The Fighting Irish these days may not whip out Lou Holtz’s option running attack or air it out as much as they did with Brady Quinn in the Charlie Weis era, but under Brian Kelly, they’ve found ways to be efficient. Through 11 games, Notre Dame is averaging rough 30 points per game, while stressing balance.
That said, it’s not often that a team’s best offensive weapon is their tight end. For the Irish, that just might be the case with Tyler Eifert leading Notre Dame in receptions as a tight end and using his 6-foot-6 frame to tower over defenders at times.
The Trojans have played a slew of high profile tight ends, and by Saturday night they will have played all three Mackey Award finalists, with Eifert, Stanford’s Zach Ertz and Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Eifert however, compares more so to UCLA’s Joseph Fauria than Ertz or ASJ, which proves to be ironic as Fauria’s transfer from Notre Dame to UCLA allowed both him and Eifert to secure first team reps.
Like Fauria, Eifert is a lanky tight end that thrives in an aerial game, making him prone to some acrobatic catches. Last week, USC’s Cover-2 defense put Lamar Dawson on Fauria in zone coverage, subsequently killing the Trojans on third down all game. Against the Irish, Monte Kiffin will need to devise a plan to maintain Eifert, as he’s the favorite target and safety blanket for a first-year starter at quarterback that has been nearly untested.
While Quarterback Everett Golson has been steady for the Irish, Notre Dame’s defense has made it easy, allowing him to just stay within himself to win games. Having said that, Golson’s ability to cut down on mistakes, highlighted by the throwing of just five interceptions, has been crucial for Notre Dame, especially considering that the Irish were 112th in interceptions last season.
With the pressure of reaching a BCS Championship Game starting to push squarely on Golson’s shoulders, he showed the ability to be a pure passer in last week’s win over Wake Forest. The sophomore quarterback threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns, good enough to be his best game at the college level and force USC to prepare for both a passing game and a running game.
Plus, for as traditional as a mobile Notre Dame quarterback is, it’s almost hard to believe that Golson is the most athletic signal caller in South Bend since Carlyle Holiday lost the starting job to Brady Quinn in 2003. Though Golson has 258 net rushing yards, he’s gained 357 yards and his five rushing touchdowns ties him with George Atkinson III for the team lead.
Joining Golson in the backfield is a tandem of two senior and capable running backs, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. The pair has combined for 1,493 rushing yards, making them the most potent backfield the Trojans have faced to date.
Wood is the home run threat, averaging 7.1 yards per carry, while Riddick is the downhill runner, though both give the Irish a combo-back feel with versatility in the backfield.
Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin has a propensity to get his backs involved in the passing game and this season it’s been Riddick who has been a big benefit to Everett Golson in the flat. Through the use of screens and flare outs, Riddick has totaled 32 receptions on the season, averaging 10.3 yards per catch without a gain of longer than 24 yards.
Other than Eifert and Riddick, the receiving corps at Notre Dame isn’t as strong as it was during the Weis era. Junior T.J. Jones is tied with Eifert for the team lead in receptions, but since No. 2 receiver DaVaris Daniels went down with a broken collarbone, the Irish have had to rely more and more on Eifert, as evident with his 18 catches in the last three games.
On the offensive line, the Irish have experience coming out of their ears, as the entire line has started every game this season, and the quintet has an astounding 114 career starts total. Anchoring the line is left tackle Zack Martin, who will line up across from USC’s senior defensive end, Wes Horton.
The Irish may have the nation’s best defense, giving up just eight touchdowns, but with a conservative offense that has limited turnovers and been efficient both through the air and on the ground, Notre Dame should give USC all it can handle and then some on Saturday night in the Coliseum.
WR T.J. Jones #7
WR Robby Toma #9
LT Zack Martin #70
LG Chris Watt #66
C Braxston Cave #52
RG Mike Golic Jr. #57
RT Christian Lombard #74
TE Tyler Eifert #80
WR John Goodman #81
QB Everett Golson #5
RB Theo Riddick #6