by John Vannie
A pair of 4-2 teams looking to start the second half of the season on a positive note will collide at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night as long time rival USC comes to town. The Trojans have already fired Coach Lane Kiffen after a stunning home loss to Washington State and a blowout thumping by Arizona State, while the Irish lost winnable games to Michigan and Oklahoma and rank in the bottom quartile in many offensive statistical categories. Coach Brian Kelly’s squad is coming off a bye week, while long time USC defensive assistant and former Mississippi head coach Ed Orgeron won his first game last Thursday as the interim head coach at Troy. NBC will televise the game starting at 7:30 PM Eastern time.
Orgeron is known as a fiery and emotional leader, and this style has resonated well within the USC locker room after evidence of internal discord under Kiffen had leaked into the public domain. The Trojans appear to be happy and unified now, and hope this renewed enthusiasm will carry forward through the rest of the season. “We love Coach O like a dad”, said linebacker Hayes Pullard. “We love him and look up to him. He told us to have an ‘A’ game season and take it one step at a time.” Orgeron tried to downplay his part in this contest and the importance of the game, stating, “”I don’t want to make it bigger than life,” but clearly the outcome is significant for both teams and coaching staffs.
Kelly will attempt to get his offense out of the doldrums, which may rest on his ability to maximize the strengths of quarterback Tommy Rees and a running game that has come to life as George Atkinson and Taurean Folston have shown marked improvement. The Irish defense remains a concern, but the front line should be at its healthiest level all season as Sheldon Day returns to action and Stephon Tuitt appears to be back his early 2012 form.
The list of injuries for both teams is extensive, but many Trojan players who have been sidelined have vowed to get on the field against Notre Dame. Star receiver Marquis Lee says his sprained knee is good to go after missing a few games, and cornerback Anthony Brown, who suffered a knee injury in the season opener, will start in an effort to shore up a porous secondary. Defensive end Morgan Breslin is also expected to return, and USC will have Silas Redd in the rotation at tailback to bolster an already formidable running game. The Irish will play without inside linebacker Jarret Grace and wide receiver Daniel Smith, each of whom went down with similar season-ending broken legs against Arizona State.
Notre Dame leads the series by a 44-35-5 margin, including victories in two of the last three games. USC has won its last five appearances in South Bend and nine of the last eleven meetings overall. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the 1973 classic won by the national championship Irish team that was honored earlier this season at the stadium.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. USC’S DEFENSE
The Irish have been plagued by turnovers, failure to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns, and poor starts in each game since the season opener against Temple. The Trojan defense is fast and athletic among the front seven, but is limited in terms of size and depth. Orgeron has devoted a lot of practice time trying to prepare second teamers ready to play meaningful minutes, but this comes with a risk of mistakes. End Leonard Williams is the best lineman in the Trojan 3-4 alignment, while the nose tackle is sophomore Antwuan Woods. The other end spot is manned by starter George Uko and reserve J.R. Tavai, who has come on strong of late.
Senior outside linebackers Breslin and Devon Kennard can also get after the quarterback, so any physical advantage enjoyed by the Irish front will be lost if Rees finds himself in third and long situations. A balanced attack will keep the pass rush at bay, expose the soft Trojan secondary and allow Notre Dame to wear down USC as others have done this season. Pullard is the team’s leading tackler at inside linebacker and is also fast enough to be effective in pass coverage. Overall, the Trojans are similar to Arizona State in that they create a lot of negative plays but are vulnerable to straight ahead power.
If Brown returns at corner after a six week absence, Notre Dame should test his ability to cut effectively on his injured knee. Either Josh Shaw or Torin Harris will line up on the opposite side, and neither has been particularly effective. Safeties Dion Bailey and freshman Su’a Cravens are excellent athletes but are also caught out of position on occasion. The Irish receivers match up well with this group, but an over-reliance on the pass and predictable down and distance situations will narrow the throwing lanes for Rees. Pullard in particular has a knack for reading the quarterback and making a play on the ball.
Orgeron’s style is to play physical football, so Notre Dame must be prepared to slug it out at the line of scrimmage. A strong effort in the early going should pay dividends later as USC is not built to make up second half deficits. The Irish offensive line must be disciplined so as not to let unblocked defenders into the backfield, but barring these mistakes they should be able to open running lanes for Atkinson and company while keeping Rees upright.
