Notre Dame Football: How to Beat the USC Trojans
Believe it or not, Irish Nation, your team is the No. 1 college football team in the country as of November 18, 2012.
Sounds great, and I haven’t even dipped into my morning Bailey’s Irish Cream, although my mom is still haggling last night’s assault charges into some domestic disturbance misdemeanors and a stiff fine for a tavern front window and the splintered tinder that used to be a bar stool.
For those of you that dabble as bartenders, do not take her glass while there is still whiskey in it or there are consequences.
But I digress.
When the pollsters finally sober up and look at last night’s scores, ND will be atop the list of 124 FBS programs and No. 1 in the BCS rankings for the first time in history.
Yes, Kansas State’s Wildcats are the pretenders we all thought they were, as they were thoroughly whacked 52-24 in Waco by a .500 Baylor team that has given up over 50 points three times this year, even managing to drop 63 on West Virginia and still lose by seven.
Admittedly, Baylor’s defense has improved immensely since their defensive coordinator started putting at least three guys on the field every single play.
And as we all know, when the Oregon Ducks met Stanford’s Notre Dame-like defense they just quacked up. (I am allowing time to groan here. I am so sorry, but it had to be done.)
Despite winning the turnover battle 3-1 and getting so many bullcrap calls, all the bulls in the great Northwest were all pooped out, the 375,000th different fancy-ass Ducks uniform got beat by the non-fancy-ass standard red and white football issue of the Stanford Cardinal 17-14 in overtime.
Weird how these 50-plus points per game offenses break down when someone actually tackles.
So where does that leave Irish Nation? We have one task, and one task only.
We have to beat the hated USC Trojans next week in the Coliseum to get a shot at the national title.
There will be blood on both sides and thousands of lives could be lost, but we should beat them.
Do Not Take the Trojans Lightly
Only a few short weeks ago, this Trojan team was the one that was supposed to go into their season finale ready to lotion up for the Miami sunshine and a national title shot.
There are reasons people thought highly of the Swordly Hoard, and it’s not just the hot cheerleaders and the roster full of blue-chip athletes we didn’t get.
Contrary to popular belief, the Lane Kiffin-led four-loss Trojans are far from helpless, and news of their demise is greatly exaggerated.
USC puts up over 462 yards a game, and the offense has weapons that would have made Saddam guilty of harboring WOMD had they hidden in his desert.
WR Marquise Lee is checking in at 10 catches a game for a 146 yards a game.
As they say in Anchorman, "That means he is averaging a career game, every game."
By the way, their second leading receiver is Robert Woods, the All-American that ate ND up for 12 receptions, 119 yards and two TD's last year.
Oh, their fastest receiver is freshman Nelson Agholor, who is averaging almost 18 yards a catch on 19 catches.
When you watch the games, the Trojan offense is explosive beyond description, and contrary to popular belief, the defense isn’t nearly as bad as the stats might indicate.
“But Dan, USC’s defense is a joke this year. Kirk Herbstreit said so.”
The Trojan defense that is so beleaguered that the national media is using defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin as a poster child for defensive ineptitude.
In reality, the USC defense is actually a respectable 48th in the country despite a schedule that includes the country’s second (Oregon 51.1 PPG), 20th (UCLA 37.7 PPG), 22nd (Arizona 37.5 PPG), and 28th (AZU 36.0 PPG) offenses.
It's allowed two touchdowns or less five of its 11 games, including holding Arizona States' 36 points a game offense to a season-low 17.
These are not anybody's bums.
Make no mistake, for USC, both sides of the ball are fast and athletic, and violently aggressive like my mom wrestling for the last swig of Jack Daniels at the after party.
Mark my words, to ignore the might of the Trojan sword is to suffer its blade.
Notre Dame Must Ignore the Applause
With the highest graduation rate for athletes in the country, it goes without saying the Irish are well read.
If they read their press clippings this week Notre Dame will join Kansas State as a pretender.
“But Dan, we are the only undefeated team left, and our defense is tied with Alabama for No. 1 in the nation. We will crush USC’s armor like aluminum foil.”
I get it; the Irish have some great stats. They are 11-0 and have the No. 1 scoring defense in the country at 10.1 PPG, and I do not demean either accomplishment.
Yes, ND’s defense held Oklahoma’s No. 8-ranked offense to 13 points, a well-documented and well-respected feat. But after that, the offenses ND has faced in 2012 are less than intimidating to the point some are technically referred to as “gawdawful.”
Other than the Sooners' high-octane offense, the next most intimidating offense on the Irish plate was Michigan, which steps in at a modest No. 48 in the country in scoring offense at 30.8 PPG.
