Saturday's game marks the 56th consecutive meeting, and 73rd in the last 76 years between Notre Dame and USC. The two schools combined have produced more National Championships, Heisman Trophy winners, College Hall of Fame members, NFL Pro Bowlers and NFL Hall of Famers than any other rivalry pairing in the history of collegiate athletics. That is tradition. And it is why the USC vs. Notre Dame game is the most watched college rivalry game in the world. This year's match, despite both teams' early struggles, should prove no different.
Under fifth-year head coach Bob Davie, Notre Dame is riding a 2-game winning streak (24-7 over Pittsburgh and last week 34-24 over West Virginia, both at home) after opening up the 2001 campaign with its worst start ever (0-3). The Fighting Irish have won their past 15 games in October, last losing in 1997 to USC.
With rookie head coach Pete Carroll, USC has began a win streak of their own, last weekend by defeating Pac Ten rival Arizona State. In doing so the Trojans were able to halt a losing skid that threatened to infect the entire season. Prior to their meeting the Sun Devils of ASU had averaged 45.5 points per game. USC matched that point output while limiting ASU to a season low, 17 points.
This meeting of the Irish and the Trojans will represent the classic matchup of brute strength versus pure speed. Trojan head coach, Pete Carroll, spent the entire off season urging his team to shed pounds and pick up speed. Davie, on the other hand, bought more chairs for Notre Dame's training table.
Notre Dame's ground attack rolled up 345 yards against it's most recent opponent, West Virginia. While USC equaled those yards against ASU in the air. The Irish will be led by senior tailback, Tony Fisher who has averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2001. USC will hand the ball off to Sunny Byrd, playing in just his second game for the Trojans. Despite Byrd's "surfer lifestyle," he was able to pound ASU's defense into and out of the fourth quarter. Both schools have injuries to their top running backs. Julius Jones of ND is listed as questionable due to a foot injury and Sultan McCullough, the fastest man to ever don the Cardinal and Gold, may not even travel to South Bend because of a muscle pull in his stomach. Luckily for the Trojans, Chad Pierson, a key offensive weapon in the 2000 season returns to begin his junior campaign. SC also saw strong running from freshmen running backs, Chris Howard and Darryl Poston.
It is in the air, however, that the Trojans and Irish differ so dramatically. Sophomore QB Carlyle Holiday (29-of-49, 59.2%, 259 yds, 4 int in 2001, plus 62 tcb, 303 yds, 4.9 avg, 1 TD) has started the past 3 games, taking over for sophomore Matt LoVecchio. Lo Vecchio was instrumental in Notre Dame's defeat of the Trojans last year at the Coliseum. Holiday poses a threat both on the ground and in the air. In the loss to Kansas State, the Trojans played similar styled signal caller. In that game USC gave up only 10 total points
The Trojans own, Carson Palmer(186-110-6 59.1%, 1508 yds 7 tds and 183 yards rushing) struggled early in the year with fumbles and interceptions but in his last two outings the junior sensation has turned that around by throwing for five touchdowns and zero interceptions. It was apparent in the Arizona State game that Carson finally gained full command of the Trojan's new offensive scheme. Pete Carroll's comments following USC victory last weekend seems to sum this up... "I thought Carson had a great football game last week. He really has put back-to-back weeks of solid ball for us. He ran the ball well and made some really good choices with some audibles at the line of scrimmage. He made some big throws." What USC's Offensive Coordinator, Norm Chow did last week during the ASU game was begin his game of chess with Notre Dame. Chow introduced a five wide set, which Carson was able to audible out of. At times he ran and then once the defense over reacted he threw - it has been a long time coming for any Trojan fan to see the fade work that perfectly. It is the introduction of calls like that which will make the somewhat slower Notre Dame defense very susceptible to the big play. And on the other side of that, it will be Notre Dame's utilization of the option with Holiday, that could spread SC's linebackers enough to loosen up the middle for the power running game.
Defensively, SC believes that they must beat Notre Dame with speed. Our defensive line does not match up, pound for pound, exceptionally well against the Irish's offensive line. However. Notre Dame's rookie quarter back has yet to experience anything like the speed of SC's defense. For USC the key will be to spread the Irish defense out and take shots underneath with the tight end. Kori Dickerson is by far, the fastest tight end in college football. Coach Chow will utilize that speed to stretch the Notre Dame defense and put Kori one on one with the Domer's linebackers. Alex Holmes has proved just as adept a receiver with the added benefit of being a punishing blocker. The tight end could prove to be SC's greatest strength for this coming weekend.
Both schools are emphasizing a common goal - ball control. Bob Davie has helped the Irish maintain control of the ball for over 37 minutes per game. For Notre Dame to come out victorious against the Trojans they must replicate that effort. For SC, Carroll has schooled his offense to make full use of the 25 second clock. The reasoning is two fold: give Carson enough time to make his read and allow the defense as much recovery time as possible. If SC is forced to go three and out, they still must use as much of the clock as possible.
Other keys to the game will obviously come down to special teams. As atrocious as USC has seemed in this area, they are equal to the opponents in almost every category, from punt distance to kick off returns. The key for Saturday, however, will not be to equal Notre Dame, but better them. The Trojans must contain Julius Jones, the nations 22nd ranked punt and kick returner. The Trojans must also ask their punter, Mike MacGillivray to halt his inconsistent play. Although he has averaged 39 yards per punt and become more accurate in pinning opponents inside their 15 yard line, he is still giving up field position to opponents with poor kicks. The same can be said for kick off specialist David Newbury. For USC to win this crucial battle of field position, they must have consistent kicking.
In contrast, Notre Dame's Junior Kicker, Nicholas Setta has been a mainstay for Notre Dame this season, converting all 15 of his kicks (six FG, nine PAT) this season and leading the Irish in scoring with 27 points. In addition, Setta has booted two of the longest field goals of his career in 2001, connecting from 43 yards out against Michigan State and matching his personal best with a 47-yarder at Texas A&M.
These teams go back and forth in every aspect of their games like seasoned prize fighters. And if one were to look at this game like a tale of the tape, one would see that things match up very evenly. SC might have the advantage of dancing around the ring, punching and jabbing, while the Irish will become dangerous if they can slow the fight down and simply wear the Trojans out. Either way, it's going to be a war.
The winner of the Notre Dame-USC game keeps a shillelagh (presented by the Notre Dame Club of Los Angeles), with shamrocks representing Notr