Jimmy Clausen as been outstanding during the first five game of the seasons for Notre Dame. He has led Notre Dame to three straight come from behind wins, leads the nation in passing efficiency and has jumped into the thick of the Heisman race. This weekend Clausen has the opportunity to become an Irish legend and fortunes of Notre Dame begin and end with their quarterback. In order for Clausen and the offense to sustain drives, Clausen will need to utilize Kyle Rudolph and a trio of receivers other than Golden Tate; one of, if not two of Robby Parris, Duval Kamara or freshman Shaquelle Evans must come to play.
True Freshman Matt Barkley missed a game with a shoulder injury, but he's back and healthy and he'll be under center for the Trojans. Barkley's job is much different than Clausen's: Barkley's job will be to not lose the game. Notre Dame will need some breaks to win this game and Barkley has to avoid being the person delivering the gifts. He's done very well early on, completing 58.9 percent of his passes, but he only has three touchdowns against two interceptions. The bottom line is that USC does not need Barkley to put them on his back, because the Trojan running game has been outstanding averaging over 200 yards per contest.
Forget the long ball
Notre Dame and Clausen need to concentrate on hitting the short to intermediate routes and avoid the temptation of throwing the ball deep against this secondary. The defense is designed to defend against big plays and putting the ball 60 yards in the air plays right into their hand. USC will give you the five to eight yard completion and take their chances that the offense will make a mistake before damage is done. Notre Dame should be able to find their tight ends behind the linebackers. While this group of USC backers is good, they don't have a lot of experience and can find themsleves out of position. The crossing pattern will also be there if Clausen has time to throw, but those routes seem to have been lost somewhere in the Notre Dame playbook.
Notre Dame Offensive line vs. USC defensive line: The offensive line must be able to take some of the pressure off Clausen's arm. The Irish didn't rush for 100 yards in the last two games in this sereies combined. They don't have to hit 100 yards on the ground in this game, but it better be pretty close. Frank Verducci has done a terrific job of overhauling the Irish offensive line, but after having great success in their first four games, the offensive line struggled to run the ball at times against Washington. That should concern every Notre Dame fan. While the USC defensive front has been outstanding this year, I'm not so sure they're as good as their 64-yard per game average suggests. The Trojan line only returned one part-time starter from last year and they are a fairly young group and they've been battling injuries throughout the season. While it looks like a mismatch on paper I think the Irish can and will do some damage here.
USC offensive line vs. Notre Dame defensive line: The USC offensive line is big, athletic and experienced. Needless to say this is the best unit Notre Dame has faced all season long. As mentioned above, they've paved their way to 208 yards per game, and have simply dominated and embarrassed teams at times. They have given up six sacks, so it is possible to get to Barkley. Jon Tenuta will need to rotate guys throughout the game in order to keep the Irish front fresh in the fourth quarter. It won't help Notre Dame to hang in the game and then be gassed during crunch time.
The return of Ronald
Wide receiver Ronald Johnson will return from a broken collar bone he suffered just prior to the start of the season. USC has decent depth at wide receiver, and probably can get by without Johnson, but he's one of the best around. As Michael Floyd is to Golden Tate, Ronald Johnson is to Damien Williams. Williams is a very good receiver without Johnson, but he's a great receiver with him. Johnson will open up a whole new world to Matt Barkley, and Notre Dame's loose secondary will be hard pressed to lock this duo down. Williams and Johnson are by far the best duo Notre Dame has faced to date and the Irish secondary is currently ranked 110th in the country.
Touch of Gray
There should be a little shakeup in the Notre Dame secondary this week, as junior Gary Gray looks to be in line for the first start of his career. Gray was lined up with the No. 1 defense during practice this week and did very well one-on-one drills. Gray is a very good tackler and plays the ball very well in the air. He doesn't have the best fundamentals, but when he's gotten a chance to play this season, he has done very well, including knocking down a deep ball in the Washington game. Last season Gray played a lot of minutes against USC and held up fairly well. Darrin Walls will likely be playing on the opposite side.
I'll keep it brief on the Notre Dame defense. They better have a lot of people around the ball. Forget the knockout hit. The first tackler better take the ball carrier down. Sacks and turnovers don't matter if you can't tackle.
I had gone back and forth on this game throughout the summer and then into the season. Notre Dame doesn't have one of their best receivers in Michael Floyd and USC is getting their top receiver back. Some undervalue the return of Ronald Johnson, but I don't. Also, I had expectations that the Notre Dame defense would be greatly improved from last season and that our defensive backs would be among the best in the nation. I haven't seen that, and I haven't seen Notre Dame play with this team since 2005. Until they do, I don't have the faith…
USC 28 - Notre Dame 19