Irish Eyes Scouting Report

Well, it's here, the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football. No game has had more implications on the national title in terms of winning the title or having title hopes dashed. No two teams have more national titles, no two teams have more College Hall of Fame enshrines, and no two teams have more Heisman trophy winners.

I make no apologies to Ohio State and Michigan or Harvard and Yale, but this is "The Game."

And…this game doesn't have the absurdities, the hate mongering, and the cloak and dagger aspects from its fans that exist in other rivalries. No Leprechaun or white nag gets hijacked the week of this game. To the best of my knowledge no Irish flags get ripped from their stands and defaced should they be flying in California. The same applies to any Trojan flag that might fly in Indiana. (Well, there could be a few) This game is purely about football, not peripheral acts that surround the game. There may be taunts about players and records from the team's respective fans, but usually there is a mutual respect between the schools and their faithful. I've never been to USC, but I've been told more than once that only the Notre Dame bookstore has more books on Notre Dame than does the USC bookstore. The only adverse or nasty thing that seems to appear outside of the actual football is the eternal question of whether there is anything in college sports uglier than the USC Band's headwear.

Notre Dame leads the series, which began in 1926, 42-31-5. Unfortunately, the Irish have fallen to the Men of Troy the last five times. Streaks have often dominated this rivalry with the longest being Notre Dame's eleven year winning streak from 1983 to 1993.

One irony of this rivalry is that Knute Rockne, Southern Cal's first choice as coach, recommended Howard Jones to USC, he was hired, and a rivalry came into being. Another was Notre Dame's agreeing to end November games between the two squads in South Bend, what most would see as an advantage for the Irish on those cold November days.

USC Offense

One thing that you can generally observe through statistics in the difference between a team's young quarterback and their more established quarterback is the yards per attempt and the yards per completion. Take USC senior John David Booty and red shirt sophomore Mark Sanchez as an example. Booty's per passing attempt is 7.08 yards and per completion averages is 10.96 yards. Conversely, Sanchez is 4.5 yards per passing attempt and 7.28 yards per completion. Both were highly recruited quarterbacks and Sanchez has the stronger arm of the two, but many factors go into this difference. Start with the experience of the quarterbacks, their ability to read defenses and get the ball to the deepest man whenever possible, their game experience, which effects leading the receiver to maximize yards per catch, coaches limiting the plays of the younger quarterback, and the younger quarterback not yet familiar with the college level of what is considered being open as opposed to being covered are all factors that cause the difference in the statistics of the two quarterbacks.

What's that got to do with the offense of USC? It comes down to who's starting against the Irish. As I write this piece who starts has yet to be determined. I think Booty plays if he can take the snap directly from center. All I've read and heard about is that the passing Booty has done this week has not come from the traditional quarterback-center exchange. I can't see USC relaying on the shotgun because it may adversely affect their running game and their play action passes, so my guess is no normal snaps, no Booty. That doesn't mean that USC won't go exclusively to the passing of Booty should they feel the game is getting out of hand with Sanchez at the controls.

Based on the above I'm going to concentrate on Sanchez. Look for more bootleg passes if Sanchez is the starter. One aspect is that Sanchez, despite being slower than Booty in the forty, is much shiftier and has quicker feet than Booty. The bootleg has always been a staple for USC under Carroll, generally used 4-5 times a game, but last week against Arizona Sanchez ran the boot ten times. To complement this increase in the bootleg USC has featured a couple different routes for their TE and FB that I don't recall seeing USC use before. One of these is to have Sanchez roll out in the bootleg while the TE or FB comes from a slot or offset alignment, drags behind the line of scrimmage, and takes a pass in the flat hoping for yardage after the catch. Against Arizona that particular type of play was run a few times with both Davis and Havili.

Sanchez was 19 of 31 against Arizona for 130 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Unfortunately, for the Trojans most of his passes came under the heading of dinks and dunks. At the half Sanchez had 56 total yards passing, two interceptions on 8 of 16 passes. He was 0-2 on passes over fifteen yards and 8-14 on passes under fifteen yards. Except for a 25 yard touchdown to tight end Fred Davis the second half is more of the same sans interceptions.

The five headed receiving corps for the Trojans consists of the main wide receivers, Vidal Hazelton and Patrick Turner, the interchangeable third wide receiver duo of David Ausberry and Ronald Johnson, and the tight end, Mackey Nominee, Fred Lewis. USC's wide receivers this year are nowhere near the abilities of 2006 Trojans, Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett. Smith had 1085 yards, a 15.3 yard average, and nine touchdowns. Jarrett had 1015 yards, a 14.5 average, and fifteen touchdowns. Twenty-one touchdowns at the wide receiver spot are hard to replace any year, but the total touchdowns of this year's USC wide receivers are only four touchdowns and projects to a total of eight for the year. No USC wide receiver has three hundred yards in receiving. The total receiving yards for Hazelton and Turner combined projects to less than 1000 yards. Lewis is the deep threat at tight end with 498 yards for a 17.2 yard average, and his yardage is two hundred yards ahead of any USC wide receiver. The primary focus of the USC passing offense under Sanchez, most likely due to the coaching game plan, is for the wide outs to run coverage off while everyone else runs short routes or to run short routes themselves and flood areas.

The USC running game consists of the stretch, inside zone, some off tackle, and a pretty sad looking reverse. The most talented back I saw was Joe McKnight who USC claims to have the same speed and moves as Reggie Bush. I don't see him being that good right now, nowhere near as physically strong as Bush, but a scary talent. Chauncey Washington, the designated short yardage man, can also take it deep.The one who has the potential to scare me even more, though I've not seen him, is Stafon Johnson, who has been out with a foot injury, but was practicing this week. Johnson averages 8.2 yards per carry, has missed two games, and is their leading rusher. USC runs a one back I set, a traditional I-formation, and an offset I-formation. Tight ends and fullbacks play the lead back position but block like basketball players, in that they set screens more than root anyone out of a hole.