No other team on ND’s schedule ranks better than 57th, and Boston College (105th), Michigan State (110th) and Wake Forest (117th) have been spectacularly anemic when they have the football throughout 2012.
Frankly, after watching the game, it’s hard to believe there are actually seven teams in the country with an offense that sucks worse than the Demon Deacons'.
Yes, we are the # 1 scoring defense in the country, but a lot of mediocre to bad offenses have helped.
As for offense, the Irish offense, though improving, is still in the bottom half of the country at 74th and 27.2 PPG. It is not putting up big numbers against anybody except the athletically-challenged Naval Academy and some of the very worst defenses in the country (Thank you Miami, 75th, love you Wake, 80th).
Just like last year, when our 8-5 Irish were three plays away from 11-2, this year, our 11-0 Irish are arguably three plays away from 8-3.
Such are the football gods.
What the Irish really are is a very solid defensive team with a sporadic offense that has found a way to win by busting their collective asses every game.
The Irish must ignore the BCS sideshow and bust their butt once again to take down USC, or the Trojans will bust it for them.
The Irish Must Protect the Football
While this is no secret in general, against USC it is even more critical. You can’t give away the rock and win.
USC has four losses this year, and all have a common theme. The Trojans lost the turnover battle, then lost the war.
In fact, against a pathetic Rich Rod-led 105th-ranked Arizona Wildcat defense, USC managed to lose despite running up over 600 yards in offense by turning the ball over five times to the Wildcats’ one.
Remember Notre Dame's five turnovers against a lousy South Florida team in 2011? That’s how you lose to a stinkball.
The Trojans never got bounced this year when they won the fumble/pick sweepstakes, so making good decisions and protecting the football has to be a premium if the Irish don’t want to spend the day chasing 4.25 40 guys into the end zone.
USC has an offense that applies lots of pressure and can wear a D out, and if it gets more chances than you, it will beat you like a dirty rug.
If USC makes more mistakes, life gets a lot easier.
To put it in the most eloquent of terms, to win this one, Notre Dame must make sure the Trojans screw up one more time than the Irish do.
The Irish Must Run the Football
The other striking statistic when looking over the stat sheets for the Trojans is that every team that has run on the Men from Troy has ultimately run them over.
USC’s defense has given up lots of yardage on the ground in every loss: Arizona: 219, UCLA: 172, Oregon: 416 and Stanford: 202.
Where USC has been able to limit the opponent’s run game to 133 yards or less, the Men of Troy take home a W.
This also holds true for the recent Irish history against Kiffin-led Trojan teams. In 2010, a limited ND offense only had 296 yards in total offense, but 147 of that was on the ground, and the Irish literally ground out a 20-16 win.
In 2011, a similarly limited ND offense had 267 yards in total offense, but only 41 of that was on the ground, and the Irish got pounded 31-17.
Last year, after falling behind early, the Irish gave up on the running game and ended with only 14 rushing attempts and an embarrassing home loss.
To beat USC, you have to run the ball and control the game. To do that, Notre Dame's offensive line will have to show up and EG will have to keep the D’s numbers in the box honest with QB zone reads and play action, both of which have killed USC in their losses.
Although it's easier said than done, the Irish run, the Irish win.
If Notre Dame respects USC and doesn’t get caught up in the hoopla of No. 1 and some slightly skewed statistical dominance (see Kansas State), it has the right tools to go all Stanford on this Trojan team.
Like Stanford, the Irish have the backs and the line to establish a running game, and they aren’t helpless if their QB has to make something happen with his arm or his legs.
If the Irish D-line shows up and harasses the pocket like Stanford did, the LB’s and secondary will be able to slow the Trojan receivers, or at least keep them in front enough to wait for a mistake or three.
Last, when the Irish have the ball, they must protect it. Giving the USC offense extra chances is like handing a teenager a pint of schnapps and the keys to your Jag on prom night and hoping for the best.
Aside from that, if USC QB Matt Barkley is as hurt as his crushed shoulder looked, ND must turn up the heat on backup redshirt QB Max Wittek. Every big-game hunter knows that a wounded animal is at its most dangerous, and at 6'4" and 235, Wittek is a big kid with a good arm.
The Irish can’t let him use it.
Make no mistake, warts and all, this is the most explosive team Notre Dame will play all year, and USC's defense is grossly underrated and will have nothing to lose after the last few weeks of debacles against some of the better offenses in the country, which the Irish are not.
Look for a battle and hope for a win the old-fashioned way.
Notre Dame will have to earn it.