Tyrone Willingham said the USC/Notre Dame rivalry has always been special. "You have two outstanding programs that somewhat reshaped college football landscape year, many years ago by starting this rivalry. And because of that, because of that time span and because of the great teams that have existed, you have just the right makeup for a lot of great finishes, a lot of great games and a lot of the national spotlight of these two teams have occupied and because of that, that makes this game very special.
The Irish were embarrassed in the Coliseum last year losing 44-13 and surrendering 610 yards of total offense. Willingham was asked if he will use their poor performance as motivation to beat the Trojans.
"I think what I've said in regards to that, not just today, but as a coach, you try to use all forms of motivation," said Willingham. "There are some guys that respond well to that. There are some guys that don't respond well to that. What we have to do as coaches is just find the right button that gets our young man to perform at his highest level."
The Irish will have to try to balance being motivated and playing disciplined in this game. Motivation shouldn't be a problem but Willingham said you have to still play a disciplined game. "You always talk to the players on your team about playing within yourself because that's an important part of being successful. Once we get outside of ourselves, we usually have the least amount of control, and control is important in everything that we do."
Willingham said he was very dissatisfied with his team's performance last year but his team needs to recognize this is a different year. "I think you're disappointed as a team and as coaches that anyone has any type of success against you. When they have as much as they did, it definitely disappointed. But this is a new year. "
The Trojan defense is very good and Willingham says this will be their biggest test all year. "It will be probably as good of a test as we will have this year. They are very quick, up front they are very strong, very explosive, their back ends are skilled, excellent coverage. This is a very talented defense. I mean, obviously they've play that way this year, and you can see that. But they are as good as any group that we'll have to face, without question."
The Trojan defense is ranked 5th in the country against the run. Willingham said he's hoping they can run the football this week like they did against Pittsburgh. "I'm like everyone else, we'll be hoping we can have, but this is a very, very good defense. Gosh, they are physical. They are quick, you just use all of the very positive adjectives you can in describing them. And when they cut it loose, it's impressive."
The front four of the Trojan defense has been labeled "the wild bunch" and are considered one of the top defensive lines in the country. Willingham says this is a very talented front four who play well together. "They are talented. They are talented and they play hard and they play well together. I mean, that is a formula for success at almost any program. If you have talented young men they have great size, great strength, great explosiveness and they play well together."
The Trojan offense managed 610 yards against the Irish defense last year. Willingham said they haven't changed much from last year in their previous games. "They are doing some of the things. A lot of the things that they do will be adjustments that they will make coming into our ballgame. Some will be not so subtle change-ups they will have especially for us.
The Trojans have three fine tailbacks in Lendale White, Hershel Dennis and Reggie Bush. Willingham says all three have talent and different styles. "I have been impressed with all of them but I think it is 21, to me that really jumps out of the group. Not only does he have speed and quickness, but he seems to have kind of an explosive powerful nature to him also. You see him run through a lot of tackles but it is a very talented group, and when you have three guys of that nature, what it does, it puts constant pressure on you because there's no letdown in that group."
"It is very difficult because they do offer different styles," Willingham continued. "What you have to do is just basically have your base plan in place and really execute and just concentrate on the fundamentals, mentally first of all, and physically if you are executing, then you have a chance to make the play. "
USC is also led by quarterback Matt Leinart. This is Leinart's first year starting and Willingham said he's playing very well this year. "He's very talented and he had an opportunity to kind of see a very good quarterback, probably even better than that in Palmer, perform just a fantastic year. I think there's also some learning that takes place when you're that second guy just sitting and you're watching and you're learning from someone who is pretty good. But he has done an excellent job of stepping in, not being intimidated by their program or by the fact that he is stepping in."
The Irish are coming off their most impressive offensive performance of the season last week against Pittsburgh. The Irish rushed for 352 yards and dominated the Panther defense up front. Willingham said his offense has improved but has a ways to go before being a good offensive team.
"I think the game illustrated some significant improvement," Willingham said." But the key to that is that we continue to do that, and the key for us as coaches and team is that we continue to work and don't get the impression or the feeling that we are there. There's still a lot of improvement for this football team, and especially on our offensive line and really on our total offense. So we have to continue that course, and if we do, then we are fine."
The Irish started freshman offensive lineman Ryan Harris last week for the first time. Willingham was asked if Harris was the difference in the offense last week. "I think the play of the group was a big difference because I don't think Ryan Harris by himself can do all that was done Saturday alone, so I think it takes the whole group, and I think the group has had a fine, fine performance. And of course they were accompanied by a back that had a fine performance, two backs. I think Ryan ran the ball fairly well, 80 yards. It was a very productive evening for a lot of people."
Willingham did say, however, that Harris had a fine first start for a freshman. "He performed very well. I think to put a freshman in his first start in that situation against a highly ranked team, I think he performed very well. But again, he still has a lot of room to go and he would be the first to say that."
Defensive tackle Darrell Campbell had his finest game of the year and Willingham certainly noticed his effort. "If you notice the initial stages of that football game, I think Darrell had a tremendous impact on what was taking place, his improvement in the middle created havoc for their offense. When you can have that kind of pressure, that close to the center of their activity, it is a very disruptive force. So he has been an excellent leader, he has been an excellent practice player and he's been an excellent game player.
The Irish will have to play USC without their starting kicker and punter. Willingham clarified on Tuesday that Setta would not be available this week. "It is somewhat day-to-day, but I'll probably expand that and say that Nick will be out this week."
Former starting quarterback has been seen in the game often as a wide receiver but Willingham said Holiday has been getting the majority of his practice reps at quarterback. "Carlyle is receiving the primary practice time as a quarterback. We give him limited opportunities as a wide receiver."
Another player who played outstanding was Vontez Duff. Duff pitched a shut-out in the second half against the nation's best receiver—Larry Fitzgerald. Willingham says Duff is a special player. "I think number one, he is athletically gifted. He has amazing strength, quickness, and the mind to really be a defensive back, that whether you get beat, he can bounce right back. Whether he has success, he can bounce right back, and I think those two qualities allow him to be able to do the job he's done, with some of the finest receivers in the country. I think that growth has become a part of him because he has listened to his coaches and he's continued to work and strive to be the best. "
The most important thing for the Irish is they got off to a fast start—something they will have to do against USC. "I think our guys are intelligent young men and they recognize that it is far better if you can perform it, to have your opponent chase you and get off to a great start. I think they wanted to do that, and to be honest, I think they have been trying to do it other weeks, but yet for certain reasons, we were not successful."
Willingham said he has confidence his team will finally put it all together in the future. "I have a great deal of confidence in our coaching staff. I have a great deal of confidence in the young men in our program and that we recruited young men that want to play championship football, that want to be great students that want to be great people. And because of that, I have all of the belief in the world that the things that we are asking them to do, that they will work diligently toward and they will accomplish at some point. "
The Irish will have to find some balance between the 300 yards passing at Purdue and the 352 yards rushing at Pittsburgh. Willingham somewhat jokingly said "what I'm doing is praying for our Purdue passing game and our Pittsburgh rushing game." He was somewhat joking but it might take an effort like that to beat a very good USC team.