Notre Dame Football Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: USC
Notre Dame and USC may have the most unique rivalry in college football. The teams whose campuses are separated by approximately 2,000 miles have played in 67 consecutive seasons, with the Irish holding a 44-35-5 advantage in the overall series.
The Trojans won eight straight meetings from 2002-2009, but the Irish have turned the proverbial tide a bit of late. Notre Dame has won two of the past three, including a nine-point win last November in Los Angeles, which sent the Irish to the BCS Championship Game.
USC bids farewell to four-year starting quarterback Matt Barkley, who did not play in either of Notre Dame's victories over the Trojans in 2010 and 2012. After falling from preseason No. 1 to 7-6, the pressure is on head coach Lane Kiffin and the men of Troy to bring USC back to the top of the Pac-12.
The Trojans began spring practice last week, with their spring game coming on Apr. 13. Let's take an early look at what to expect from USC in 2013.
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Date: Oct. 19
Site: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 22, USC 13 (2012)
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: USC 31, Notre Dame 17 (2011)
Current Win Streak: Notre Dame - 1
Record: 7-6 (5-4 Pac-12)
Bowl: Sun Bowl (lost to Georgia Tech, 21-7)
Leading Passer: Matt Barkley (Sr.) - 246-of-387, 3,273 yards, 36 TDs, 15 INTs
Leading Rusher: Silas Redd (Jr.) - 167 carries, 905 yards, 9 TDs
Leading Receiver: Marqise Lee (So.) - 118 receptions, 1,721 yards, 14 TDs
Notre Dame fans got a glimpse of Max Wittek last season when USC was forced to start the redshirt freshman against the top-ranked Fighting Irish. While he made his share of freshman mistakes in the 22-13 Notre Dame victory, Wittek also displayed reasons why the Trojans are so high on his future.
That was especially true when he threw a beautiful deep pass to Marqise Lee during a drive that ultimately ended in Notre Dame’s “goal-line stand for the ages.”
Wittek should be much-improved by the time USC makes its biennial pilgrimage to the Midwest in mid-October, and he will again have Lee at his disposal. He’ll have to improve his effectiveness outside of the pocket to reach the level of predecessor Matt Barkley, but the tools are there for Wittek to lead the Trojans back to the top of the Pac-12.
USC was thought to have perhaps the best tandem of running backs in the nation last year in senior Curtis McNeal and junior Silas Redd, who transferred from Penn State in July.
Poor offensive line play and falling behind in a number of games squelched the hopes for a dominant ground game, as the Trojans limped to a No. 71 national ranking in rushing offense. McNeal departs, but Redd will be back for a final season. Redd had 12 carries for 77 yards last year against the Irish.
Junior D.J. Morgan is the top returner behind Redd, but one of two freshmen, Ty Isaac or Justin Davis, should grab the No. 2 spot behind Redd. Fullback Soma Vainuku, whose fourth-down drop sealed Notre Dame's perfect season, will get an occasional carry in short-yardage situations.
Marqise Lee had one of the best seasons in recent memory for a wide receiver in 2012, but now he must try to duplicate that performance without Barkley throwing to him and Robert Woods on the other side of the field.
The junior amassed an eye-popping 345 yards receiving in a loss to Arizona last October, one of eight games in which Lee went over the century mark. His five catches against Notre Dame were his second-lowest output of the 2012 season.
Sophomore Nelson Agholor should start alongside Lee, but the Trojans lack the tall receiver that can help them in the red zone. Tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer will be vital parts of the offense after combining for nine touchdown receptions last season.
Four sacks allowed against Stanford in mid-September set the tone for a long season for a rebuilt USC offensive line. The Trojans physically dominated Notre Dame up front in their 2011 win in South Bend, but the 2012 Trojans fell short in the trenches, not just against the Cardinal and Irish.
Three full-time starters and two part-time starters return this season, including both tackles—senior Kevin Graf and junior Max Tuerk. Tuerk replaced Aundrey Walker at midseason, who will move to guard.
