USC vs. Notre Dame: 7 Keys to Watch as CFB Underachievers Go to Battle

Derek HornerAnalyst IIMarch 31, 2017

USC vs. Notre Dame: 7 Keys to Watch as CFB Underachievers Go to Battle

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    Notre Dame football welcomes USC in college football's premier rivalry on Saturday.  Normally, ranked opponents clash in this contest, but both the Irish and Trojans enter Notre Dame Stadium unranked for only the ninth time in series history and for the first time in consecutive seasons.

    While USC has dropped only one game against a powerful Arizona State offense, Notre Dame been defeated twice by two bad opponents in South Florida and an overrated Michigan program.  Will the Irish be able to even the records and move into the Top 25?

    Both programs have a lot riding on this game.  For the Trojans, this is a chance to avenge last year's loss and return to Pac-12 play with positive momentum.  For the Irish, this is a chance to prove the program is moving forward while pursuing a two-loss season and a BCS berth. 

    For both programs, it means a chance to break into the Top 25 by winning the Jeweled Shillelagh.

USC Offensive Line vs. Notre Dame Front Seven

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    The tendency of most casual spectators is to watch the quarterback and where he passes the ball or hands the ball.  More savvy observers know that all of the action happens in the trenches until the ball is given away.

    While keeping an eye for the ball in your peripheral vision, watch the USC offensive line at the snap of the ball and you'll know everything you need to know about this game.  If the Trojans can stop Irish all-stars Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Darius Fleming and Manti Te'o, they have a chance of winning the game.  If not, it's going to be a long day.

    The USC offensive line is weak as a unit.  When it fails, everything about the Trojan offense fails.

Matt Barkley's Accuracy

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    Assuming USC quarterback Matt Barkley is well protected from the Irish pass rush, can he make the passes to win the game?  Against Cal, he wasn't on the same page with his receivers.  He regularly threw behind them or over them.

    Barkley was a highly touted quarterback coming out of high school, but he's struggled to live up to his promise in a Trojan system mired in controversy and change.  If he can't put together drives that score touchdowns against this Irish defense, this game will be over early.

    Look for Barkley to target the intermediate pass when Irish are in zone, or to attack Notre Dame cornerback Gary Gray, who's struggled against the jump ball this season, despite his billing as a top NFL prospect.  Has Gray learned his lesson since Denard Robinson single-handedly embarrassed him?  Can Barkley even make a throw that falls in the vicinity of a receiver who can make a play?

    Barkley's favorite target is Robert Woods, who has 783 yards on the season and six touchdowns, but it's likely Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will have cornerback Robert Blanton blanketing Woods or have double coverage over the top of Woods.

    Without the offensive line protecting him, Barkley will struggle; but with protection, can he make the plays against the Irish defense?

Tommy Rees and the USC Secondary

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    The Trojan secondary is not good, giving up 271.7 yards per game for 98th in the nation against the pass.  Furthermore, it's 99th in the nation in opponent completion percentage at 64.71 percent.

    Now, consider that Tommy Rees is hot right now after four straight wins.  On the season, Rees has a 66 percent completion rate while throwing for 14 touchdowns.  It's difficult to think the USC secondary is ready to face a quarterback who drives the ball and scores regularly, especially a quarterback whose "it" factor is as high as the one possessed by Rees.

    If the USC front seven doesn't find a way to pressure Rees, the secondary will be in for a long day.  Then, again, even if the Trojans can get pressure on the young Irish quarterback, it's likely he'll check into a run, screen or hot route.

    There isn't much to watch except for a prolific evening by the Irish on offense.  Unless USC has visited Disneyland recently, don't expect magic from the defense.

Andrew Hendrix's Version of the Spread

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    Look for Andrew Hendrix to see significant playing time.  If you see him come into the game as a change-of-pace quarterback, look for him to spread the field with his feet.  The Trojans will have to keep an eye him keeping the ball while attempting to contain a productive Irish ground game.

