Defense Must Rise to the Occasion

Pick a storyline for the upcoming Notre Dame-USC game: Charlie Weis vs. Pete Carroll, the so-called greatest offense ever (Trojans) vs. a suspect defense (Irish), Brady Quinn vs. Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush vs. anyone who dares to stop him, etc. The subplots are as plentiful as the options both offenses have in their arsenal. Weis is aware that USC has pounded Notre Dame three times in a row by 31 points. This isn't the number that scares him.

"I'm going to be worrying about number 5, number 11, number 21," Weis said. "31 isn't going to be the number I'm worrying about. I'm worrying about those other guys."

Can Weis and the upstart Irish pull off the upset? There is still more than a week to dissect and breakdown the match-ups. The added intrigue to this game is that Weis, the master planner, has an extra week to defeat the two-time defending national champion. The Notre Dame coach said at his Thursday press conference that he has watched Trojan film as far back as three years ago. One point is clear: Weis and his staff will have a worthy game plan in place by the time the team takes the practice field on Tuesday.

Weis can only do so much. He can put the players in the position to win but ultimately they have to make the plays to pull off the shocker. The defense, in particular, will be tested like they haven't been this season. USC averages 54 points per game and over 600 yards of total offense. The Irish defense has risen to the challenge of bend-but-don't-break with the exception of the Michigan State game. They have created five turnovers in the red zone. Weis said these turnovers weren't the luck of the Irish. It was players making big-time stops.

"Sometimes there is a fine line but those turnovers are caused," Weis said. "Even when (Chad) Henne fumbled the ball…one of the reasons he loses that ball is because those two guys inside are knocking the center back. Even though no one touches him, the center is getting knocked back. The quarterback-center exchange is affected when the center has two guys moving him back at the same time.

"Look at the fumble from last week. That ball wasn't coming out. It was stripped. That was a caused fumble. That wasn't a fumble that was caused by chance. I would not say it's lucky when it's caused."

Some have pointed towards a carbon copy game plan of when the New England Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts last year in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. Weis installed a game plan that kept Peyton Manning and the explosive Colts offense off the field and dominated the time of possession statistics en route to a 24-3 win.

What is the difference between that Patriot team and this year's Notre Dame squad? The New England team had a much better defense. They had the likes of Rodney Harrison not only stuffing the run but also being an able component defending the pass. The image of Tedy Bruschi stripping the ball away from Dominique Rhodes was a play that symbolized that the Patriots were tougher and stronger than the "soft" Colts.

This is what the Notre Dame defense must do. They must wrap-up on tackles and make the necessary plays when the opportunities arise. If the Trojans fumble, Notre Dame has to take advantage. If Leinart floats an errant pass, the ball must be intercepted. The Irish have to hit USC in the mouth over and over again. We saw Leinart this week bellyaching about a late-hit from an Arizona State defender that left him woozy for the rest of the game. Can the Trojans stand up to a physical challenge? Most of the Pac-10 teams play a finesse game. One thing is for sure: Notre Dame's defense can lay the wood on opposing players.

USC is not unbeatable by any means. Exhibit one is the first half of last week's game vs. the Sun Devils. The scary thing is that the Trojans can flip that switch to the tune of 35 second half points as they did in their ASU win. Irish fans, though, should savor this week. Their team is once again playing a game that matters and has national implications not only in rankings but recruiting as well. South Bend and Notre Dame Stadium will be packed to capacity next weekend. Expect a lot of these weeks with Weis in charge. For this specific week, the head coach hit the nail on the head about Notre Dame's chances.

"We're going to have to play our best game to have a chance at winning," he said. "You know it and I know it." Top Stories