Run early…run often?The oft-referenced and, in the opinion of most, telling statistic that Notre Dame has won 25 consecutive games in which the Irish have out-rushed their foe was (officially) brought to head coach Brian Kelly's attention this Tuesday.
I'm willing to admit that figures lie and liars figure, but is there something to this particular one-sided statistic?
"I would say that you probably would look at controlling the line of scrimmage, which allows you the opportunity to stay on the field and stay out of long and distances, stay ahead of the chains," Kelly said of the stat's real world relevance. "I think that's probably more than anything else. Running the football has allowed Notre Dame to stay ahead of the down-and-distance game and stay on the field and have consequently an opportunity to score some points."
USC's pass defense ranks 114th nationally. The Trojans run D an acceptable 47th. But the inherent trap of slinging the pigskin all over The Coliseum's hallowed ground must be avoided by Kelly, the team's play-caller.
True freshman QB Tommy Rees will likely need to attempt more than the 20 throws he showcased in both of the last two contests; the Trojans defensive front – when motivated – is likely too talented and powerful for the ever-improving Irish offensive wall to move consistently throughout the contest. Kelly referred to the group led by Jurrell Casey and Armond Armstead as "the best front four that we'll see all year."
But anything approaching 35 passes would likely spell trouble with a capital I-N-T for Rees whose early-career propensity for the occasional poorly thrown ball is exceeded only by his touch on the corner route and moxie as a young competitor.
Rees will face his toughest test vs. the fastest – though not most cohesive – defense he's faced. To boot, the crew is led by the best defensive mind the Irish have encountered this season. Trojans defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has devised schemes that slowed the St. Louis Rams QB Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf in his MVP season; one year later, he guided a defense that buried NFL MVP Rich Gannon in ruins during Tampa Bay's 2002 Super Bowl win.
The Trojans have struggled on that side of scrimmage, but they're more than capable.
Rees has thus far ably handled Utah (ranked No. 16 defensively at the time) in the rain, but with the home crowd at his back and a conservative game plan. He handed the glitz and glare of the Yankee Stadium lights, but the Irish were physically superior across the board last Saturday vs. Army.
The freshman will have the benefit of neither this week vs. the program's tormentors from Troy.
The wonderful world of Wood: His workload has been building: 11 carries in his first start; 16 two weeks later; a career-high 19 when needed most and against the best rushing defense the Irish faced this season in the formerly mighty Utes.
Cierre Wood is not yet a workhorse ‘back. He may never be in Kelly's version of the spread – not to mention the fact that the prevalence of the 20+ carry per game runner is dissipating from the sport. But the need to run the ball never will, and 15 to 20 carries from Wood; 5-6 more from his junior teammate Jonas Gray; plus 3-4 from senior Robert Hughes, whether as a tandem or trio, is Notre Dame's best path to success Saturday. Notre Dame's running backs most continue to carry the load for a Rees-led offense to be successful, especially on the road.
Wood, an Oxnard, California native is ready…and always has been.
"I just told myself I know I belong out there," he said of last year's season on the sideline. "There's no doubt about it. But at the same time, since I wasn't out there, I know there had to be a reason. I know I have the talent to be out there. I know I was good enough to be out there so I had to take a deeper look at the fundamentals and as you can see I'm on the field now."
"I've improved on being patient and waiting for things to develop," the first-year contributor said of his 2010 efforts. "In this game, it doesn't happen like that (scoring every time you touch the ball) you have to wait out things and let things develop; reading out my blocks and letting things set themselves up.
Wood's improved his overall game with each appearance, but field assimilation isn't the only resource for bettering his still-developing skills.
"I've learned a lot. Speaking with the older guys, Armando during practice," Wood said of injured senior and position group leader Armando Allen. "Gathering thoughts from everyone, seeing what they see and just applying it on the field.
As for his return home to face a host of familiar foes, Wood is prepared – not to mention well-equipped – for the inevitable chatter he'll encounter.
"They'll be talking all day long," Wood said of a few Trojans whom he considers friends including safety T.J. McDonald. "Knowing them, there'll be talking non-stop. It is what it is. It's going to happen, you can't stop it."
Kicking it up a notchAdjusting from defending standard or spread offenses to the lesser-seen triple-option has been an oft-discussed story line in South Bend this season.
This week's adjustment is a bit more tenuous in that strategy and alignment will have less impact on execution.
In short: speed kills. Notre Dame was tasked with defending athletes from Army, Utah, Tulsa, Navy and Western Michigan in recent weeks; Saturday is a whole new animal.
"Clearly we're playing a very talented football team. They haven't lost that. They're extremely athletic," Kelly noted of the familiar four-and-five star recruit Trojans.
"(QB) Matt Barkley, as you know, has been that leader for them, starting as a true freshman, now playing in his second year. He is very comfortable with Coach (Lane) Kiffin's offense. You can see that. It doesn't take you very long to watch film to see that this young man has really adapted well to the system," Kelly noted of the sophomore signal-caller whose status for the game is in doubt due to an ankle injury suffered last week vs. Oregon State.
The improved Irish defense faces a stiff test from that aforementioned trio as well as a quartet of running backs that are capable of standout efforts on any given Saturday.
"We're looking for speed in practice because there is a transition there," Kelly said particularly of the Army vs. USC athlete gap his players will encounter over a 7-day period. "Coverage, all the things that we had done leading up to Army, we didn't do for a week. We'll spend a lot of time (in practice) with 7-7, offensive (first string) versus defensive (first string), getting that speed back to where it needs to be."
USC has scored 31, 48, 32, and 34 in its last five Coliseum contests. The program has averaged 41.7 ppg vs. Notre Dame in its last four trips to Los Angeles.
The Irish defense has yielded just one offensive touchdown in its last 11 quarters. The group has held five of 11 opponents to one touchdown or less and three others to two TD, winning four of those five contests (the lone exception Stanford).
Of Notre Dame's last eight foes, only Navy has topped two offensive touchdowns since the Irish were stunned in a Week Three overtime loss in East Lansing.
Look for the Trojans to put two touchdowns on the board, but that, coupled with two field goals won't be enough to extend their series streak to nine.
As noted on these pages over the summer in the last of our 20 pre-season predictions:
Eight is Enough.
Notre Dame 24 USC 20
Note: Coming Saturday morning: three key individual matchups that will help determine the contest.