USC vs. Notre Dame: Top Positional Matchups for the Irish and Trojans

Connor KillorenSenior Analyst IOctober 17, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 24:  Curtis McNeal #22 of the USC Trojans rushes as he is chased by Sheldon Day #91 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during a 22-13 Notre Dame win at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 24, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Notre Dame hasn't seen a team of this caliber thus far in 2013, and it won't for the remainder of the season.

When USC takes the field at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday evening, the Irish will get a firsthand view of a team stocked top to bottom with elite talent.

From Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor to Morgan Breslin and Su'a Cravens, the Trojans boast what is, perhaps, one of the most talent-laden rosters in the nation. Unfortunately for interim head coach Ed Orgeron and Co., that breathtaking amount of talent hasn't coalesced into BCS bowl victories and championships the program became accustomed to during the Pete Carroll era.

However, the ship seems to have been righted, at least temporarily, from the leadership of Orgeron.

The former Ole Miss head coach—Orgeron posted a 10-25 record in three seasons (2005-07) with the Rebels—will need every ounce of the talent on his roster to exploit the weaknesses shown by Notre Dame to extend his team's five-game winning streak at Notre Dame Stadium.

The first of those weaknesses originates at the quarterback position for the Irish.

 

Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees vs. USC Defense

Rees' undeniable strong suit is his vast cognitive understanding of the game, which is displayed through his consistency in getting the Irish offense in the right looks and making the proper adjustments at the line of scrimmage.

Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Rees' physical abilities don't match those of his mental abilities.

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 21:  Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks for a receiver against the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 21, 2013 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre dame defeated Michigan State 17-13.  (Photo
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Thus, opposing defenses, particularly those of the "elite" variety, find no difficulty in defending a Rees-directed offense. As Michigan State demonstrated last month, the key to stopping Rees and Co. is to take away the run, which essentially forces Rees to beat opposing defenses as a passer.

With the Trojans bringing their 15th-ranked rushing defense to town, the outlook for the Irish offense isn't exactly bright.

Forcing the Irish to become one-dimensional isn't the only plan of attack, though.

As both Michigan State and Oklahoma demonstrated, disguising blitz looks and employing a variety of pressures to rattle Rees will often result in the senior quarterback either making poor decisions or consistently throwing the ball out of bounds in an effort to completely avoid turning the ball over.

If the Trojans execute one or both of these styles, Notre Dame will be in for a long evening similar to the teams' meeting two years ago in South Bend, Ind.

 

USC Receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor vs. Notre Dame Secondary

Prior to the current season, common knowledge was that Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor would be, far and away, the best wide receiver duo Notre Dame would see all season.

That notion still holds true, as Lee and Agholor have maintained their status as the Trojans' two primary receiving targets, as well as the collective focus of the offense. However, neither Lee nor Agholor has had a "statement" game thus far, though that could change against a vulnerable Notre Dame secondary.

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 21:  Marqise Lee #9 of the USC Trojans warms up before the game against the Utah State Aggies at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 21, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The back end of the Irish defense has proved itself to be a liability, particularly because of lackluster performances from the safety position. 

Poor tackling, failed communications and coverage breakdowns have marred a secondary that contributed to the Irish finishing the 2012 season ranked in the top 20 nationally in passing-efficiency defense.

If Lee and Agholor find themselves in single coverage—that's bound to happen when Notre Dame sells out against the run—it will be up to the Irish secondary to make winning plays, something it hasn't been fond of doing this season.

 

Notre Dame Rushing Attack vs. USC Front Seven

While USC's defense has been rather inconsistent this season, its quality performances have displayed the potential of the unit.

During a 35-7 victory against Boston College last month, the Trojans limited the nation's sixth-ranked rusher, Andre Williams, to just 38 yards on 17 carries. For those of you scoring at home, that's an average of just 2.2 yards per carry.

As was previously mentioned, with the Irish offense being so reliant upon the run to move the ball down the field, the outlook in doing so isn't exactly bright considering the pedestrian production of Notre Dame's running backs this season.

In fact, George Atkinson III and his backfield mates have struggled mightily this season while averaging just 137 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 95th nationally.

The quartet of backs—Atkinson III, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle and Tarean Folston—must produce consistently for the Irish offense to experience sustained success against the Trojans Saturday evening.