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Notre Dame vs. USC: Keys to an Irish Win

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Notre Dame vs. USC: Keys to an Irish Win

Notre Dame faces rival USC Saturday in South Bend.

Both teams enter the contest coming off a bye week and, save wide receiver Michael Floyd, the Irish are as healthy as they’ve been since the season opener.

Lately the series has been owned by the Trojans, with seven straight victories by an average margin of 27 points. Over these same seven meetings only the 2005 and 2006 contests have been decided by fewer than 31 points.

As head coach Charlie Weis said in his weekly press conference, Notre Dame fans, coaches and players needs this win in a big way.

USC Version 2009

It is amazing what USC head coach Pete Carroll has accomplished. Carroll is 88-15 (85.4 percent) in his eight years with the Trojans. Since 2002 he is 23-1 against non-conference foes and he consistently fields physical, talented teams despite losses to the NFL and staff turnover.

This year is no exception. Despite the loss of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt from last year’s Rose Bowl champion team, the Trojans haven’t missed a beat.

In typical Carroll fashion the Trojans get off to quick starts, outscoring their opponents by 65 points in the first half, compared to 36 in the second half.

In atypical Carroll fashion this team hasn’t established a decided advantage in turnover margin. The Trojans have nine turnovers on the year (three interceptions and six fumbles) and have only forced eight of their own (three interceptions and five fumbles).

USC is also fairly undisciplined. Entering Saturday’s game the Trojans rank 95th in penalty yards racking up 69.4 per game.

Offense

The 2009 Trojan offense isn’t the juggernaut of the past, but it isn’t bad either. With few exceptions USC’s offense is performing at the rate their competition allows.

New offensive coordinator John Morton has been fortunate to ride a strong running game through the early part of the schedule as there has been little need to open up the playbook and put the game on the shoulders of freshman quarterback Matt Barkley.

The primary offensive weakness is third down and red zone efficiency. The Trojans rank 113th with a 28.8 percent conversion rate on third down and only score 85 percent of the time they cross the oppositions’ 20-yard line. Moreover, a paltry 60 percent (61) of red zone opportunities have resulted in touchdowns.

What they lack in efficiency, they make up for in production averaging 430.6 yards per game and 6.7 yards per play. Most of this production has come on the ground and it’s no secret Morton prefers to run the ball behind the strength of the offense, a veteran and agile front five that may be the best offensive line in the country.

Morton has called 189 runs to 134 pass attempts (58.5/41.5 percent run/pass split) and the yards have come nearly evenly on the ground and through the air (1040 yards rushing, 1113 yards passing).

USC’s offensive line has opened holes for a running game that averages 5.5 yards per carry and 208 yards per game. Throw in 13 rushing touchdowns and the Trojans rank in the top 25 in every rushing category. And these rankings haven’t come with the help of poor competition. While the offense hasn’t faced an exceptional run defense every week, Ohio State and California have solid units and the Trojans have been routinely outperforming their defensive counterparts.

Joe McKnight and Allen Bradford lead the attack. The former averages 7.1 yards per carry while the latter averages 6.5 yards per attempt. McKnight also has six touchdowns on the ground and is the workhorse with 67 carries on the year.

The passing game is rather pedestrian, but that’s really all Morton has wanted from it. Barkley has largely been asked to manage the game—not win it—and he has responded by throwing only two interceptions and completing almost 240 passing yards per game.

The favorite receiving target is Damian Williams who has caught 24 passes for 359 yards (15 yards per reception), but Barkley has spread the ball around as seven receivers have caught five or more passes. The deep threat comes in the middle of the field as tight end Anthony McCoy is averaging 21.9 yards per catch.

Finally, the offensive line has only allowed six sacks but this slightly overvalues the pass protection. With only 134 attempts, the Trojans have allowed one sack per 22.3 attempts, not an overwhelmingly impressive number.

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Trojan offense.

USC Offensive Efficiency
StatisticSouthern CaliforniaSouthern California RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd Down Efficiency28.811337.556
Red Zone Efficiency855079.652
Red Zone TD Efficiency60615453
USC Total Offense
StatisticSouthern CaliforniaSouthern California RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/Game28.8532672
Yards215353223981
Yards/Play6.79682
TDs18641864
Yards/Game430.622400.682
USC Rushing Offense
StatisticSouthern CaliforniaSouthern California RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards10402591274
Yards/Carry5.564.574
TDs13151073
Yards/Game20817164.373
USC Passing Offense
StatisticSouthern CaliforniaSouthern California RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards/ Attempt8.3257.787
Yards/ Completion13.91812.372
Completion %59.75862.888
Interceptions319644
TDs4103642
Sacks6321165
Pass Efficiency134.849132.382
Yards/Game222.657236.279

Defense

It is amazing that Trojan defense has been so dominant despite losing eight starters from a unit that was one of the best in the country last year.

Led by Taylor Mays, arguably the best safety in the country, USC is outperforming their offensive competition by large margins and has yet to show a weakness.

It has largely been plug-and-play for new defensive coordinator Rocky Seto, who has favored simple over clever. The result is a unit that is incredibly effective and efficient.

The Trojan defense ranks in the top 15 in all three efficiency categories, but is extremely stingy on third down (29.5 percent conversion rate) and has allowed only two red zone touchdowns all year.

In total defense Mays and company rank sixth or better in every category and only allow 8.6 points per game (4) and 3.7 yards per play (4). About half of the scoring has come on field goals as USC has allowed only three touchdowns (all rushing) through five games.

The run defense has been particularly strong. Chris Galippo (32 tackles) leads a front seven that has stifled opposing offenses allowing fewer than 65 rushing yards per game at a 2-yard per carry rate. Every rushing defense category ranks 10th or better.