Redshirt freshman Zach Banner and incoming freshman Khaliel Rodgers, perhaps the two most talented linemen on the team, will provide depth. This isn't the elite unit of some of the great USC teams, but this group should be much improved from last season.
I, as well as many others, made the mistake of thinking USC would play for the national title in 2012. The one caveat, however, was the Trojans young defensive line. While it turned out that USC had far more problems than just its defensive front, the unit coached by fiery assistant Ed Orgeron did struggle as expected. USC finished eighth in the Pac-12 against the run, including allowing 426 yards to Oregon.
Three starters return this season, led by sophomore tackle Leonard Williams. As a freshman, Williams had 64 tackles, 13 of those against Notre Dame, and seven sacks. George Uko is also back on the inside, while senior Morgan Breslin gives the Trojans one of the best edge rushers in college football.
USC does get Devon Kennard back from injury after he missed 2012, and he should slide back in at the other end spot. Top backups who should be part of the defensive line rotation include sophomore Greg Townsend and true freshman Kenny Bigelow.
All three starters are back, but USC's scholarship restrictions have taken a toll on this unit. Dion Bailey is the star of the group, although his 2012 season, like that of the entire defense as a whole, left a bit to desired.
Bailey is the most athletic player on the defense, but could move to safety under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast, whom Lane Kiffin hired away from Cal to replace Kiffin's father, Monte. Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard are back as well, both two-year starters.
Should Bailey's shift to safety become permanent in the fall, sophomore Anthony Sarao appears poised to fill the vacant role on the strong side. This unit has to stay healthy. There is simply not enough depth to overcome any significant injuries.
If last year's offseason concern was the defensive line, this year's is the secondary. The Trojans return just one starter, cornerback Josh Shaw. The Florida transfer was not even expected to start in 2012, but was thrust into the lineup after Isiah Wiley became an academic casualty in the summer and Torin Harris and Anthony Brown suffered injuries.
Both safeties, T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling (whom most Irish fans remember for this play), depart. The incoming class of defensive backs is the best in the country, but none obviously have taken a snap.
Shaw likely will move to safety, with freshman and top 10 national recruit Su'a Cravens likely to seize the other safety spot. Cornerbacks Leon McQuay III and Chris Hawkins both enrolled in January, but it's unlikely both will be starting in August. The starting spots are likely Harris' and Brown's to lose, but the young stars will be nipping at their heels.
Andre Heidari had a tremendous freshman season in 2011, missing just two of 17 field goal attempts (one at Notre Dame). Last year, Heidari experienced a bit of a sophomore slump, converting just 10 of 16 attempts, including a pair of crucial misses (and a missed extra point) in a loss to UCLA. He returns this year, giving the Trojans a battle-tested placekicker.
Kyle Negrete closed his career last December, leaving an open spot at punter. Heidari could perform double duty, but sophomore Kris Albarado is the more likely replacement for Negrete, who did not have a single touchback last season.
Lee is arguably the most dangerous kick returner in the country, leading the Pac-12 last season and returning the first kickoff he received last season for a touchdown. Lee did not return punts in 2012, but Woods and Nickell Robey, who shared the role last season, are gone. Unless someone else emerges, it makes sense to give Lee additional opportunities to have the ball in his hands.
Expectations will be much lower this year for the Trojans after starting last year No. 1. They should begin 2013 somewhere between No. 20 and No. 30, possibly lower than a pair of Pac-12 South rivals—Arizona State and UCLA.
Wittek showed against Notre Dame that he has the talent to succeed in the Pac-12, but can he be Barkley? Only time will tell. Injuries could again doom this team, as the Trojans will have only around 70 scholarship players.
Lee might be the best all-around player in the country, but the Trojans must be more than just a one-man show. This team is fully capable of winning its sixth straight game in Notre Dame Stadium, but the Irish, with an extra week to prepare, should win consecutive games over their bitter rival for the first time since 2000 and 2001.