Notre Dame Fighting Irish (6-5) at USC Trojans (7-4, 4-4)
2009 Result: USC 34 – ND 27
Head Coach: Brian Kelly (Year 1: 6-5)
Stars: WR Michael Floyd, LB Manti Te’o
Location: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Time: 5:00 PM PDT
TV: ABC, ESPN3.com
Radio: KXSC (listen at kscr.org), 710AM
Spread: Notre Dame (+4.5)
Matchup: College football’s greatest intersectional rivalry as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish travel to USC for the 82nd edition of the contest.
USC returns home after its most embarrassing and deflating loss of the season. After a weak of lackluster practice, the Trojans sleepwalked through a 36-7 drubbing at the hands of Oregon State. Monte Kiffin’s defense played one of its best games of the season, holding Oregon State to under 200 yards late in the fourth. However, the offense never found a rhythm and failed to string together sustained drives. In the process, sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley suffered a high ankle sprain. The Trojans don’t have time to dwell on the loss, as bitter rival Notre Dame is the next foe.
The Fighting Irish enter the Coliseum riding a two-game winning streak, including an impressive victory over then-No. 14 Utah. Notre Dame certainly has had its ups and downs (see: losing to Tulsa and Navy) in the first year of Brian Kelly’s tenure, but the Golden Domers have the momentum heading into Saturday’s contest. By virtue of upsetting Utah, Notre Dame doesn’t need a win Saturday to become bowl eligible, but they will certainly be hungry to end USC’s recent dominance in the series.
Offensively, it’s hard to predict what to expect from USC. Lane Kiffin won’t name a starter just yet, but all signs point to Mitch Mustain taking the reigns from an injured Barkley. Mustain didn’t have the best performance against Oregon State, but he came off of the bench cold and progressed throughout the game. With a week of practice under his belt, Mustain will likely perform better than last Saturday. Don’t forget. Mustain began his career 8-0 at Arkansas before transferring along with Damian Williams to USC. Furthermore, Dillon Baxter will be thrown back into the mix at tailback. His speed and athleticism add another dimension to the offense. The offensive line didn’t open up many holes against Oregon State either. Stephen Paea led the charge and forced constant penetration. USC’s offensive line rarely has two bad weeks in a row. However, dealing with linebacker Manti Te’o will be an issue. The Hawaii native, who spurned USC, is an animal and will cause havoc on blitzes.
Look for USC to establish the running game early to take the pressure off of Mitch Mustain. Ronald Johnson and Robert Woods are fantastic receivers, but if defenses can key in on the pass, the outcome isn’t likely to turn out well. After admitting to being out-coached in Corvallis, Lane Kiffin is likely to formulate an excellent plan of attack, much like the ones we saw at Stanford and Arizona. Regardless of who plays quarterback, passing 30 to 35 times seems very unlikely. Kiffin probably doesn’t have that kind of confidence in Mustain yet, and Barkley wouldn’t be 100% if he played.
Notre Dame’s scoring defense is rather impressive. Ranked 33rd in the country, they allow just under 21 points per game. Through the air, teams are racking up 208 yards (51st) and on the ground teams have gained 153 yards per game (62nd). As mentioned above, Manti Te’o is the heart and soul of that defense, and flies around to the ball. The main cause for concern? In the past two weeks, Notre Dame’s defense has really started to gel nicely. They have allowed just 3 points in each of their two recent victories.
After Dayne Crist was lost for the season, Tommy Rees stepped in at quarterback, and he has been solid. The freshman has completed 63.1% of his passes while throwing 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Last week against Army, he finished 13-20 for 214 yards as he led the Fighting Irish to victory. Armando Allen Jr. is a serviceable running back, but the Irish rank 99th in yards per game on the ground Meanwhile, their passing attack ranks 27th with 267 yards per game. The key to that success is standout wide receiver Michael Floyd, who has 62 receptions for 830 yards 9 touchdowns. Saturday would be a great time for USC’s secondary to show up after it let sophomore Ryan Katz play pitch and catch in Corvallis.
While USC wasn’t mentally prepared last week, all signs point to them being ready for Saturday. Lane Kiffin praised his team throughout the week and credited them for turning in some of the best practices since he arrived back on campus. Furthermore, it is Senior Day at the Coliseum, and the seniors will go to extreme lengths to win this game, including motivating the younger guys if need be. The game doesn’t have national implications as it has in years past, but there is plenty on the line as the proud class of 2011 hopes to walk out of the Coliseum a winner after their final battle.
Stat of the week: USC has won the last eight contests, including the infamous “Bush Push” game (which according to the NCAA never happened).
Final Score Prediction: USC 27 – ND 24