Scouting Report

The Irish head to Los Angeles to meet the fifth ranked Trojans. This is the 80th meeting between the oldest intersectional rivals in college football. The Irish and the Trojans have played annually since 1926 with a short hiatus from 1943 to 1945. Notre Dame leads the series 42-32-5. The Irish are 17-20-4 in the Trojan's lair. Unfortunately, the Irish haven't won against the Trojans since 2001.

The Notre Dame-Southern California contest used to be played in late November no matter who the host was. That tradition was changed after the 1959 game when 4-5 Notre Dame, under Joe Kuharich, defeated the seventh ranked Trojans 16-6 in freezing cold conditions. The Trojans athletic director, Jess Hill, insisted on the current pattern of Los Angeles in late November and South Bend in October. The Irish agreed and it has remained this way since 1961.

Few games have had more impact on the national championship than Notre Dame versus USC. Seventeen times the winner has gone on to an AP or BCS title. In all the two teams have combined to be declared some football organization's national championship 36 times.

The 6-5 Irish are reeling after an upset loss at the hands of twenty point underdog Syracuse . The Trojans are coming off an open date. Trojan coach Pete Carroll is 6-1 against the Irish while Charlie Weis is 0- 3 against the Trojans.

Trojan Trivia

Clay Matthews bears a last name that staunch USC fans would know as the fourth member of his family to don a Trojan uniform. In 2004, a national championship year for USC, Matthews was an unheralded walk on who was considered small and slow by the USC staff.

Walk-ons who excel in practice effort are customarily awarded trips onto the field when the game is no longer in doubt and the starters have been pulled. What walk on doesn't lust for the possibility of going onto the field? Matthews didn't, at least that first year. Matthews was offered the opportunity to play in blowouts more than once in 2004 by head coach Pete Carroll and linebacker coach Ken Norton. He turned them down each and every time. Essentially he redshirted himself. He did this because he believed he was capable of being more.

Through determination and working with USC's strength coach, Matthews has built himself up to a fifth year 240 pounder who is listed by one NFL draft website as seventh out of 202 ranked outside linebackers.

Trojan Offense

USC's offense is I formation based, relies on running the ball, play action passes, and bootlegs. That's not to say they don't do other things, but their strength in running the ball to set up their play action passing. The Trojan total offense average per game is 451 yards, 209 yards rushing and 242 yards passing. USC is averaging 38 points per game with 21 touchdowns rushing and 28 touchdowns passing.

In the Red Zone the Trojans have scored on 40 of 49 entries inside the twenty. They have 19 touchdowns rushing, 15 passing, and 6 field goals. The Trojans have scored 13 touchdowns that were over 20 yards.

USC's offense starts with Mark Sanchez who is 10th ranked by the NCAA in passing efficiency. Sanchez has completed 65% of his passes for 26 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. His yardage per completion is a gaudy 13 yards per catch. A lot of Sanchez's success comes via play action, roll outs, and boots. He throws well on the run, has good enough legs to buy time, and has a strong enough arm. More importantly he's a leader.

Sanchez's receivers are led by Arkansas transfer, Damian Williams who has 38 receptions for 6 touchdowns and a 15 yard average. Patrick Turner is close behind with 34 receptions for 8 touchdowns and a 15 yard average. Ronald Johnson has 23 receptions for 6 touchdowns and an 18 yard average. Fullback Stanley Havili's has 23 receptions.

Havili has scored 3 touchdowns via the air, and he has an unheard of average for a fullback of 12 yards per catch.

Trojan rushing is done by committee. C.J. Gable leads all rushers with 574 yards for 7 touchdowns and averages 6.5 yards per rush. Stafon Johnson, the biggest of the three lead backs, has more carries for his 569 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 5.6 yards per carry average. As if that's not enough there's Joe McKnight with 484 yards, no touchdowns, and a 7.4 average per carry.

Wide receivers Ronald Johnson and Damian Williams have added 82 yards on reverses.

The Trojan offensive line is full of five and four star recruits. They are very athletic and fast for big guys. If they have a weakness it's pass blocking, particularly with pressure up the middle.

Trojan Defense

The USC scoring defense and total yardage defense is the best it's been in the last forty-one years. That dates back into the late 1960's and spans an era when defenses faced much less sophisticated offenses. It is said that a minimum of seven USC defensive players will be drafted by the NFL.

Last year the Trojans held opponents to 16.0 points a game. This year they are almost twice as good holding opponents to 8.3 points a game. Southern California has pitched three shutouts this year and five more games of ten or fewer points. Only their loss to Oregon State and a victory over Stanford has the defense of Troy given up more than ten points.

USC has only allowed opponents a total of 19 points in the second half the entire year.

USC has 24 sacks, 14 interceptions with 2 for scores, and 8 fumble recoveries on 14 opposition fumbles. Opponents have averaged 2.7 yards per rush against USC. Opponents have been limited to 8.5 yards per reception. No passing touchdowns of over 20 yards have occurred.

Southern California 's defense has given up 15 scores on 21 incursions into their Red Zone. They have allowed 7 rushing touchdowns, 3 passing touchdowns, and 5 field goals.

