The Fatal Flaw?

IrishEyes examines the key matchups and storylines that will determine Saturday's outcome

Skill stars still abound but Saturday's game will be won by the men of up front...and those charged with bringing down the ball carrier.

Can they Pull a 180?

In last season's matchup (as noted by Charlie Weis on Tuesday and by any life force that witnessed last year's contest between the teams), the USC defensive line completely dominated and overwhelmed a much-maligned Irish offensive front. It was (generally) four Trojans tormenting and terrorizing five offensive linemen, a freshman tight end, and a senior fullback.

USC's quartet of NFL-ready linebackers then cleaned up the mess in the 38-3 destruction in LA.

This season, the Irish offensive line ranks as one of the most improved units in the nation. The Trojans front seven? New faces (five of them) have produced similar results, ranking fifth in the nation against the run (64.8 yards per contest allowed) while surrendering only three touchdowns (all rushing) on the season.

Weis expects his revamped front wall to fair much better this year. And frankly, so do I. The matchup will again be won in the trenches…this time the Irish have a fighting chance.

Wait, I thought they were DOWN?

Speaking of the USC defense, here are but a few staggering statistics to snack on at tailgate time:

  • USC has not allowed a passing touchdown this season. As a team, they've produced 18 total touchdowns vs. 3 from five opponents.
  • Points allowed per week: 3, 15, 13, 6, 3. Good for an 8.6 average per contest.
  • The Trojans have outrushed their five opponents by an average of 208 yards to 64.
  • Opponents have converted 29 percent of their third down attempts against the Men of Troy.
  • USC has dominated the middle 30 minutes of each contest, holding a 58-11 scoring advantage over the 2nd and 3rd Quarters.

Yuck. Of course, there's a bright side (seriously).

  • Of USC's national-best 4.2 sacks per game (21 for the season), 9 occurred vs. the nation's worst offensive line (Washington State, ranked 120th in the nation allowing 30 sacks through six games…hello 2007!!). Five more came courtesy of San Jose State in the season-opener. Potentially dominant? Yes. Consistent week-to-week? Not yet.
  • The Trojans have score just 12 touchdowns in 20 appearances inside the opponents red zone. The Irish rank No. 4 nationally in red zone defense, allowing 9 touchdowns (and 2 field goals) in 17 opponent forays inside their 20-yard line.

Finally, USC was (somehow) 0-10 on third-down conversions in their lone loss, a 16-13 defeat at Washington. (It should be noted that Saturday's starter, Matt Barkley, missed the contest with a shoulder injury).

G/C/G vs. DT/NT/MLB

That's headline-shortening speak for: Jeff Byers, Kristopher O'Dowd, and Alex Parsons vs. Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams, and Brian Smith.

The Trojans interior line is fast, physical, aggressive, and less than 11 months removed from eating the Irish defensive middle for Thanksgiving Leftovers last November.

Both Byers and Parsons excel at shooting out and taking on opposing linebackers; a skill set that doesn't bode well for junior linebacker Brian Smith: a playmaker that often struggles to shed blocks inside.

The matchup between O'Dowd, the nation's best center, and Ian Williams will help determine which group of big uglies controls the line of scrimmage Saturday.

The Real McCoy

In sophomore Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame houses the nation's best pass-catching tight end and future NFL prospect at the position.

The visiting Trojans boast perhaps the most NFL-ready product in senior tight end Anthony McCoy.

McCoy catches the ball with his hands out in front of him and can hurt defenses with his downfield speed and run-after-the-catch ability, but the senior's true prowess shows in the running game. The unheralded McCoy is reminiscent of former Irish tight and first round draft pick Derek Brown as a blocker on the edge; regularly sealing opposing DE and LB to open a lane for a host of talented running backs.

Like Notre Dame, USC employs a slew of multiple tight end packages. Look for both Rhett Ellison and Blake Ayles to see plenty of time from scrimmage. Ellison's a hammer as a lead and downfield blocker while Ayles can stretch the defense down the seam and is a willing, competitive (and combative) blocker at the point.

Irish safeties and linebackers Darius Fleming and Manti Te'o will have to be up to the task vs. this talented trio in space and securing the edge defensively.

