Given how Notre Dame has turned its season around in such impressive fashion, the Irish are in prime position to make it two straight victories over their arch rivals, the USC Trojans.
That feat may have been considered impossible for Irish fans to conceive years ago, given the Trojans’ recent dominance in the rivalry, but here are five reasons why Notre Dame can win its second straight over USC.
The Irish’s potent offense has gone over 500 yards in four games so far this season. As NBC Sports Notre Dame blogger Keith Arnold pointed out, the memorable 2009 Irish offense—led by Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate—had four 500-yard games all of that season.
It’s easy to see why Notre Dame’s offense has been so good in 2011. The offensive line, anchored by center Braxston Cave, has given quarterback Tommy Rees ample time in the pocket.
Rees has used that ample time wisely, picking apart opposing defenses by distributing the pigskin to explosive receivers like Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick, TJ Jones, Roby Toma and Tyler Eifert.
And if anyone can somehow slow down this lethal passing attack, then Rees can simply turn and hand the ball off to the punishing running back tandem of Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood, both of whom are running the ball extremely well.
Add sophomore quarterback Andrew Hendrix’s running ability into the mix and you have Notre Dame’s best and most balanced offense since Charlie Weis’s second year in charge.
Notre Dame’s offense is hot, while the Trojan defense is not. Coordinator Monte Kiffin’s unit has surrendered an average of 380 yards per game through five outings. And they were in quite the shootout during their last game, a wild 48-41 win over Arizona.
Frankly, this Trojan defense isn’t the same one that was dominating on the field during USC’s dynasty run under former coach Pete Carroll. And if they didn’t have stud quarterback Matt Barkley bailing them out, the Trojans could easily have more than one loss right now.
With two weeks to plan for a reeling Trojan defense, the Irish offense has to be licking its chops.
When the Trojans were atop the college football mountain under Pete Carroll, they were known for their tendency to play many highly-touted recruits right away—and those freshmen usually played major roles in contributing to USC’s championship reign.
Fast-forward to 2011, and it appears that the freshman mojo has flipped towards the way of the Fighting Irish. So far this season, Notre Dame has already seen major contributions from youngsters like Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams and George Atkinson III.
After seeing them play significant snaps through six games, it’s clear that these freshmen are already the real deal. And the scary part is, we still have yet to see promising freshmen like Josh Atkinson, Everett Golson, Cam McDaniel, Davaris Daniels and Chase Hounshell garner significant playing time.
Of course, you don’t want to rely on freshmen too much (see Texas vs. Oklahoma). But the luxury that coach Brian Kelly has is the fact that he doesn’t have to lean too much on underclassmen.
He can keep sprinkling the young guns into the lineup sparingly and watch them continue to play with a young swagger.
Before their highly anticipated meeting with the Trojans, Notre Dame will take a week off from competition. The bye week will have a two-fold beneficial effect for the Irish.
First, Notre Dame gets two weeks to prepare for their next opponent. Second, the Irish get the opportunity to rest up and nurse any minor injuries they’ve sustained through the first half of the season.
Fortunately for Irish fans, their team has stayed mostly healthy so far, and anytime you can get a week off in the middle of a long college football season as a player, you’ll take it. And when you give a smart coach like Brian Kelly and his astute staff of assistants an extra week to prepare for an opponent, there’s already a pretty good decisive schematic advantage right there.
Some Notre Dame fans will worry that the bye week will slow down an Irish team that’s won four straight. But not even a week off is going to derail a team that’s clearly rolling in all facets of the game right now.
The Irish are explosive on offense, and improving on special teams. Yes, the run defense struggled against Air Force, but they kept the Falcons out of the end zone when they needed to.
And no matter what happened against Air Force or Michigan, fans should still be confident in what coordinator Bob Diaco is doing in molding this defense into a formidable bunch. Yes, Matt Barkley and Robert Woods will pose a significant challenge for the Irish defense.
But conversely, the Trojans haven’t faced a team as good as the Irish yet in 2011. And make no mistake, it’s a team gaining plenty of momentum in a sport where momentum is everything.