USC’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Trojans have outscored opponents by 38-7 in the first quarter, which has helped keep some pressure off sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler. A solid offensive line lead by tackle Kevin Graf and guard John Martinez has enabled Redd, Tre Madden and Justin Davis to rush for 200 yards per game. Kessler has become an efficient passer in this environment with a 60% completion rate, but he still may not ready to carry the team on his shoulders when the chips are down.
Although Lee may be more of a decoy and straight line deep threat in his return to the lineup at wide receiver, his presence may be enough to give rising star Nelson Agholor room to operate in the Irish secondary. USC also makes extensive use of its backs and tight ends in the passing game to keep it short and simple for Kessler, but Agholor is the most likely target on third and long unless Lee is closer to full strength than has been reported. Madden catches the ball well out of the backfield and both Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer are above average tight ends.
Orgeron will rely on assistant coach Clay Helton to call the plays, but Notre Dame can expect plenty of power runs and an occasional deep shot to Lee or Agholor to loosen up the Irish. As far as Kessler is concerned, the switch from Kiffen to Helton against Arizona did not require a major adjustment. “Some people thought it may be different, but Coach Helton and Matt Barkley taught me the offense. I spend so much time with Coach Helton. Overall I love the game that Coach Helton called. It allowed us to play fast, a lot of shifts and motion.”
A healthy defensive front line will serve Notre Dame well, but it remains to be seen whether its linebackers will demonstrate the required speed or tackling prowess to keep USC from controlling the tempo of the game. Kessler is not a threat to run, so the Irish should be on good shape if they can force him into obvious passing situations. That is going to be easier said than done.
Lee has been the primary return man for the Trojans when he is healthy, but it is unlikely he will be asked to assume this role in this contest. Agholor may be called upon to take his place, and he is nearly as dangerous. The problem is that USC’s roster is shorthanded and any emphasis on the return game has been lacking. Its coverage teams have performed decently, though, but Notre Dame can gain an overall field position edge in this area if the players and coaching staff make it a priority.
Andre Heidari is five for eight in field goals this season, although he has hit a 52-yarder. The Irish have the edge in that category with Kyle Brindza, who hit five three-pointers last year in the Coliseum to put away the Trojans. Brindza also gets more depth on his kickoffs, while punting remains an area in need of greater consistency. Kris Albarado is USC’s punter, and his relatively short boots are rarely returned.
This is a critical game for both teams in that the trajectory of their respective seasons hangs in the balance. Notre Dame wishes to keep alive its slim hopes of playing in a BCS bowl, while USC needs to develop positive mojo to compete against elite conference foes and rebuild the program from Kiffen’s ashes.
One key for Notre Dame is getting ahead early on the scoreboard. Another is stopping the run and forcing Kessler to try to beat them through the air. If USC has another 200 yard effort on the ground, the Trojans will win. Each team will try to manhandle the other to gain an advantage, so the question is whether this game will look more like 2012 in which the Irish defense dominated or 2011 when USC came into South Bend and ran over the hosts. Both teams have talented receivers and tight ends, but their contributions are dependent upon quarterbacks that have limitations.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Will missed tackles continue to haunt the Notre Dame defense?
Which quarterback will avoid a costly mistake?
Will the Irish be ready for an intense slugfest after two weeks off?
Can USC keep from running out of gas in the fourth quarter?
Will Marquis Lee be a difference maker or a non-factor?
Which team will manufacture the most effective pass rush?
How much bad music will we be subjected to on third downs?
Will 12 hours of tailgating lead to chaos in the stadium rest rooms?
The Trojans are more difficult to gauge than they were a few weeks ago when Kiffen was coaching and several key players were injured. Orgeron undoubtedly wants to keep his job on a permanent basis and has certainly targeted Notre Dame and UCLA as keys to that quest. Although his over-the-top style will wear thin over time, it is playing well right now in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Brian Kelly had a lot of issues to fix during the bye week. It will be very interesting to see what his team looks like on Saturday, particularly in the first quarter. Fans of each team have reason to be concerned, including the Irish linebackers and the USC secondary, as well as both quarterbacks. If there is a slight edge to find in this equation, it is that the depth-deprived Trojans may not be able to hold off a fourth quarter push by Notre Dame to steal the win.
NOTRE DAME 30 USC 27