Defensive coordinator Kent Baer faces another big challenge this week with USC. The Trojans dismantled the Irish defense last year in the Coliseum and he says they will probably try to do the same things that hurt the Irish last year.
"They're a similar offense," said Baer. "I'll guarantee you they'll come back to what hurt us a year ago. It's smart to do, he (Norm Chow) is smart, he's a great coach. They did anything they wanted."
The Irish will face yet another great receiver in Mike Williams. Williams caught 10 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns last year against the Irish. "He's big and strong, he can go up and catch a lot of footballs because he can out-rebound you," said Baer of Williams.
Baer says that Williams is slightly different than Fitzgerald and the Irish will play him differently than they did Fitzgerald. "They're not similar in a lot of ways. That was one of our plans last week—to be physical with Fitzgerald at the line of scrimmage—because I don't think anybody had or did. We're going to mix it up with these guys. There's some different aspects of what they do. They did some great things a week ago versus certain coverages and some of those things we didn't want to get into."
Baer says he doesn't have to get on his players this week in practice. His defense knows what this game means every year. "It's a big game for everybody. Sure it is--it's SC. All you have to say is its SC and that's enough."
USC won't have 2002 Heisman winner Carson Palmer but Baer doesn't see many weaknesses in the Trojan offense. "This is an explosive football team. They've got speed, they've got talent, they can run, they've got a great offensive line. They don't lack from any weakness when it comes to talent."
A healthy Cedric Hilliard would certainly help—something we're not sure the Irish will have. "It'd be great if he's healthy. He makes a difference when he's in there, that's for sure. Hopefully he is."
Corner Vontez Duff has played like a madman all year. He's had to face many of the best receivers in the nation and has more than held his own on most occasions. Tyrone Willingham said he's been very pleased with his senior cornerback.
"Vontez has done a great job all year," said Willingham. "We've matched him up with some of the better players to date and he has stood the test very well. But it is not just a test of one individual because if any offense has all day to pass, then the guy is going to get open regardless of how good your coverage. So it has to be a total team effort and for most of the weeks this year, we've had that from our defense, they've done a great job of playing team defense."
Vontez Duff says this will be a different game for the Irish secondary. "This is a totally different team," said Duff. "We have a totally different scheme and we know that we still have to play physical with them, but they have two great receivers in Mike Williams and Kerry Colbert and they've got a great running game as well. We've got to be prepared for all aspects of the game."
We just have to execute our defense," Duff continued. "Play our technique and just play every play like it's the last play we're ever going to play."
Duff said the win last week has made a difference this week. "Having that win, with the way the season is going now, that definitely is a boost for us just to showcase what we can do."
The Irish offense scored in the first quarter last week against Pittsburgh—something they hadn't done in nine games. Duff said that really energized the Irish defense. "When our offense is scoring, that's a great defense. When we're sitting on the sidelines watching the offense score, that betters us as a defense because we're not out there. When we are out there, we're not as tired and we're ready to go. We're that much (more) focused on shutting their offense down."
Duff says he remembers the game last year and is hoping to not have a similar feeling this year. "They flat-out beat us. They flat-out whipped us up and down the field. We've got to do whatever we can do in our power to make sure that doesn't happen again."
The Irish coaching staff probably didn't want to look at the film from last year but Willingham said they did look at the game from last year to prepare for this game. "You go back and look at last year's because usually all teams have certain tendencies," said Willingham. "And we like to be aware of our tendencies, and we like to be aware of their tendencies and things they had success with that they might think will work again. There are no guarantees and that is why so much of it is guesswork but we try to get into the ballgame and if you see a particular direction, hopefully you are better prepared now to make those adjustments in that direction or in a totally different direction."
Willingham was asked if his team had swagger and would want to protect their home in this game. "First of all that's something you do on the field, that's not something that you walk--that's actual; the actual act of doing it. Yes, we want to think that way; yes, we want to protect our home."