    To stop the Irish running attack with Hendrix at quarterback, USC head coach Lane Kiffin will have to load the box with eight defenders.  If he does this, expect Hendrix to show off his arm against the weak and isolated Trojan secondary.  While fans have only seen Hendrix in a running capacity and short-range passing game, his arm is as a strong—maybe stronger than the arm of Rees.  Remember, Hendrix was more highly touted out of high school than Rees.

    When Hendrix comes into the game, look for the Irish to move the ball up the field very quickly.  Also, look for a frantic USC team on the visitor sideline.

Lane Kiffin's Antics

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    Lane Kiffin is an animal backed into a corner.  His program is underachieving by the standards set by his predecessor.  His talent is weaker than what he had at Tennessee.  But Kiffin is sly.

    When Kiffin is backed into a corner, he pulls out every trick in the book, especially against a team he loathes.  Kiffin is an adolescent coach who wears his emotions on his sleeve.  When asked if this game had anything to do with last year, he responded, "No," before launching into a monologue about how much this game means towards rectifying last year's loss.

    When one watches Kiffin, one should recognize his penchant for the trick play.  Look for onside kicks and fake punts because Kiffin doesn't have much in the way of offensive talent to perform anything outside of a flea-flicker.  Then again, a flea-flicker relies on the threat of a rushing attack, a significant chink in USC's offensive armor.

    When backed into a corner, no one ever knows how the beast will lash out.  What will Kiffin do to add to this storied rivalry's history?

Notre Dame's Uniforms

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    Notre Dame has already unveiled one surprise for Saturday's contest: it's new gold helmets.  Will there be other surprises?

    Though the green uniforms are a nice treat for the crowd, will the Irish exit the tunnel with something exotic?  Gold uniforms would be departure from navy blue or green.  Maybe the Irish come out in navy blue but with a subtle imprint of Mary or Touchdown Jesus.

    No matter what the Irish provide in presentation, this crowd will be ready.  If the crowd is ready, it means head coach Brian Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick must do something extraordinary to help the crowd find the energy it had in 2005.  If the crowd finds that enthusiasm, a struggling USC program will find it nearly impossible to leave Notre Dame Stadium with a victory.

    What will the Irish provide their loyal sons and daughters on Oct. 22?

A Cold Snap and a Soggy Field

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    While it should be clear for Saturday evening's contest, the temperature will be chilly and the ground will be soggy.  This will affect both programs, but last year's Sun Bowl proved the Irish are ready for the cold.  Are the Trojans?

    The high on Saturday is supposed to be 62 degrees while the low is supposed to be 41.  With the Trojans coming from the West Coast to play their first cold game of the year, they could be less than perfect.  To call the Miami Hurricanes' performance outrageous in cold weather isn't doing their failure justice. The Trojans could foreseeably struggle the same way.

    Though the air will be clear, days of rain will make the Kentucky bluegrass field soggy.  This will affect both programs in the running game.  USC's ground game is all but non-existent, especially with starting tailback Marc Tyler injured.  Notre Dame relies heavily on its ground attack, but the initial burst isn't as crucial since the running game is set up by the pass.  If Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray have patience in their first couple of steps, they can avoid the pitfalls of a slippery field.

    Will defenders slip and fall?  If receivers are able to make nice, hard cuts against defenders from both programs, look for big plays that could change the game.  The big play is what both programs hope to avoid.  For the Trojans, Michael Floyd will be a nightmare, even if the defense plays flawlessly, since Floyd merely needs a jump ball inbounds to be effective.

    Watch Saturday's weather conditions, as they could have a significant impact on two offenses looking for any chance to be opportunistic.

Final Prediction

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    All of the odds seem to stand against the USC Trojans.  They have no ground game.  The offensive line is inept.  The quarterback is inconsistent.  The secondary is porous. 

    Despite the odds, however, this rivalry has proven that anything can happen.

    The Irish have to play mistake-free football, which has proven difficult at times.  With home-field advantage and weather conditions in Notre Dame's favor, this game shouldn't be close.  If this becomes an unexpectedly close contest, however, history has proven that fights could erupt and penalties could be commonplace.

    Despite the "ifs," "ands" or "buts," it looks like the Irish will win this one easily, moving towards the ultimate showdown with the Stanford Cardinal, gatekeepers of a BCS berth.