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Irish believe they can take down the top-ranked Trojans

Justin Schuver | Thursday, November 18, 2004

Despite their role as huge underdogs against Southern California in Notre Dame’s last game of the season, the Irish still believe they can hang with the Trojans.

They really don’t have a choice.

“Everybody that gets on that plane to go to California had better be convinced we can win this game,” Irish senior linebacker Mike Goolsby said. “You can’t go into an atmosphere like that and be successful if you don’t totally believe you have a shot to win.”

For the Irish to pick up that upset victory, Goolsby says it all comes down to one simple goal – stop the run.

“First step for any defense at any level of football is to stop the run,” he said. “Work on that, and then you can focus in on [quarterback Matt] Leinart and their receivers.”

Notre Dame’s defense has been rather inconsistent this season – six times the Irish have allowed 20 points or more to an opponent. But the one aspect of defense that has been consistent this year is the team’s ability to stop an opponent’s rushing game.

The Irish are averaging allowing just 95.5 yards rushing to their opponents during the 2004 season, and have only allowed five rushing touchdowns. Goolsby and his two fellow senior linebackers, Brandon Hoyte and Derek Curry, have been the cornerstone of that impressive run-stopping defense.

“One of the biggest things we pride ourselves on going into every game [is to stop the run],” Goolsby said. “Even against a Purdue team that’s going to throw the ball a lot, your first goal and mindset is to stop the run.

“I think with our front seven we have the ability to do that; we’ve got a lot of older guys up front and really have the ability to do that.”

Yet even with their success against the run, the Irish have not been able to perform consistently in the secondary, and the results show in the final scores.

Against Brigham Young, Notre Dame allowed just 22 yards rushing, but lost 20-17. The Irish allowed 99 yards against Purdue, but were blown out by the Boilermakers 41-16. And in its most recent game against Pittsburgh, Notre Dame held the Panthers to 98 yards rushing but still allowed the Panthers to score 41 points.

So why does the team think stopping USC’s run will make a large difference?

“Look at LenDale White,” Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said of USC’s number-one running back. “When he touches that ball, somebody is going to pay. It’s that attitude, not the play of the quarterback, but it’s his play that gives that team spirit, gives them heart, and makes them the good team that they are.

“If you can take that aspect of the offense away from them, you can really take the heart of that team.”

The Trojans have a varied offense that makes use of both their running backs’ unique abilities. White is a bruising power back, while sophomore phenom Reggie Bush is a quick shifty back who is also a threat out of the backfield catching the ball.

“That will be a major job of ours to see if we can contain [White],” Willingham said. “But you also have to factor in Bush. He’s going to have his six to 10 plays and on any one of those he can go the distance. So we’ve got to do a great job of team defense against the run and team defense about just putting ourselves in the right position to make a play.”

There’s little doubt that USC has some talented and athletic players, and the Irish coaching staff acknowledges that discipline will be one of the biggest keys to stopping the potent Trojan offense.

“If one guy makes a mistake – and when you have great players on the other side they’re going to make you miss sometimes – then that’s when his teammates need to be there to make the next tackle,” Willingham said.