Of the Irish's (1-6) first seven opponents, four of them rank in the top-11 nationally against the run. Georgia Tech is currently No. 11 (82.6 yards per game), UCLA is No. 10 (81.7 yards per game), Penn State is No. 9 (81.4), and Boston College is No. 1 (46.4). One could say those teams are ranked that high because they've played against Notre Dame, but it's likely the other way around.
The Irish's other opponents this fall aren't too shabby either. Michigan State is No. 24 against the run (101.4) and Michigan is No. 37 (126.9). Purdue is the only team outside the top 50, checking in at 52nd (143.9).
This season, the Irish have been painful proof that if you can't run the football consistently, you can't win games.
This Saturday, Notre Dame won't find it any easier to move the football on the ground and improve upon its 32.14 yards rushing per game. For one, they might be without starting running back James Aldridge, and for two, No. 9 USC's (5-1) rush defense is ranked fifth nationally at 66.8 yards allowed per game.
"You can't control that so you don't worry about that," offensive line coach John Latina said about the schedule Tuesday after practice. His line has three new starters from the season before. "You just worry about trying to get better and improve your kids individually, so hopefully collectively we can show improvement."
"It's definitely a challenge each week going against for instance last week BC, and this week a very tough, physical fast defense in USC," left tackle Sam Young explained. "You have to look at is as a challenge. You don't want to sell yourself short by saying oh I wish we were going against a team that wasn't this good or anything. Going into this weekend, I have great confidence in our game plan. Going out there and running it today, I think we're going to really be able to move the ball moreso than we had been in the past."
If Young proves to be right, the Irish can take those strides into the final four games of the season against teams that finally rank in the bottom half nationally against the run.
***USC's run defense isn't the only thing the Irish have to worry about this weekend. The Trojans rank 12th nationally in pass-efficiency defense.
"I know that they're probably one of the most gifted secondaries that we're going to play this year," sophomore receiver Rob Parris said. He had a career game last Saturday, catching four passes for 94 yards and his first touchdown. "They're huge it seems at every position, and they're fast and they're physical. It's going to be a challenge, but we just have to step up."
***One of the guys trying to help the Irish get the run game and offense in general going, is sophomore guard Eric Olsen. The 6-foot-5, 303-pound Staten Island, N.Y., product made his first career start last Saturday against Boston College, and Olsen judged that he played alright at least, because no coaches yelled at him during film review.
"If no one says anything to you, you know you're doing alright," Olsen said.
He was right.
"I think like most guys who start in their first opportunity, he did some things pretty well," Latina said. "I think he's coming along good, but still has to continue to improve, which you expect to see a guy really start to make some strides now."
"There were definite plays I wish I could've done over," Olsen said. "I was nervous to be honest. But I was more excited, so now that I got that first start out of the way I think I'll really be able to pick it up the next couple of weeks."
Last Saturday was one of the more thrilling experiences so far in Olsen's life.
"As a freshman coming out of the tunnel to 80,000 people is one of the most unbelievable feelings, but coming out of the tunnel when you're a starter just tops it by a thousand."
***The recent decision to transfer by sophomore guard Matt Carufel cut into the depth of an already thin offensive line. Behind starting tackles Young and Paul Duncan, guards Olsen and Michael Turkovich, and center John Sullivan, there isn't a whole lot of experience.
"I've never felt comfortable with our depth since I've been here," Latina stated. He's in his third season at Notre Dame. "Anytime you have anybody leave, that compounds maybe the problem. I don't feel great about our depth right now."
***In trying to fix the problem, the Irish worked sophomore Chris Stewart some at right tackle last week.
The 6-foot-5, 339-pound Spring, Texas product has moved around a lot in his brief collegiate career. An early enrollee, Stewart began as a guard and did not play in a game his freshman season. He was moved over to defensive tackle last spring, and returned to guard this fall, where he also worked last week.
"Guys that don't play in the fall in their first year, their first real opportunity to really learn is in the spring and we didn't have him there," Latina said. "So I think all that pushed him back a little bit, but it was something we had to do in what was best for the team. I just think that pushed him back a little bit, and hopefully he's making some headway."
***The last two Tuesday's head coach Charlie Weis had his team going through two of the most physical practices he's had in his three years at Notre Dame. There were no scout teams. The first units gave each other the look for the upcoming opponent, as Weis was trying to find the proper recipe to get his team to play better. He took it down a notch this week, as the team practiced in just helmets, shorts and shoulder pads.
"I think coach Weis, I think he mentioned it earlier, he's looking more to just get us mentally right," Young said. "Because if you make less mental mistakes you're going to be able to put yourself in a good position to win. I think that's what he's focusing on."
***Notre Dame will honor the 30th anniversary of the 1977 National Championship team by wearing the green jerseys and gold pants the team did back then this Saturday against the Trojans. The players were much more hyped about the idea than Weis was.
"I enjoyed them," Young said. "Coach Weis I don't think cares for them. He likes the darker green a little bit more. I think they're pretty sweet getting a little throw-back action."
"I like them a lot," said quarterback Evan Sharpley, who'll be making his first-career start. "They're pretty cool. I know coach doesn't like them very much but I think they're pretty cool."
"I think they're pretty sweet," Parris said. "That's awesome, some throw back jerseys, that's awesome."