McKnight’s long punt return in the fourth quarter against Arizona secured a win last week, and Johnson has become the primary kick returner. The other Trojan specialists are punter Gary Woidneck and kicker David Buehler, neither of whom has an exceptionally strong leg. Woidneck averages only 37 yards per punt, and Buehler’s longest field goal is 36 yards. USC’s kickoffs typically do not reach the end zone and are returned, although the coverage has been good.
Notre Dame has experienced problems of its own with punts and kicks, and last week’s performance in this area was particularly bad. A missed field goal and a mental error by punter Geoff Price hurt the Irish, and the return teams have failed to get untracked all season. At minimum, Notre Dame must ensure that it does not make a game-changing mistake on special teams this week, although it would be a good time to create a positive play that leads to points.
Both teams are struggling on offense for different reasons. USC must generate some consistency with a patchwork line and get quality play from its starting quarterback. Notre Dame hopes that Sharpley can keep the game close throughout rather than fill the air with high risk passes while trying to overcome another 20-point deficit.
The Trojans are more likely to have success running the ball and control time of possession, especially if Crum is not 100%. USC also has more big play potential in the passing game, but both teams will force the other to throw it short and work methodically down the field. The Trojans have a significant advantage in that their linebackers are better pass defenders than their Irish counterparts and will more effectively defend underneath routes and screens.
The questions that represent keys to victory are as follows:
– Which team will be able to run the ball effectively?
– Which quarterback will put the ball up for grabs?
– Will the Irish refrain from handing the ball to USC in its own territory?
– Will any Notre D
ame receiver have success against the talented Trojan secondary?
– Will the Irish be able to cover USC’s tight end and backs on third down?
– Which team will create a scoring opportunity with its special teams?
Notre Dame will need a performance from its defense not unlike the UCLA game. The offense and special teams must not make any significant mistakes, and the running game must be good enough to maintain a semblance of balance. Sharpley needs to complete more than half of his passes while knowing when to throw the ball away. Defensively, the Irish need to rattle the Trojan quarterback early and realize at least a 2:1 takeaway margin.
This is a tall order, and it’s more likely that USC’s defensive speed will force Irish mistakes. Notre Dame will have trouble containing Davis and McKnight, especially if USC has the ball for 35-40 minutes.
USC 27 NOTRE DAME 10