The conventional wisdom is that the Trojans are just too talented, too fast, too everything for the Irish. Last year's 44-13 debacle in Los Angeles is Exhibit A on this side of the argument. But is it really so?
There's little question that the Trojans as they finished last year would have been favored against any other college foe, including the national champion Ohio State and runner-up Miami. Consider that Southern California dismantled Iowa in a fashion that was eerily similar to the N.D. game (Iowa's lone touchdown until garbage time came on the opening kickoff) and few considered Iowa to be an unworthy entrant into a B.C.S. bowl. So give the Trojans their due; they were a great team at the end of last year.
But are they as good this year? USC caught fire last year when Heisman winner Palmer began to fully understand the offense and, equally crucially, tailback Fargas with his lethal combination of size and speed began to tear through defenses. Prior to Fargas's emergence last year, USC was a 3-2 team that averaged about 3 yards per carry. After that, they were 8-0. Fargas gashed N.D. last year for 120 yards, but he now plays for the Raiders, not the Trojans.
USC's rushing leader this year is Herschel Dennis, a fine back having a good season, but his best outing of the year was 85 yards in the opener against Auburn. Probably more dangerous is freshman Lendale White who has topped the 100-yard mark the last two weeks, but suffice it to say that USC does not present, this year, a back with Fargas's combination of size, speed and physical development.
Actually, the back who most resembles Fargas in this department wears 22 and plays for Notre Dame. Julius Jones, now averaging over 6 yards per carry, presents the "man versus boy" problem that Fargas presented so often last year.
In the passing department, quarterback Matt Leinart has shown himself to be a very capable replacement for Palmer, but he doesn't quite enjoy Palmer's scary combination of a quick release, accuracy and mobility.
Wide receiver Mike Williams has presented huge match-up problems for every defense so far, but the same was true of Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald. Williams, as well, has benefitted from the play of tight end Dominque Byrd who is averaging over 19 yards per carry, but his status remains uncertain because of an injury suffered against Stanford.
On defense, USC is holding opponents to 2.2 yards per carry, actually slightly better than the 2.8 figure posted by N.D.'s defense. Here, however, the quality and tendencies of the opposition are important. Other than Auburn, none of USC's other foes (B.Y.U., Arizona State, Hawaii, California and Stanford) are really run-oriented teams. California, however, beat U.S.C. (outgaining them by almost 100 yards) with a balanced attack that included tailback Echemandu racing through the USC. defense for 147 yards on 34 carries. If Jones enjoys a similar performance behind N.D.'s revamped (and apparently improved) offensive line, N.D. will be in this game to the finish.
It has been in pass defense this year that U.S.C. has looked most vulnerable. Auburn's rudimentary passing attack allowed USC to crowd the line of scrimmage and stuff the run, leaving Auburn helpless. But since then, USC has given up 313 passing yards to B.Y.U., 399 to Hawaii, 326 to California, 305 to Arizona State and 156 to Stanford.
Clearly teams have been able to move the ball in the air against USC, but the question is whether N.D. will be able to do so. Notre Dame, with Quinn at quarterback, presents at least some realistic possibility of moving the ball in the air. A balanced attack, such as the one California showed, will be essential to N.D.'s success.
This is a winnable game for N.D. Whether or not it will be won probably depends on many factors that are hard to predict — turnovers and breaks on penalties could turn out to be crucial. N.D. returns home to play a football game for the first time in nearly a month, a huge psychological boost for a team that was down on itself until beating Pitt.. In the past two decades, the Irish have lost only once (a 20-17 affair in 1997) at home to USC The possibility of redemption can stir souls and perhaps the echoes will awaken for Notre Dame.