Every team in college football has their "measuring stick" game. The game which decides if the season is a success of a fluke or if the team is BCS bowl bound or Motor City bowl bound.
That measuring stick arrives in South Bend on Saturday when the Trojans of Southern California march into Notre Dame.
There is no better year for the Irish to take a win in the rivalry than this one.
Not only do the Irish take on the Trojans at home, but they finally have developed their players with maturity, depth, and experience.
Jon Tenuta's defense gets to run after a true-freshman quarterback, something that is very rare to see when facing Carrol's offense.
On the other side of the ball, USC's defense is scary good and fast. However, they will only get better in the coming years as they are somehow in a "rebuilding" year this year.
October 17th has been circled on Weis' calendar for a very long time now. It will be a tough task, but how can the Irish pull off the upset?
Notre Dame's leader needs to continue where he left off against the defeated Irish opponents.
Jimmy Clausen has been a man against boys, but will be a man against men this week. Although down a star receiver in Michael Floyd, he will be counted upon to make plays.
Looking down the field might be unrealistic this week as the Trojan defensive line will put pressure on Clausen consistently. The key for a successful game for Clausen is to get rid of the ball-fast and short.
Fumbles and interceptions cannot be in the box score when the clock hits zero, so Clausen must need to protect the football and throw it with a purpose.
Getting James Aldridge back this week is bigger than most people think.
Aldridge has been a consistent (and large) lead blocker this season, but hasn't gotten many chances to team up with Robert Hughes in the backfield. These two backs running at full speed through the line of scrimmage will be a thing of beauty if successful. Power running game, anyone?
Allen must provide the extra yards he has been getting after contact this week as he will get hit-and often. In order for the Irish offense to work, the running game needs to at least serve as a threat as they cannot afford to be one-dimensional against one of the best secondaries in the nation.
The running game must be working in order to keep the Irish defense off the field.
The key for the receivers this week will be Shaquelle Evans.
Another receiver in the mold of Golden Tate, Evans had a productive day in the win against the Huskies. However, he will need to produce even more against an elite Trojan defensive backfield. The Irish need another threat opposite Tate in order to set him free, and all signs point to the true freshman.
Kyle Rudolph needs to have yet another big day over the middle. Taylor Mays is the best safety in college football but can be susceptible in pass coverage, especially against an elite and tall tight end in Rudolph.
Either Robby Parris or Duval Kumara must serve as a consistent chain-moving receiver in this one, too. Parris is my guess here as he has been fairly productive thus far.
Watch out for a breakout day for Michael Ragone.
Paul Duncan might decide the fate of the Irish this weekend.
Everson Griffen is a freak athletically on the outside and will give Clausen plenty of pressure. If Duncan can slow him down (he won't be able to eliminate his presence), then Clausen may get enough time to get some long balls off.
While temped to say the entire unit is key, I am confident the interior will be able to hold their own against the Trojan rush defense. However, Sam Young will be another deciding factor in this contest.
Protecting Jimmy is the name of the game this week for Verducci's unit. Emotion must be shown and they need to play with the same attitude as in overtime against the Huskies.
The defensive line should focus on one task this weekend: slow down the Trojan running game.
The rush attack will not be stopped as they are a special unit on this team. However, Joe McKnight must be contained and cannot run through the likes of Ethan Johnson and Ian Williams if the Irish are to win this game.
Long touchdown runs need to be completely eliminated in order for a chance of victory for Notre Dame. If McKnight gets going and the clock keeps running, the rest of the units may as well not even show up for this one.
If the Irish can get USC in 3rd and long situations, they might come out successful. The Trojans were 0-10 in these situations against the Huskies.
Even as a captain, Scott Smith needs to ride the pine on Saturday.
Manti Te'o starting will give the Irish their best chance for victory. He had a breakout game last week and there is no reason for him not to play against the team who the Irish stole away from. He gives the defense a new look, and one that needs to stay.
Darius Fleming will be healthy for this weekend and must give the Irish some pressure on Matt Barkley. If they allow Barkley enough time, he will have a great day-freshman or not. Fleming has been Notre Dame's best rusher, so it is important for him to pick up where he left off before his warm up injury.
The Irish will probably stack eight men in the box against the Trojan offense, putting Kyle McCarthy or Harrison Smith on the line in order to stop the running attack. In that case, the cornerbacks will be playing a larger role than usual.
Last year, Trojan receivers were running wild in the middle of the field against the likes of Rasheon McNeil and David Bruton.
This year, Darrin Walls is the cornerback most vulnerable in the middle of the field. The corner backs are going to be asked to cover man-on-man, so Walls will need to revert back to his 2007 form.
If he does, look for him to give the Irish at least one interception.
If he plays like he did in the lone loss, look for the Irish to lose by at least two scores.
Notre Dame needs to force turnovers in this one whether it be through the air or on the ground.
It may just be me, but I think the Irish need one of those rare special team touchdowns in this one (think: Zbikowski, 2005).
The Trojans will score and that gives Theo Riddick plenty of opportunities on kick return.
Riddick has been brought down by the kicker twice recently, but is a threat to take it to the house, along with Golden Tate on punt returns. Taking one to the house will give the Irish an easy score and needed confidence to pull off the upset.
Even if he doesn't take one back, he needs to provide consistently good field position for Clausen and the offense.
Nick Tausch has been fantastic since missing his first career attempt. However, Weis cannot afford to take as many 3's as he did against the Huskies if he wants to win this one.
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