Bang Your Head

Much has been made about the potential time of possession battle determining Saturday's victor. Will USC simply wear down the Irish behind the nation's best offensive line and a trio of talented runners? Can the Irish move the ball on the ground vs. a defense that hasn't allowed the opposition to sniff an open lane (Ohio State: 30 carries for 88 yards; Washington a staggering 56 yards on 33 carries; California 86 on 25 rushes). USC allows 1.96 yards per rush yet has three headline runners averaging 7.1, 8.0, and 6.5 per carry.

Three teams have run the ball vs. the Trojans with some form of success over their last 18 outings: Oregon State (45 for 176, 3.9 ypc) in a 27-21 upset win; Stanford (41-202, 4.9 ypc.) in a 45-23 defeat; and Penn State (29-137, 4.1 ypc.) in a 38-24 Rose Bowl loss.

The Irish won't likely approach the 202 or 176-yard totals, but a 29-carry, 137-yard effort such as that put forth by the Nittany Lions last season, coupled with the explosive Notre Dame passing game, would likely lead to a week-long celebration in South Bend.

Third and Red

I probably could have saved you some time and limited this column to the following analysis. The winning team will likely:

  • Get its defense off the field after third down
  • Convert Red Zone opportunities into touchdowns, not field goals.

Both teams can move the ball. USC will. Notre Dame has proven it can, though this is the best defense (by far) it has faced in '09. The defense that wins on third down and the team executes in the red zone will likely come out on top.

There is, however, one caveat to add…

The Old Bug-a-Boo

Since Florida State coach Bobby Bowden won't play in a big game anytime soon, I figured I'd borrow a phrase from the eminently quotable coach to add a sage, yet obvious point to my prediction.

Turnovers win games.

Bowden (correctly) explained that big games are often decided by the head-shaking, momentum-crippling turnover. The tipped interception. The kamikaze recovery of a loose football. A defender making a play on the ball in the air.

Turnovers are the great equalizer. The Irish will need to create at least one more than the Trojans on Saturday to emerge with the upset.

Weakness or Fatal Flaw?

One of the most surprising aspects of the Irish defensive struggles this season has been the team's shoddy tackling efforts. Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, and Washington ran through would-be tacklers with a series of bubble screens, short passes turned into long gains, and broken tackles in space as well as behind the line of scrimmage.

Like Notre Dame, the Trojans attack opposing defenses with quick looks at the line of scrimmage. Unlike Notre Dame's past four opponents, USC has a host of skill position players capable of dissecting a defense that doesn't commit to tackling the man with the ball.

It's no longer "the game-within-the-game" for the Irish. It's no longer a point of practice emphasis; a lack of concentration; or even a lack of toughness or focus, or schooling from the coaching staff.

The Irish defense has not tackled at a level befitting of a team capable of beating USC. They'll have to Saturday. Not even the nation's best quarterback can rescue a team that allows Joe McKnight, Allen Bradford, and a quintet of options in the receiving game yards after the catch.

Pay special attention to Notre Dame's second tackler in space vs. McKnight, a special talent who generally makes the first man miss.

Sunday Morning

The (recent) shame of these "Game of the Year/Decade/Century" contests for Notre Dame fans is the feeling they've had, at least since November 21, 1993, waking up Sunday morning when the hype and promise of the week has cleared; the dust has settled; and the game recaps land on their doorsteps (well, laptops) the following morning.

Entering the season, I thought the Irish offense had the weapons to final take down their tormentors from Troy. I thought the defense would rise to the occasion; buoyed by a delirious student section and home crowd that generally finds new life when a select few programs come calling on the House that Rockne Built.

I predicted the Irish would be 3-1 after September; and 7-1 at the end of October. That was with Michael Floyd.

I know they want it. I know they believe…I can't again until I see it.

Pete Carroll's in-game adjustments are the difference:

USC 27 Notre Dame 20

Below is a video detailing IrishEyes' answers and keys to the game for Scout's radio show on FoxSports.com

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-us&brand=foxsports&from=metadatawidget_en-us_foxpsorts_videocentral&vid=e95bc79c-7463-4c26-b2c2-0cee8ad64358" target="_new" title="Scout Preview: (6) USC - (25) ND">Video: Scout Preview: (6) USC - (25) ND</a>


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