ND Defense Prepares For USC's Speed

Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis didn't need to remind his players, especially the seniors, that they've lost four-straight games to USC. He did it anyways, while blasting the Trojans' fight song inside the team-meeting room of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

"We walk in and he's kind of got that shit-eating grin on his face," fifth-year senior defensive tackle Derek Landri said. "It's just down to business. You understand what's going on.

"He doesn't have to remind us, we all know," "It's always with you. If it's not USC week, if it is USC week, you know it. We understand we haven't beaten them the last four years. I've never beat them, no one on this team has ever beat them."

Landri gets his last chance Saturday, as the Irish try to snap a four-game losing streak against the Trojans.

A win at No. 3 USC (9-1) would not only prevent the fifth-ranked Irish (10-1) from matching their longest losing streak in the rivalry, but would ruin the Trojans chances of playing in the National Title game.

Speed was the word of the day following practice Tuesday, pertaining to the USC offense and the Irish reacting to it after playing lesser-opponents Air Force and Army the last two Saturdays. USC certainly has a lot of it.

An inexperienced group at the start of the season, with seven new starters, the unit has gelled down the stretch. Though not as potent as they were last year with Heisman Trophy winners, quarterback Matt Leinart and tailback Reggie Bush, they currently rank 23rd in the country gaining 392 yards per game, and have really put it together during a three-game winning streak against Stanford (42-0), No. 20 Oregon (35-10) and No. 15 California (23-9). Irish secondary coach Bill Lewis joked that it's too bad the Irish didn't play USC earlier in the season.

"They've got a lot of new personalities playing together on that football team," Lewis said. "You have several (new) people on the offensive line of scrimmage because they have several players they've lost there. They've got a new quarterback. I think it takes time for everybody to get a feel for the quarterback from the coaches on down.

"I think all that we're seeing now is the result of time together," Lewis continued. "That they're getting better, that they've improved as the season has gone on, that they're playing their best football obviously now the last couple of weeks."

Lewis's secondary will feel the most pressure with USC's Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith providing a receiving duo that rivals the Irish's Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight.

Smith has been quarterback John David Booty's favorite target this year, catching 55 passes for 874 yards (15.9 avg.) and eight touchdowns. Jarrett, a 6-foot-5 preseason All-American, has battled injuries this season, but has still hauled in 48 passes for 610 yards and seven scores. After those two, there is Patrick Turner, another 6-foot-5 guy, who has caught 28 passes for 252 yards and two scores.

Cornerbacks Terrail Lambert and Mike Richardson, both 5-foot-11, will have as much trouble dealing with the height of these receivers as they will adjusting to the speed.

"I think it's more mental than anything," cornerback Terrail Lambert said. "You just have to be in the right mind frame, and know that these receivers are going to bring their A-game so you have to match their intensity."

"We faced top-notch receivers all year and this is just another example of a great core. I think if you keep that in perspective and know what's at stake and play smart fundamental football, the rest will take care of itself."

At times, the rest hasn't taken care of itself. The Irish have been blazed by a few front-line receivers and a couple unknowns. Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson hauled in seven balls for 111 yards and touchdown, most of the damage coming in the first half. Mario Manningham of Michigan caught four passes for 137 yards and three touchdowns. Then it was Purdue's Selwyn Lymon catching eight passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns. Marcus Everett of UCLA had six catches for 102 yards and a touchdown. Mark Root of Air Force had five receptions for 110 yards in an offense that likes to pound the football. North Carolina's Hakeen Nicks had six receptions for 171 yards and two touchdowns. The USC receivers are definitely licking their chops.

"They spread the field, they get match-ups and try to attack individual match-ups, much more so than to say hey lets throw this route down the field and look to see who comes open," Lewis explained. The Irish pass defense ranks 39th in the country (186 yards per game), but have played the three military schools that like to run the ball skewing the numbers. "They're specifically looking to try to get certain match-ups based on how they evaluated your personnel."

Every match-up could be a good match-up.

Another tough match-up will be tight end Fred Davis. A former receiver, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Davis can really stretch the field. He is the team's fourth-leading receiver with 26 receptions for 212 yards and three touchdowns.

It will be up to the Notre Dame defensive line to help the secondary by getting pressure on Booty, who has only been sacked 13 times this season. The line is anchored by 6-foot-5, 305-pound left tackle Sam Baker and 6-foot-3, 285-pound center Ryan Kalil.

"Their center is probably the best center that Trevor (Laws) and I are going to play against, the fastest by far," Landri stated. "He's going to be a big-time player. They have the tackle that's real solid and they have a great scheme. For the last four years it's been one of the better lines we've played against."

Defensive end Chris Frome has the responsibility of beating Baker to get to Booty. He has just half a sack this season. Victor Abiamiri's 10 sacks rank him eighth in the nation. Fifth-year senior Kyle Williams will need help in stopping Notre Dame's top pass rusher.

While Booty, Smith and Jarrett are the household names across the country, most people couldn't tell you the names of USC's running backs. Head coach Pete Carroll has been going with a running backs by committee approach in replacing Bush and All-American LenDale White.

Freshman Emmanuel Moody (79 carries, 484 yards, two touchdowns) is out with injury and not expected to play. Chauncey Washington, a power runner, is the team's leading rusher, gaining 715 yards on 144 attempts (4.9 avg.) with eight touchdowns. Freshman C.J. Gable is the speed back, gaining 279 yards on 59 carries (4.2 avg.) with three touchdowns. He is also the team's top kick returner, showing the type of athleticism he has. If Washington and Gable have a couple Sportscenter highlights, Notre Dame is in trouble, because Smith and Jarrett are going to make their plays.

The Irish defense has been pretty good against the run, giving up 126.8 yards per game (49th nationally), but again the military schools and their running offenses skew the numbers.

USC has also converted 47 percent of the season's third downs.

"Which is staggering," Lewis said.

If the Irish can contain the receivers and the tight end Davis, play stout against the run, and get off the field on third down, it will be a different type of grin on Weis's face following the game. And the seniors won't have to hear that fight song as their last memory of USC.

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