The Notre Dame offense is prolific. They've faced some pretty terrible defenses this season, but that doesn't change the fact that they have one of the best quarterbacks in the country combined with excellent skill position players. They are 21st in the country in terms of total offense, averaging close to 400 yards per game. They also average more than 33 points per game, good for 12th in the country.
Quarterback – #10 Brady Quinn
Brady Quinn is high on the list of best quarterbacks in the country. He'll certainly receive an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony and looks to be in line for the number one pick in the 2007 NFL draft. He's already passed the 3,000-yard passing mark this season, landing on 3,004 after last Saturday's game against Army. He is the owner of an outstanding 32/5 touchdown to interception ratio and is completing over 65% of his passes this season. He's thrown multiple touchdown passes in every game since the opener and his only poor game came in their only loss, to Michigan. Against the Wolverines, Quinn tossed three of his five interceptions. He has a fantastic arm and can make any throw on the field. But what really makes Quinn shine is his mobility and pocket presence. He is great at running the quarterback sneak, and has the ability to pick up anything from third-and-one to third-and-six with that particular call. He's also dangerous when he escapes the pocket. While he won't take off downfield for huge chunks of yards, he can certainly pick up 15 quick yards and a first down, or take off for the corner of the endzone and put points on the board.
Quinn is also smart enough to know that the deep ball probably won't be there against the Trojans. He will be comfortable trying to establish the short passing game, so it will be up to the Trojans to knock him around and show him multiple coverages.
Running Back – #3 Darius Walker, #34 James Aldridge, #26 Travis Thomas
If the Irish are attacking on the ground, chances are Darius Walker will have the ball in his hand. His 219 carries are more than 60% of the total Notre Dame rushing attempts this season. He's piled up 1,083 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. Walker is a talented running back, but he is nowhere near as explosive as Cal's Marshawn Lynch. Walker is smaller, slower and less physical, but he does a great job of hiding behind his blockers and squirting through small holes in the line. He's also a threat in the passing game, having caught 53 passes for 361 yards and a touchdown this season.
James Aldridge probably won't see a lot of action against the Trojans. He has 32 carries for 135 yards on the season. He's a bigger back than Walker, but he's just a freshman and has really only seen playing time in some of the more recent blowouts.
Travis Thomas was moved to linebacker during the offseason, but in a game that will make or break the Irish season, head coach Charlie Weis might look for any offensive boost he can get. Thomas has seen some time in the backfield this season, carrying the ball 10 times for 79 yards and two touchdowns.
Wide Receivers – #83 Jeff Samardzija, #5 Rhema McKnight, #11 David Grimes
Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight are true game breakers for the Irish offense. Samardzija is very similar to the Trojans' Dwayne Jarrett. He has a height advantage over every defensive back in the country and the combination of speed and hands to provide a viable deep threat as well as catch a ball at the line of scrimmage and work for yards after the catch. Samardzija's 64 catches for 879 yards leads the team and he's added ten touchdown grabs as well as a 5-yard touchdown run. Samardzija also has a very good arm, and has been called upon to attempt two passes this season.
Rhema McKnight has fit in well opposite Samardzija. He's not as tall as Samardzija, but he certainly has enough speed to stretch the defense. He has 58 catches on the season, for 776 yards and a team-high 14 touchdowns. He's caught at least three passes in each game and has scored a touchdown in all but two contests.
David Grimes isn't nearly the threat of the other two receivers, but he can get open along the sideline and cause a headache for the defense. He has 23 grabs for 278 yards and a touchdown this season. Seven of those catches have come in the last two games.
Tight End – #87 Marcus Freeman
When starting tight end John Carlson went down with an injury against Air Force, the Irish lost a huge threat in the passing game. Carlson was the team's third-leading receiver in terms of yardage and touchdowns. With Freeman, Notre Dame has much more of a blocking tight end who will try to pull his weight in the passing game. He came on for Carlson after the injury and caught a 23-yard touchdown pass against Air Force, but he has just four catches for 60 yards on the season.
Offensive Line – LT #68 Ryan Harris, LG #50 Dan Santucci, C #78 John Sullivan, RG #76 Bob Morton, RT #74 Sam Young
The Notre Dame running game relies on its offensive linemen pulling out in front of Darius Walker and escorting him down the field. Last season, the Irish had a line that could outmuscle just about any defensive line they came across. This season, the line isn't nearly as dominant. Sam Young has performed well for a true freshman, but he's been a liability at times and could be in for a rough day if he repeatedly draws Lawrence Jackson as an assignment. Overall, the line has allowed 27 sacks this season. To compare, the USC defensive line did a very good job against a Cal offensive line that had allowed just ten sacks all season. The three guys in the middle anchor the line and it will be up to the interior of the Trojan line to shoot gaps and make plays in the backfield.
Irish on Defense –
The Irish had some problems on defense last year in terms of allowing too many big plays and things haven't exactly improved this season. Notre Dame has squared off against some run-heavy teams, but that doesn't completely account for the fact that they are 49th in the country in run defense, allowing 126 yards per game. The Irish defense is allowing 312 total yards and just over 20 points per game, good for 44th and 47th in the country.
