In the seventh installment of a 12-part series previewing Notre Dame's 2013 opponents, I'll take a detailed look at the Irish's most staunch rival, USC.
The specific demand of each school's athletic department to the newly hired head coaches was simple: Return this sleeping giant to its old glory.
During the final chapter of both Kiffin and Kelly's third seasons at their respective posts, the trajectories of their careers were juxtaposed on the grandest of stages under the most radiant of lights; Kelly's No. 1-ranked Fighting Irish met then-unranked USC, despite the Trojans having begun the season as the nation's top-ranked team.
A victory at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was the only obstacle remaining in the Irish's path to the BCS National Championship Game, while the Trojans were playing for nothing but pride, having experienced such a humbling fall from grace.
When the game clock expired, Kelly and Co. joyously celebrated a 22-13 triumph, while Kiffin was left to ponder his job security.
When Kiffin and his Trojans set foot on Notre Dame's campus in mid-October, that same worry may still be floating through his subconscious. However, a seventh consecutive USC victory at Notre Dame Stadium that dates back to 2001 may reduce the heat beneath Kiffin's seat.
The 38-year-old head coach successfully knocked off Notre Dame two years ago in South Bend, Ind., but whether more of the same will follow this season remains to be seen.
Game Day Information
Who: Notre Dame vs. USC
When: Oct. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
USC Team Information
Head Coach: Lane Kiffin (fourth season, 25-13 record at USC)
Returning Starters: Offense (seven), Defense (seven)
2012 Record: 7-6 (lost to Georgia Tech, 21-7, in the Sun Bowl)
It's not often an offense is centered around a receiver, but such is the case for USC this season.
The Trojans return the nation's most electrifying playmaker in receiver Marqise Lee, the winner of last year's Biletnikoff Award, following a regular season in which the 6'0", 195-pound receiver hauled in a conference-record 118 receptions for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns.
With opposing secondaries keying in on Lee, the door should be open for sophomore and former Notre Dame recruiting target Nelson Agholor to make a name for himself after a freshman season in which he reeled in 19 receptions for 340 yards and two touchdowns.
However, depth at the position is lacking due to USC's NCAA-mandated scholarship restrictions, as well as the Trojans having lost junior George Farmer for the season to a torn ligament in his left knee.
Redshirt senior De'Von Flournoy and redshirt sophomore Victor Blackwell could also be factors in the passing game despite combining for just two receptions and 30 receiving yards last season, though tight end Xavier Grimble will be a key component of the Trojan offense after racking up 29 receptions for 316 yards and five touchdowns in 2012.
Yet the most burning question for the Trojans is, who will be delivering the ball to Lee and his fellow receivers?
While redshirt sophomore Max Wittek seems to be the most plausible option due to his experience—the Newport Beach, Calif., native started in place of the injured Matt Barkley against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech last season—fellow redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler is neck-and-neck with Wittek, per a report from Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times.
Regardless of who wins that battle, the overwhelming strength of the Trojan offense will be its offensive line, which only lost one starter, center Khaled Holmes.
Junior Marcus Martin is expected to slide over from left guard to fill Holmes' vacant center position, while sophomore Max Tuerk will replace Martin at left guard. In all, the offensive line boasts 85 career starts, making it, unquestionably, the Trojans' most valuable asset.
That line will be responsible for improving a running game that averaged just 150.62 rushing yards per game last season, good for a national ranking of 71st in the statistic.
Silas Redd returns for a second season as USC's starting running back after transferring from Penn State last July. In his first season in Los Angeles, Redd rushed for 905 yards on 167 carries, though he'll likely split carries with true freshman Justin Davis this season.
Kiffin's experiment with his father, longtime NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, went awry last season, leading to the elder Kiffin's awkward resignation.
Monte brought with him the renowned Tampa 2 defensive scheme that he constructed and gained notoriety for during his time as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive coordinator in the 1990s.
However, the scheme didn't translate well to the college game, as it was largely ineffective against the slew of spread offenses within the Pac-12 Conference. The most cogent example of the scheme's failure was USC's 62-51 loss to Oregon last season in which the Ducks' no-huddle offense amassed an astronomical 730 yards.
Thus, the younger Kiffin hired former Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who brings with him 15 years of NFL coaching experience. Most recently, Pendergast served as Cal's defensive coordinator from 2010-12.
The 45-year-old has installed a 3-4 scheme that better suits USC's personnel.
Because of the aforementioned scholarship restrictions, the Trojans will only have just eight defensive linemen to work with in 2013, only five of whom received playing time last season, which makes the 3-4 scheme perhaps the most effective for USC's roster limitations.
Antwaun Woods, a 6'1", 315-pound redshirt sophomore will start at nose guard, with Leonard Williams and George Uko flanking Woods as the Trojans' defensive ends.
Rounding out the front seven will be a linebacker corps led by senior Morgan Breslin, who was recently ranked as the Pac-12's 19th-best player, per ESPN.com's Pac-12 blog.
Grouped with Breslin at linebacker will be an outstanding trio of Hayes Pullard, Lamar Dawson and Devon Kennard. Kennard missed the 2012 season with a torn chest muscle but is hoped to return to form after starting a combined 13 games during his first two seasons at USC.
Kennard and the rest of the front seven will be tasked with lessening the pressure on an inexperienced secondary, which features three new starters in cornerbacks Torin Harris and Anthony Brown, as well as strong safety Demetrius Wright.
Only free safety Josh Shaw returns from last season's secondary that ranked 52nd nationally against the pass, allowing an average of 227 yards per game.
It has been 12 years since Notre Dame defeated USC at Notre Dame Stadium.
To put that streak in perspective, this writer was nine years old back in 2001, when former head coach Bob Davie's Irish squad defeated USC, 27-16.
The odds of that streak arriving at a cessation are in Notre Dame's favor this go-round.
With depth as a roster-wide concern for USC, Lane Kiffin and Co. may find it difficult to hang with the Irish for a full 60 minutes, especially considering Kelly's comments that the Irish are "as deep as they've been" during his tenure at Notre Dame, via Notre Dame athletics.
To make matters even more interesting is USC's flip to a 3-4 defensive scheme.
With the Irish offense going against one of the nation's most stout 3-4 defenses in practice on a daily basis, the Trojan defense won't be anything for Kelly's bunch to shy away from.
It'll also make play-calling much easier for Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin.
And with USC entrusting its offense to either Wittek or Kessler, inexperience will be a factor at the quarterback position, a factor the Irish defense will be all too happy to hear, particularly with a bye week to prepare.
Notre Dame rolls in this one.
Predicted Score: Notre Dame 28, USC 10
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