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Tuesday, November 21, 2006


posted by John Vannie
Notre Dame ends its regular season in typical even-year fashion as the Irish travel to Southern California to face the second ranked USC Trojans. In typical “no excuses” fashion, Coach Charlie Weis has made no secret of the fact that he has spent considerable time in preparation for this contest and has challenged his team accordingly. There is added emphasis and the intense desire among the Irish seniors to record a victory in this rivalry, but USC has plenty of motivation as well.

The Trojans are riding a 32 game winning streak in the Coliseum, where they can cut the grass short and force Notre Dame to wear white jerseys instead of green. USC’s offense boasts a typical stable of swift skill position athletes, led by receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith and tailbacks C.J. Gable and Chauncey Washington. They are directed by rapidly improving quarterback John David Booty.

Smith’s outstanding play this season means that the Irish secondary cannot focus solely on Jarrett, who burned them last year with his infamous fourth and nine reception. Smith solidified his status as a clutch receiver earlier this season with highly productive games against Washington State and Oregon State while Jarrett was nursing various injuries. Booty now has multiple choices in key passing situations, which makes the Trojans even more difficult to defend.

Gable has added a burst to the running game. His second half runs against California pulled USC out of the doldrums and broke open a close contest. Washington runs well but is not quite as explosive. The offensive line protects Booty extremely well (only 13 sacks in ten games) but has not been quite as dominant as its recent predecessors in the ground game despite the presence of left tackle Sam Baker and center Ryan Khalil.

As for Booty, his biggest strides as USC’s quarterback came in the team’s lone defeat at Oregon State. Down 33-10 at one point, he orchestrated a furious comeback that barely came up short. Since that disappointment, Booty and the rest of the Trojans have performed extremely well and demonstrably better than earlier this season.

Defensively, USC has considerable speed that will limit Notre Dame’s play selection and force Weis to improvise and innovate. The 3-4 alignment employed by Pete Carroll does not allow opponents to run wide, and safeties Kevin Ellison and Taylor Mays and do not let anyone to get behind them for quick scores.

Up front, Lawrence Jackson is the Trojans’ best pass rusher while Sedrick Ellis stuffs the run from the nose tackle position. Linebackers Dallas Sartz, Keith Rivers, Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga are tall, fast and physical players who can blitz or drop into coverage with equal skill.

USC’s loaded roster means that special teams are well stocked with athletes that can give the Irish headaches. Notre Dame’s poor performance on kickoff returns combined with its own short kicks and recent coverage breakdowns have to be a concern for the Irish staff. Field position will be a factor in the game and Notre Dame cannot afford to hand the Trojans a significant advantage on every exchange.

Mario Danelo has been an outstanding place kicker for USC this season. He has made all but one of his field goals to date and does not figure to rattle with the game on the line. Gable handles kickoff returns while Desmond Reed handles the punts. Both are capable of breaking one for a score. Finally, the Trojans have another weapon in kickoff specialist Troy Van Blarcom, who has recorded 35 touchbacks in 59 tries.

The Irish are not without quality players of their own. The defensive line has been playing extremely well and will have a chance to get pressure on Booty even if they don’t sack him numerous times. Linebackers Maurice Crum and Travis Thomas are good enough to stay with Washington and Gable, but the matchups in the secondary will probably determine the outcome.

Mike Richardson is a good bet to line up against Jarrett, while Terrail Lambert will have his hands full with Smith. No one has forgotten that Michigan’s Mario Manningham became a household name at Notre Dame’s expense, and the Irish made stars out of Purdue’s Selwyn Lymon and North Carolina’s Hakeem Nicks. If Richardson, Lambert and their counterparts at safety cannot slow down the Trojan duo along with freshman understudy Patrick Turner and sure-handed tight end Fred Davis, it will be a long night.

With all that can be said about the Trojans and their role as the favorite on Saturday, the Notre Dame seniors do not lack motivation. Many of them endured three consecutive 31-point blowouts and played the role of the Washington Generals as three USC athletes clinched the Heisman vote against them. Last year’s near miss only intensified the desire to beat the Trojans before their college careers are over.

The questions are whether a maximum effort by Notre Dame will be enough to overcome USC’s depth and talent, and if they can prevent the big play that could ignite a three or four touchdown scoring avalanche. I admit I’m still haunted by a kickoff return in 1974 that led to a 49-point third quarter by the Trojans, but this year’s team is also capable of such an explosion.

It will be a bad sign if Notre Dame falls behind early, and the visitors must not lose the turnover battle. Weis will attempt to control the tempo with a precision passing game and quick hitters by Darius Walker. On defense, the idea will be to make USC work for every first down and take away the long gainers.

The game will likely unfold with the Irish on top as halftime approaches, and then become a test of wills and stamina after intermission. USC is playing for a berth in the national championship game, and they are not going to go quietly.

A key for the Irish offense is whether they can continue to run the ball in the second half after Pete Carroll adjusts his defense to slow Weis’ attack. Another will be the play of Marcus Freeman and David Grimes, who will need to catch Quinn's passes when USC focuses on Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija.

Pass protection is vital to both sides. Notre Dame must pick up the blitzes by Sartz and Cushing, while Sam Young needs to adjust to the speed of the rush better than he did against UCLA. Defensively, Derek Landri must continue to be disruptive against better competition than he has faced in the last few weeks, and Victor Abiamiri will need to get the best of Trojan right tackle Kyle Williams.

It’s not overly dramatic to suggest that this game is a must win for Weis and his program, and that it will become the legacy of this senior class led by Brady Quinn. Notre Dame has arguably failed to record a signature win under Weis, with losses to USC and Ohio State last year and to Michigan in September. While the national championship game or the Heisman trophy may not be within reach, this week is the perfect time to silence the critics who claim the Irish don’t deserve to stand with the nation’s elite teams.

The positional matchups are as follows:

Position / Advantage
Quarterback – Notre Dame
Running Back – USC
Wide Receivers – USC
Tight Ends – Even
ND OLine vs. USC DLine – Even
USC OLine vs. ND DLine – Even
Linebackers – USC
Secondary – Even
Punting - Notre Dame
Kicking - USC
Return Teams - USC
Intangibles - Notre Dame

Obviously, Quinn must turn in an excellent performance for Notre Dame to have a chance, but the Irish will lose if the outcome rests entirely on his shoulders. The defense and special teams must also play at a significantly higher level than they have demonstrated to date, and Notre Dame must finally avoid the costly penalties that have been so annoyingly prevalent this season. Also, the Irish cannot afford so much as one missed extra point, such as the one that doomed their BCS chances ten years ago in the Coliseum.

Given that there is little margin for error, an Irish victory may be wishful thinking. This is one game that cannot be decided on paper, however, and Notre Dame has yet to play at or near its potential for more than a few brief stretches since the Penn State game. I believe this team has a few things left to prove, and one of them will take place on Saturday night.

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