Defensive Line – #95 Victor Abiamiri, #98 Trevor Laws, #66 Derek Landri, #75 Chris Frome
The Notre Dame defensive front has given up their share of rushing yardage this season, but they have four guys who can make plays all game long. The line is led by Victor Abiamiri, who has 42 tackles, including a team-high ten sacks. Derek Landri and Trevor Laws are solid up the middle. They are fourth and fifth on the team in tackles, with 62 and 57, respectively. They've also been a constant presence in opponents' backfields this season. Landri leads the team with 15 tackles for loss and ranks second with 7 sacks. Laws is right behind him, with 3.5 sacks among his 8.5 tackles for loss. Chris Frome had a nice game against the Trojans last season, but he should be the least of USC's worries along the Irish line. He has 28 tackles and .5 sacks this season.
Linebackers – #52 Joe Brockington, #40 Maurice Crum, #26 Travis Thomas
The linebacking unit has three good athletes, but they aren't close to the best group the Trojans have faced this season. Maurice Crum is the best of the three. He leads the team with 83 tackles and leads all linebackers with 4 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. He also has one of the team's eight interceptions. Travis Thomas was switched to defense in order to put more speed on that side of the ball, but he still isn't a true linebacker. He has 33 tackles and a sack on the season, but the Trojans will most likely attack his side of the field with the running game. Joe Brockington lines up on the other side and has 49 tackles this season.
Cornerbacks – #20 Terrail Lambert, #30 Mike Richardson
The Irish pass defense has been fairly solid this season, allowing fewer than 190 yards per game this season. Terrail Lambert and Mike Richardson are very similar players. They both come in at 5-11 and 188 pounds. This season, Richardson has 40 tackles, two interceptions and five pass breakups. Both interceptions came last Saturday against Army. Terrail Lambert has a team-high three interceptions this season, to go along with 34 tackles.
Safeties – #9 Tom Zbikowski, #18 Chinedum Ndukwe
Tom Zbikowski has a reputation as a great safety, but he is one of the main reasons that the Notre Dame secondary has a reputation for getting beat deep. He's one of the fastest players on the team, yet he can't keep opposing offensive players in front of him on a regular basis. He'll make his share of big plays, evidenced by his fumble return for a touchdown, but his tendency for giving up just as many should keep the Trojans attacking him all day. He's a pretty solid tackler, with 64 on the season, but he has just one pass breakup, one fumble recovery and no interceptions this season.
Chinedum Ndukwe is probably the better all-around safety at this point. His 82 tackles are good for second on the team. He also has a sack, two interceptions, is tied for the team lead with five pass breakups and has a team-high two forced fumbles.
Irish on Special Teams
Kicker – #45 Carl Gioa, #39 Ryan Burkhart
Carl Gioa has missed three of 47 extra point attempts and has hit just seven of eleven field goal tries. His long on the season is from 40 yards, but he's missed from 36, 42, 47 and 48.
Ryan Burkhart handles kickoff duties and has forced just eight touchbacks on 42 kicks. As a team, Notre Dame allowed nearly 30 yards per return on six kickoffs against Army.
Punter – #17 Geoffrey Price
Geoffrey Price has an excellent leg, averaging more than 45 yards per punt. He's dropped 12 of his 42 kicks inside the 20-yard line and has forced seven fair catches. His long for the season is 62 yards.
Kick Returner – #19 George West, #11 David Grimes
The Irish haven't mounted much in terms of a kick return game this season. George West is averaging just 20 yards on his ten returns this season, with a long of 33.
David Grimes has fared slightly better, averaging 26 yards per return on 15 attempts.
Punt Returner – #9 Tom Zbikowski
Tom Zbikowski had a huge punt return for a touchdown in last season's game against the Trojans. He's become one of the most dangerous punt returners in the country. This season, on 16 returns, he's averaging nine yards per try. He does, however, have a 52-yard touchdown return to his credit. The Trojans were able to do a fantastic job in limiting Cal's DeSean Jackson in the return game. It's entirely possible that they'll be able to do a similar job with Zbikowski.
Notre Dame may come into this game with a higher national ranking than Cal, but in terms of pure football talent, the Fighting Irish would have a tough time keeping up with the Golden Bears.
Defensively, the Trojans turned a corner three games ago and have been giving teams fits. They should be able to shut down the Irish running attack and force Brady Quinn to constantly move the ball through the air. Since there is no way that Charlie Weis will abandon the running game, the Trojan defense will probably face numerous crucial third downs. If they can come up big on those plays during the early part of the game, they'll keep Notre Dame's "ball control" offense off the field.
The last thing Weis and the Irish want to see is their defense on the field for the majority of the game. On the Coliseum turf, the speed difference between the teams will be evident. But Charlie Weis is a fantastic tactical coach and will no doubt have his team ready to play. The Irish have been warming up for the Trojans for over a month and will throw everything they have at them.
With all that said, if the Trojans can win the turnover battle and keep their penalties to a minimum, this could actually turn into a fairly lopsided affair. The Trojans have too much talent on both sides of the ball and the extremely weak schedule the Irish have played the last four games could make it difficult for them to adjust to the speed of this game.