In his Tuesday press conference, Irish head coach Charlie Weis mentioned that USC tends to jump out in front of teams with fast starts, outscoring their opponents an aggregate 86-23 in the first half of five contests this season.
Its not that Weis missed the obvious; more likely that he simply needed a few complimentary coach-speak sentences to begin his session with the media.
But the Trojan's approach isn't to lay an early haymaker as Weis indicated. Not this season. Not with a true freshman quarterback, and not when their first four meaningful contests (including Saturday) will have been played on foreign soil.
No, this USC team has taken an early hit vs. each of its three major opponents to date, absorbed that initial blow; made the necessary adjustments; and then proceeded to destroy the oppositions' best laid plans.
Absorb, Adjust, Attack
During his Irish tenure, ex-head coach Lou Holtz was lauded as the sport's best game day coach. I'm not sure if USC head coach and chief defensive mind Pete Carroll shares that attribute, but I'm certain he's the best in-game adjustment coach, especially defensively, that the current fraternity has to offer.
Carroll and his troops are at their best after receiving the opposition's best shot. The Trojans defense has allowed 6 points in the second quarter this season. The team has surrendered a comical 5 points in the third period (Ohio State recorded a safety). That's 11 points allowed over the 10 "middle quarters" of their first five contests.
When Carroll and new defensive coordinator Rocky Seto (as well as sssistant head coach of the defense, Ken Norton, Jr.) settle in defensively and begin to dictate to the offense, with an abundance of skilled, versatile athletes at their disposal...well you've seen the results for the last seven seasons.
Removing the Trojans two "tomato-can" opponents: San Jose State and future ND opponent Washington State from the equation, USC's middle quarters dominance and ability to withstand an early score is staggering (and detailed below):
- Week Two, Columbus, Ohio – After Ohio State scored a touchdown on its second possession with 11:32 remaining in the first quarter, the Buckeyes ran 48 more meaningful plays vs. the Trojans defense and gained 135 yards. On five of its remaining nine possessions, OSU's offense failed to gain a first down. Six of Ohio State's nine post-touchdown drives saw the Buckeyes run 17 total plays that totaled just 27 yards. For the game's final 55-plus minutes, OSU managed a field goal (and defensive safety) in the 16-15 Horseshoe defeat.
2nd and 3rd Quarter Combined Totals: 27snaps, 81 yards, 4 punts, 1 field goal.
- Week Three, Seattle, WA – The Trojans defense again allowed a touchdown (and again, the only opposing touchdown) on their opponent's second possession. The Huskies next eight drives offered 46 snaps and 139 yards of total offense (as well as two field goals).
Washington then earned an upset victory on it's ninth post-touchdown drive by defeating USC's best unit, driving 63 yards on 10 plays (Jake Locker was 4-4 passing on the drive) to set up a game-winning, chip shot field goal and week-long celebration at U-DUB.
2nd and 3rd Quarter Combined Totals: 32 snaps, 103 yards, 5 punts, 1 field goal
- Week Five, Berkley, CA – After finding success (but ultimately an end zone interception) on its opening drive, California's offense was manhandled on its home field by a swarming Trojans defense. Six consecutive possessions totaled 20 snaps and 80 yards before the Bears put together an end-half drive that culminated in a missed field goal.
Cal fared better in the second half, running 32 plays and gaining 140 yards but the Bears didn't broach the scoreboard until early in the final period of their 30-3 home defeat.
2nd and 3rd Quarter Combined Totals: 39 snaps for 179 yards, 3 punts, 2 turnovers on downs, 1 missed field goal.
This meat-of-the-contest domination has been in effect for 18 games as the 2008 Trojans allowed 48 1st Quarter points vs. just 37 combined during the 2nd and 3rd Quarters of 13 contests last season. (Oregon State accounted for 14 of those 37 points in last year's Week Three upset of the Men of Troy).
In 12 wins last season, USC allowed 23 total points in the 2nd and 3rd Quarter (a span of 24 quarters).
Raising Four Fingers...Making it Matter
The Miami Hurricanes of the 80s might not have been the first team to collectively raise four fingers in the air as the final gun of the third period sounded…but they're certainly the group that made it popular, and now nearly mandatory for every team, at every level of football.
The action symbolizes "owning the 4th" and despite actually owning a two-point total deficit against their five opponents in the final period this season, the 2009 Irish rank as the nation's reigning 4th Quarter darlings.
Four consecutive comebacks; three consecutive victories and the undeniable belief that junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen will lead them to victory before the final gun has this Notre Dame team flying high and ready for a four-quarter battle vs. their tormentors from Troy.
The Irish have the nation's best late-game quarterback on their side Saturday. The Trojans have the nation's best guts-of-the-game defense (including Florida) as well as a top-level unit overall, surrendering just 3 total touchdowns on the year.
I'm comfortable putting the game in Clausen's capable hands with 15 minutes remaining. It's up to his teammates and coaching staff to put him in that position by matching the Trojans' level of play during the dreaded middle quarters.