The USC offensive line has had a bad time of it this year. Injuries have caused the Trojans to switch linemen around, replace linemen, and play several walking wounded. During the Arizona game Butch Lewis and Alatini Malu saw a lot of time for starters Sam Baker and Zack Herber. Chilo Rachel has also seen duty at guard, but like Baker is beat up. The Trojan offensive line, to their credit, has risen to the occasion through their depth, their physicality, and their toughness. The rushing game averages 5.1 yard per carry, has produced thirteen touchdowns, and has given USC an average of five minutes more possession time per game. Despite being extremely beat up they have only allowed twelve sacks on the season. The sack total is not up to USC standards the past few years, but considering their injuries they have been more than respectable defending the quarterback.

USC Defense

The Trojan defense is a basic 4-3, but Carroll will change up fronts, use zone blitzes, and has no problem dropping a lineman back into coverage. The USC defensive ends are adept in dropping off into the flats and underneath slant routes.

There's been a lot of talk about the Trojan depth at tailback in all the media. I think a lot of the media overlooks the depth, if not the talent, at linebacker for USC. It doesn't seem to matter which players are on the field at linebacker for USC. They all read quickly, react quickly, pursue quickly, and hit hard. It's also a big plus when an outside linebacker can cover a slot receiver and all the Trojans OLBs certainly are capable of doing so. Arizona hit mostly short passes under the USC linebackers but the linebackers of Troy made them pay for it, usually dropping them right on the spot. As the game went on it seemed that the Arizona receivers weren't worried about yards after the catch. Redundant as it may seem the backups at USC could start at most Division I programs.

Arizona's Dink and Dunk offense, turnovers, and drops allowed USC to win their game defensively while their offense was struggling. While the Trojan linebacker dealt out punishment underneath the USC secondary covered deeper patterns and dealt out their own punishment to Arizona's receivers. The Irish receivers have not faced anyone like USC's Taylor Mays this year and the younger receivers might be in for an education the first hit they take from Mays. To say Mays loves to hit people is an understatement. Both safeties keep everything in front of them as well. Pete Carroll has his corners mix up their alignments from laying back off the receivers to press coverage.

The Trojan defensive line comes into this contest much like they did last year getting criticism from the staff for a lack of push and sacks. USC only has twelve sacks at this point, nine by the defensive linemen. Two years ago, as a sophomore, defensive end Lawrence Jackson had ten sacks all by himself. Last year the Trojan coaching staff was on Sedrick Ellis in the same vein prior to the game with the Irish. Ellis responded with a very good game.

USC Special Teams

USC's punter, Greg Woidneck's punts averages 39.1 yards. He has placed five inside the twenty, has had one blocked, and none returned for a touchdown.

USC's place kicker, David Buehler is eight out of nine in field goals with one miss in the 30-39 yard range. He has no attempts over forty yards. On extra points Buehler is 24 of 26. Buehler also does the kick offs for USC. He averages 65.5 yards per kickoff which gets him down to the opponent's five on the average. He also has eight touchbacks. The kickoff return team for USC averages just under twenty yards per return and they have not allowed a touchdown. The punt return team was averaging 5.3 yards per return until the insertion of Joe McKnight who averages sixteen yards per return in his four opportunities. I have no doubt that McKnight breaks one this year. I just hope it's not this week.

Looking At The Game

USC is not the juggernaut they have been since the senior year of Carson Palmer. One reason for this decline is the lack of turnovers that used to put the Trojans in the top five in that category year after year. Instead of being in a double digit plus column for turnovers the Trojans are in the minus column with minus seven.

Another reason for the USC decline is the wide receiver corps. This corps of receivers, as mentioned above, has not filled the shoes of Smith and Jarrett, nor are they even close.

USC has been racked by injuries to their offensive line and linebackers. Sam Baker's time on the sidelines resembles an episode of ER and other Trojans are hurt almost as badly. The center, Matt Spanos has eight stitches on his hand and has tossed a knee brace because it interfered with his snapping the ball.

USC ran a lot of bootlegs to their right last week and I have a suspicion that some of that was to take some pressure off of injured left tackle Sam Baker and his replacement Butch Lewis.

However, Southern Cal is eighth nationally in total defense. They are fifth in rushing defense, giving up roughly 67 yards a game. They are thirty-second in pass defense at 199.8 yards per game. They are athletic, well coached, and have great team speed.

Notre Dame is still last offensively among all Division I teams totaling less than 200 yards per game. Notre Dame has shown no ability to run. Notre Dame has not pieced together two halves of football all season. Notre Dame's offense causes the defense to wear down. Notre Dame is starting a different quarterback for the third time this season.

I'm tempted to say the Irish have no chance based on their offense this year, but Stanford proved USC vulnerability by playing some good defense and scoring enough to win. A lackluster win over Washington and an uninspiring win over Arizona, suggests some complacency in Los Angeles. Add in to the mix all the injuries that USC has to deal with.

Never forget this is a rivalry game, but do the Irish presently have the makeup to rise to the occasion?

Will last night's Trojan plane ride into South Bend have an effect on USC?

Will the green jerseys have an effect, either positive or negative?

Will Evan Sharpley provide the spark for the Irish offense that his supporters maintain he does?

Since the Irish haven't scored a special teams' touchdown this year I can't pick them in an upset. Most upsets involve a special teams' score. I don't see that occurring. I say the Irish lose a heartbreaker: USC 24 Notre Dame 17


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