The Trojan defensive line is led by Fili Moala who is on the watch list for the Outland Trophy and the Bronko Nagurski Award. Moala has 24 tackles and 3 sacks, but it is his constant pressure that sets him apart from many defensive linemen. Moala is joined by Kyle Moore, 25 tackles and 4 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for losses. USC relies heavily on pressure from its front four which includes Clay Mathews playing the "elephant" position, a combination linebacker/defensive end, Matthews has 45 tackles, 7.5 tackles for losses, and 4 sacks.

The linebacking corps is led by Butkus and Lombardi Award finalist Mike linebacker Rey Mualuga who leads the Trojans with 66 tackles. His cohorts are Sam linebacker Brian Cushing, 60 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 8 tackles for losses. Will linebacker Kaluka Maiava checks in with 53 tackles. Playing the hybrid linebacker/defensive end or "elephant" slot is Clay Matthews with 45 tackles and 4 sacks. Mualuga and Cushing specialize in intimidating shots to opponents.

The secondary is paced by Bronko Nagurski and Ronnie Lott watch list free safety Taylor Mays and strong safety Kevin Ellison, who may or may not play Saturday. Mays has totaled 47 tackles and has no interceptions, but it's his prowess as a hitter that separates him from most free safeties. Mays in one who reminds me of Ronnie Lott more than any safety I can recall since Lott dished out hits for USC thirty some years ago. Ellison has been injured and may or may not play Saturday. No worries for USC though. They simply plug in Will Harris. USC's corners, Shareece Wright and Cary Harris play a lot of man and press coverage.

USC Special Teams

What a weapon David Buehler is for USC. He has kicked off 69 times this year and 39 times his kicks have been touchbacks. That's 56% of kick offs not being returned. The only kicker with more touchbacks is Utah 's kicker, and the altitude has to account for a lot those. The nearest "sea level" kick off man has only 26 touchbacks. As an added bonus for USC he can tackle, unlike many kickers, being a former linebacker and safety.

USC's kick off coverage team has only had to cover 29 kick offs this year and have allowed a 20 yard average per return and no touchdowns.

Buehler also kicks field goals and is 7 out of 8, missing once from 30 yards, having no blocks and a longest field goal of 43 yards. Buehler is 51 of 52 on extra points.

USC"s punter is Greg Woidneck who is averaging 37 yards a punt with a long of 56 yards. Of his 37 punts, 10 have been fair caught, 13 inside the twenty yard line, 2 were touchbacks, and none have been blocked. His coverage team has held their opponents to 11 returns but gives up an average of 11 yards per return with a longest of 42 yards and no touchdowns. This leaves one punt unaccounted for in the USC cumulative statistics.

USC has blocked 3 attempts at field goals with Fili Moala getting two and Clay Mathews one.

The Trojans kick off return team is the best in the nation averaging 30 yards per return. The leading returner, Ronald Johnson, is averaging 31 yards per return while the second returner, C.J. Gable, is averaging 29 yards per return. Gable has the lone touchdown against Stanford, but Johnson just missed equaling that against the Cardinal by barely stepping out of bounds.

Punt returners Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight average 11 and 7 yards respectively with no touchdowns.

The Game

David versus Goliath was closer on paper than USC versus Notre Dame.

The game is on USC's turf, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC is favored by 32 points. USC has superior talent. They don't try to trick anyone. They just play fundamental football.

USC has the number one ranked defense going against an Irish offense that has been reeling with ineffectiveness. USC has the best pass defense statistically in the nation that faces an Irish passing game that has been sputtering. USC's run defense can be smothering and faces an Irish running game that has sputtered worse than the passing game.

USC runs the ball very well while the Irish are in the middle of the NCAA pack in stopping the run.

Notre Dame may be in turmoil with rumors about its coaching staff being retained.

So, with all that I wrote above, at this point I should post a score and end the piece. I can't do that. I see a slim chance for Notre Dame. I see that chance because I'm an Irish fan, born and bread, hope springs eternal, and I see a chance because "on paper" isn't used to determine a winner. It's the game itself that does that. I see a chance because there are always upsets in sports.

USC was beaten by Oregon State for several reasons. The Trojans were overconfident, the Beavers ran a balanced offense, succeeded in rushing the ball, passed well enough, and held USC below 100 yards rushing. Oregon State jumped out to a 21 point lead and forced USC into playing a one dimensional, catch up, offense and won despite a USC comeback.

Stanford, a team the Irish defeated, was ahead of USC after one quarter, 10-3, they led the Trojans 17-10 into the last five minutes of the second quarter, and they were tied 17-17 at the half. The tie occurred just under five minutes when USC's Gable takes a kickoff the distance. USC only led 24-17 at the end of the third quarter before burying the Cardinal with three fourth quarter touchdowns. Stanford was in it because they rushed for 202 yards against a team that only allows 90 yards a game, played good defense, and believed in them selves.

The point? USC isn't invincible, although their collective attitude is more often their Achilles heel than the opposition.

Notre Dame needs to believe in itself, something I'm not sure this team does.

Notre Dame also needs a lot to go their way Saturday. Trojan lethargy, no turnovers, Trojan turnovers, an acceptable rushing game, solid defense, a return to the passing game that beat Michigan, and a break or two.

Sadly, I don't see it with all that's going on around the program, real or imagined.

Game Prediction: USC 52 Notre Dame 10 Top Stories