Against the pass, things aren’t much different. While the Trojans have given up some big plays through the air (11.1 yards per completion) they have been overwhelmingly efficient allowing only 5.4 yards per attempt and a 48.5 percent completion rate. The pass efficiency rating of 90 is good for eighth in the country and the secondary has yet to allow a touchdown pass.

But perhaps the most impressive part of the defense is the ability to get to opposing signal callers. USC has recorded 21 sacks on only 161 passing attempts, good for one sack per 7.7 pass attempts. The front four are particularly adept at rushing the quarterback, with 15 of the 21 sacks coming from defensive linemen.

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Trojan defense.

USC Defensive Efficiency
StatisticSouthern CaliforniaSouthern California RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd Down Efficiency29.41236.972
Red Zone Efficiency691284.655
Red Zone TD Efficiency23261.958
USC Total Defense
StatisticSouthern CaliforniaSouthern California RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/Game8.6423.577
Yards11934182584
Yards/Play3.745.180
TDs321674
Yards/Game238.66326.489
USC Rushing Defense
StatisticSouthern CaliforniaSouthern California RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards324469377
Yards/Carry253.677
TDs39775
Yards/Game64.85123.981
USC Passing Defense
StatisticSouthern CaliforniaSouthern California RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards/ Attempt5.4136.678
Yards/ Completion11.14512.158
Completion %48.475587
Interceptions392554
TDs01766
Sacks2111686
Pass Efficiency908118.482
Yards/Game173.825202.575

Summary

The Trojan offense isn’t flashy, but is efficient and wields a potent ground game that matches a strength against a weak Irish run defense.

USC’s defense is the best Notre Dame will face in the regular season, has dramatically outperformed their offensive competition, and can really get after the quarterback.

This all seems to add up to an impossible task for Notre Dame. So what can Weis and the Irish do to win?

Offense

  1. Don’t force it. Seto’s unit relies on good fundamentals, talent and athleticism. Consequently, the Trojans play as much base defense as any team. Against this scheme quarterback Jimmy Clausen can’t get greedy, and Weis must take calculated risks with his play-calling. The methodical drives that were a staple of the Brady Quinn era will be a commodity in this game.
  2. Don’t establish tendencies. Against Nevada, Notre Dame ran behind tight end motion 90 percent of the time. It was obvious, but it worked because of a decided advantage in talent. It won’t against USC. The athleticism and talent of the Trojan defense makes the execution margin of error very small. Play-calling must be balanced and unpredictable, and the Irish offense must stay ahead of the chains to prevent Mays and company from honing in on tendencies. If USC is able to identify trends, they will quickly become dominant.
  3. Protecting Clausen is imperative. USC can pressure the passer, and they typically don’t need more than their front four to do it. The Irish must be effective executing screens and draws to keep the Trojan defensive line off-balance, and must establish an effective running game to prevent them from pinning back their ears and rushing Clausen without pause. It is critical for the front five to provide pass protection without committing extra players, particularly when Weis spreads the field and Clausen is not under center. The matchup between Notre Dame’s front five and the defensive front of USC will be the deciding factor in offensive production for the Irish. If USC can get pressure with four, it will be a long day for Clausen and company.

Defense

  1. Switch it up and hit ’em. Barkley has been poised, but he is a freshman. Co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta needs to mix blitzes, personnel packages, coverages, etc. to give similar pre-snap looks coupled with different play-calls. The confusion should go a long way in forcing a mistake. Additionally, the Irish need to punish the freshman at every permitted opportunity.
  2. The athleticism in the front seven must pay dividends. The most critical factor in this game will be the play of the Irish front seven. They have plenty of talent and athleticism, but have not played to their potential. There is no better time to breakout than now. Manti Te’o, Brian Smith and Darius Fleming must play well in space and prevent McKnight from ripping off big gains. Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams and Kerry Neal must shed blocks and shoot the gaps. Without a solid game from these players, the Irish have little chance of winning.
  3. Bend-but-don’t-break will actually work. The Irish defense has yielded plenty of yards, mostly via a bend-but-don’t-break style of defense that blends soft coverage with quarterback pressure. Against USC this is actually preferred. The Trojan offensive line and backfield are too talented to stop, but the running game becomes less effective in the red zone. USC should move the ball well outside the 20-yard line but the Irish must buckle down on a short field and continue to frustrate a poor red zone offense. Additionally, USC struggles on third down. Forcing them to methodically move the ball the length of the field favors the defense.

Summary

Offensively, the game plan comes down to the numbers in the box. If USC is allowed to play base defense there is little chance of success. Notre Dame must establish an effective running game and maintain balance to force an extra man in the box. The front five must protect Clausen and force Seto to bring the blitz and sacrifice a defender in coverage.

If the Irish can do these two things, they will have success. Most of the burden falls on the offensive line, and this game will be won up front.

On defense Notre Dame must force third down and make Barkley and company consistently execute. On a short field the advantage tilts towards the home team as Tenuta can afford to use the secondary in run support.

The Irish have yet to play up to their potential but will need their best performance of the year to win this game, particularly on defense. Even then they will likely need a big special teams play or some help from the visitors. If USC plays to their potential, the probability of victory is not high, and the Irish will need some gambles to pay off.

USC gets off to fast starts, so the Irish cannot afford to come out flat. But there is plenty of material to motivate. The Trojans have owned this series under Carroll’s tutelage. Weis has yet to beat an elite opponent. There are plenty of Irish doubters. And Clausen needs a signature win.

In other words, a victory is needed in the worst way, for Weis, for Clausen, and for Notre Dame. The Irish are certainly capable of the upset, and the vibe of the team and campus has the arrow pointed in the right direction.

Furthermore

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