Marqise Lee Pivotal for USC vs. Notre Dame’s Struggling Pass Defense


Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

After the Trojans practiced on Tuesday evening, 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee told the media that he looked forward to playing this Saturday vs. Notre Dame, saying that he’d be 100 percent come gameday.

Should Lee get the green light from USC’s coaching staff following a knee sprain against Arizona State, it needless to say would be a big boost for the Trojans and the confidence of Cody Kessler, who will make his first start in a rivalry game.

The Trojans played last week’s game against Arizona with just two scholarship receivers, as Victor Blackwell made his first start alongside Nelson Agholor. This week, depth looks to improve if Lee returns, in addition to Darreus Rogers.

Rogers, a freshman out of Carson, sprained his ankle on September 14th against Boston College, and hasn’t played since.  He, like Lee, told reporters on Tuesday he expects to suit up in South Bend.

The return of the South Bay duo is huge for the Trojans as it gives Kessler more options in both the short and deep passing game, especially with tight end Xavier Grimble’s health in question after he suffered a shoulder sprain against Arizona.

But more importantly, it’ll give the Notre Dame defense more bodies to game plan for in the passing game, where the Irish have struggled tremendously thus far this season.

Bob Diaco’s defense, lauded for an extremely talented and experienced front seven that includes Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day, currently sits at 89th in the country in pass defense, giving up a whopping 252.2 yards per game.

Compare that to last year’s run to the title game, when the Irish surrendered 305 total yards, and ranked 25th against the pass.

Perhaps more discouraging for Notre Dame is the fact that all but one opponent so far this year–offensively inept Michigan State– has outpaced their own season average in passing yards, in their one game against the Irish.

Plus, other than Arizona State, who sits at ninth nationally in passing yards, the Irish haven’t exactly faced world beaters in the passing game. In fact, only Michigan –ranked 73rd– joins the Sun Devils in the nation’s Top 80 passing offenses.

Purdue(86th), Temple (94th), Oklahoma(100th) and Michigan State(104th) have all struggled through the air, yet have still been able to move the ball effectively against the Notre Dame secondary, at least in spurts.

Even taking out the Arizona State game, in which the Irish allowed 362 yards through the air, puts Notre Dame at 66th in the nation against the pass. Omit both outliers, and the Irish conveniently find themselves right back at 89th in the nation, with a 254 yards per game average.

For the Irish, part of the issue against the pass is a regression in the pass rush.

Before sacking Taylor Kelly an astounding six times in their last game against Arizona State, the Irish had combined for just four sacks in the previous five games.

Without Tuitt and Nix getting to the quarterback on a consistent basis, the long and intermediate pass game has opened up for opponents.

In six games, the Irish have given up 17 gains of 20 or more yards through the air, including 15 pass plays of 15 yards or more on first down.

Last year, in 13 games, Notre Dame gave up just 26 pass plays of 20 or more yards, which was tied for third nationally. Meanwhile 21 of those were of 15 or more yards on first down.

Needless to say, the inconsistent pass rush compounds the fact that the Irish are missing both safety Zeke Motta and linebacker Manti Te’o, both of whom were graduating seniors in 2012.

Te’o had seven interceptions by primarily playing back in zone coverage, which enabled him to help thwart opposing passing attacking. With Te’o back in a zone and as a spy, Motta was able to play into the box as an additional play-making defender. He was second on the team in tackles last year from the strong safety spot, and without he and Te’o, the Irish have needed defensive maturation in the middle of the field.

Now, for the Trojans, the struggles of the Irish could play into the hand of an offensive that has primarily been a run-first attack through six games.

USC is throwing the ball just a third of the time on first down(61 passes to 127 runs), while converting those passes into first downs another third of the time. And in both regimes, under former head coach Lane Kiffin and newly-appointed offensive coordinator Clay Helton, USC has shown a tendency to take shots down the field mainly on first down, while stressing the run and a conversion-oriented passing game on second and third down.

With a healthy Lee and Rogers in the mix, along with tight ends Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, the Trojans should give the Irish more looks than anyone outside of perhaps Arizona State. That should in turn lead to more variety in the passing game, as Kessler has yet to play a game with both a full receiver corps and the confidence and aggression of his play caller.

How the Irish counter the pass and plan on forcing the Trojans into running into the teeth of Tuitt, Nix and Sheldon Day will tell a lot in terms of how the game pans out for USC.

Last year, Notre Dame preyed on a quarterback making his first ever start in Max Wittek, while slowing down Marqise Lee through intentional pass interference penalties. The result was an inconsistent Wittek and a game in which Robert Woods was the primary receiver.

Could they resort to the same tactics with Cody Kessler making his first start in South Bend and Lee playing his first game back from a knee sprain? We’ll have to wait and see.