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Head-to-Head: USC vs. Notre Dame

Observer Football Beat Writers | Wednesday, October 16, 2013




    USC’s passing game is the biggest question heading into Saturday’s game, as junior receiver Marqise Lee is listed as questionable with a knee injury that sidelined him for the Trojans’ win over Arizona last week. 

      With Lee, USC is an entirely different animal. The preseason Heisman hopeful had twice as many catches as the next Trojan receiver in his first five games, and has proven to be one of the nation’s premier deep threats. Playing without Lee last week though, USC still put up an impressive showing against the Wildcats. Sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler opened up the game with two early touchdown throws of over 60 yards.  The first of those tosses went to sophomore receiver Nelson Agholor, who emerged in Lee’s absence with seven catches and 161 yards. 

   Defensively, the Irish secondary has been susceptible all year, and allowed Arizona State to complete over 70 percent of its passes for 362 yards last week to continue that trend. However, two timely interceptions – including graduate student linebacker Dan Fox’s game-winning pick-six – bailed Notre Dame out once again. The Irish will hope to limit the Trojans aerial attack with their potent pass rush, which had its best showing of the season last time out. The Irish defense contributed six sacks against the Sun Devils, including three from senior outside linebacker Prince Shembo.

     Lee could shift the balance in this category, but even with his status in doubt the Trojans should give the Irish all they can handle in the air.

     EDGE: USC



    With a recent lineage of quarterbacks like Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley, USC has fit in with the Pac-12’s pass-happy style. However, that focused has shifted this year, with the Trojans operating a much more balanced attack. USC has attempted more runs than passes this year, and is averaging roughly 200 yards per game in both phases.

   The rushing attack has been powered by versatile sophomore Tre Madden, who has three touchdowns on the ground and four receiving. Freshman Justin Davis has contributed six touchdowns in his first six games for the Trojans. The youngsters welcomed back the presence of senior Silas Redd last week, who had missed all of spring practice and September after offseason knee surgery. Redd showed no signs of rust in his return, rushing for 80 yards on 19 carries, and will bring experience and another weapon to the USC backfield.

     The Irish front seven looked better stopping the run against the Sun Devils, allowing just 65 yards on 25 carries after allowing over 200 yards on the ground to Oklahoma the week prior. Notre Dame will be without junior linebacker and leading tackler Jarrett Grace for the rest of the season, but regain junior defensive end Sheldon Day to the line after missing three games.




  Trojans interim head coach Ed Orgeron has shaken up things at USC, and his team looked solid despite second half struggles against Arizona. The Trojans have no seniors in their starting lineup, which poses its own challenges.

     Bob Diaco and the Irish defense have struggled at times this year, allowing 30 points their last two times out. Still, the Irish defense looks to be coming into its own, and it will fall to Diaco to gameplan again against Lee, who they held to 75 yards last year.




    Junior Andre Heidari handles the kicking duties for USC. Heidari has a long field goal from 52 yards this year, but is just 1-for-4 in the 30-50 yard range.  Explosive junior George Atkinson should get a chance to break open a kickoff return for the Irish, as Heidari has just seven touchbacks on 30 kickoffs this year.




Aug. 29 @ Hawai’i                         W     30-13

Sept. 7   Washington State          L         10-7

Sept. 14 Boston College              W         35-7

Sept. 21    Utah State                    W         17-14

Sept. 28 @ Arizona State             L        62-41

Oct. 10 Arizona                               W       38-31

Oct. 19 @ Notre Dame  

Oct. 26 Utah

Nov. 1 @ Oregon State

Nov. 9       @ California

Nov. 16 Stanford

Nov. 23 @ Colorado

Nov. 30 UCLA



Quarterback Tommy Rees is throwing just over 50 percent on the year and averages 250 yards per game, but Notre Dame’s success is still tied to how the senior plays. Rees has five interceptions in the two games the Irish have lost, and just one in their four wins. 

Senior receiver TJ Jones has played like a captain this fall, and carried the team with eight catches for 135 yards and a score in its win over Arizona State. Jones, junior receiver DaVaris Daniels and junior tight end Troy Niklas have been the Big Three for Notre Dame’s passing game, with each hauling down four touchdowns apiece to account for all but one of the unit’s scores through the air. 

The Trojan defense has held its opponents to a respectable average of 233 passing yards per game. But the last two outings represent a significant dropoff: USC gave up 363 yards to Arizona State and 351 yards to Arizona in back-to-back weeks. 

If Notre Dame can protect Rees from USC’s pressure (the team has 19 sacks this year), the Irish will be able to move the ball through the air.




  USC’s defense has been more stout against the ground game, surrendering only 107.2 yards per game. Notre Dame, meanwhile, enters the game averaging a modest 130 yards per game on the ground. But the Irish have put together two of their most successful efforts running the football in recent weeks. After exploding for 220 rushing yards against Oklahoma, Notre Dame ran for 145 yards in a balanced attack against Arizona State. 

 Irish junior running back Amir Carlisle is a USC transfer, and a big effort against his former team would go a long way toward helping Notre Dame win the battle. Junior outside linebacker J.R. Tavai made his first start of the season for USC against Arizona last week and recorded 10 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. 



 It is tempting to write off USC’s coaching staff completely following the recent firing of Lane Kiffin, but interim head coach Ed Orgeron has plenty of experience to guide the Trojans. The defensive-minded Orgeron will likely keep the USC offense functioning as it has for most of the season, according to Irish coach Brian Kelly. Perhaps the biggest change Orgeron will make is the team’s mentality entering the game – he has spoken about his desire to encourage his players to have fun and restore the looseness present under former head coach Pete Carroll.

  Still, the USC staff is unproven with Orgeron at the helm, and it takes more than one game to show legitimacy. Kelly and the Irish, aided by a bye week, have the upper hand. Balance will be key again for the Irish.




  Kyle Brindza continues to look solid covering the field goal duties, having converted eight of 11 attempts. Brindza’s punting output has been slightly less impressive, with the junior averaging 41.5 yards per punt. TJ Jones brought a punt return 27 yards against Arizona State after totaling only three yards in Notre Dame’s prior three contests. George Atkinson has also looked dangerous at kick return, although the Sun Devils kept the ball away from him on five of six kickoffs. USC has held its opponents to less than 20 yards per return this season




Aug. 31 Temple                         W       28-6

Sept. 7 @ Michigan                   L       41-30

Sept. 14 @ Purdue                    W      31-24

Sept. 21 Michigan State           W      17-13

Sept. 26 Oklahoma                    L         35-21    

Oct. 5 vs. Arizona State            W      37-34 

Oct. 19 USC

Oct. 26 @ Air Force

Nov. 2 Navy

Nov. 9 @ Pittsburgh

Nov. 23 BYU

Nov. 30 @ Stanford