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And in that corner… The Southern California Trojans

Nov 21, 2012, 11:58 AM EDT

USC v UCLA Getty Images

Well folks, it doesn’t get any bigger than this one. With Thanksgiving upon us, it’s Notre Dame’s biennial trip to Los Angeles, with this showdown in the Coliseum meaning more than any other in recent memory for the Irish.

As we’ve discussed (and will continue to discuss for the next few days), Trojan’s quarterback Matt Barkley is out for the game after a nasty blindside sack sprained his shoulder. That leaves the Trojans with redshirt freshman Max Wittek piloting the dangerous USC aerial attack.

There are more storylines than we can keep track of this weekend. Helping us get us up to speed is Shotgun Spratling, a writer for Conquest Chronicles, a writer at College Baseball Daily, and a USC Graduate Journalist.

I threw the kitchen sink at Shotgun and he delivered with some great stuff. Hope you enjoy.

***

1) Let’s just start with the obvious. How disappointing is this season? Looking back now, is it easier to see some of the flaws that have tripped up this Trojan team?

Whenever you start the season with not only dreams, aspirations, hopes, but also some level of expectations, of battling for the national championship, there is a tremendous amount of disappointment when that comes crashing down. Everyone knows there is tons of talent, but it hasn’t been fully realized. Losing to Stanford and Oregon, who have been the premier Pac-12 programs the last few years, is one thing, but losing to a pair of first-year head coaches was out of the realm of thought at the beginning of the season.

The flaws have been pretty obvious throughout the season. Turnovers have absolutely terrorized USC this year. The Trojans have the fifth most turnovers in the country. In fact, Houston is the only other school in the country that has forced 25+ turnovers and doesn’t have a positive turnover margin. Penalties were a problem earlier in the year and depth has been an issue, but in USC’s losses the turnovers have been difference makers.

2) While it sounds like Lane Kiffin’s job is safe, the assumption is that his father Monte’s is not. Can you put this season on the Trojan defense? From a statistical point of view, the numbers are disappointing, but not awful. What’s been the problem on the defensive side of the ball? Will replacing the older Kiffin solve them?

The defense has a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy, so giving up yards isn’t that big of a deal. But it has also just been plain bad at times. The Oregon game was absolutely atrocious. The players were not well prepared and weren’t disciplined enough to play the assignment football that is required to stop a spread option attack like Oregon’s.

There have been times when scheme has been the problem. For example, Monte Kiffin is over reliant on the base Cover-2 in third-and-long situations. USC gave up a crucial 3rd-and-10 run on Stanford’s go-ahead touchdown drive, a 3rd-and-22 on Arizona’s and a 3rd-and-13 on UCLA’s final scoring drive.

But players have also not made plays. Lane Kiffin said earlier this week that USC missed 23 tackles against UCLA; Lamar Dawson has struggled with assignments and angles at middle linebacker; and the No. 2 cornerback position has been a concern all season.

With as much clamoring as there has been for Monte’s head during the past two seasons, some type of move seems inevitable, especially because of how much he has struggled to make in-game adjustments against spread offensive attacks.

3) Matt Barkley’s senior season has been pretty disappointing. He’s made some puzzling decisions for a senior quarterback that’s played four full seasons of football and as it often happens, his senior year has been less of a victory tour and more of an opportunity for pundits and scouts to pick holes in his game. Where do you see Barkley going in the draft? What’s his ceiling? Did he make a mistake returning?

Personally, I never think it is a mistake for any player to return to school. For most of us schmoes, college is the best four years of our lives. For Barkley, I think it was the right move to make. Last year, he was, at best, the third best QB prospect and there were questions about his game.

He was able to work on his game and has answered some of those questions this season. Barkley has shown the ability to throw the deep ball much better this season, and he has had more opportunities to run an uptempo no-huddle offense, including making quick reads and calls at the line of scrimmage. He definitely hasn’t proven to be a can’t miss prospect. Barkley’s likely not the top guy in this year’s QB class, as was expected before the season, but this year’s class is much thinner than last season and there are several teams that will be looking for a new man under center.

Barkley has some limitations (height, arm strength, athleticism) and will have to prove his current shoulder sprain is of no future concern. However, he should still be in New York to hear his name called in the middle of the first round. His ceiling is as high as the draft position of a team that falls in love with his blonde hair, wide smile and Southern Cali charm (and maybe also his quarterbacking skills).

4) Do you get the feeling that USC fans are tired of Lane Kiffin’s act? Storming out of press conferences, switching numbers during games, going for two? Pete Thamel’s SI.com article heaped a lot of blame on Kiffin for the disappointing season. Do you think Pat Haden is wrong to be putting his belief in Kiffin?

A lot of fans are fed up with this season and everything that has happened. Kiffin’s never going to be a guy like Mike Riley that everyone loves, but if USC was 10-1 or 11-0, most people wouldn’t care about the media access issues or the number switching. However, when the team is a disappointing 7-4, the little things quickly add up.

If any of the small disturbances have been enough to distract the players then Kiffin definitely deserves blame, but fans quickly forget that after the sanctions USC was supposed to revert to being an average to mediocre team for the next five or six years.

Part of the reason, I believe Haden has been behind Kiffin is because Haden realizes how well the coaching staff has navigated the tumult of the sanctions thus far. Granted, that isn’t a ‘Get Out of Jail FREE’ card, but none of Kiffin’s incidents this season have had to do with running amok of the NCAA so he’s earned enough cache to get him through this season. If next season is anything like this year, that’s when I could see Haden making a move and bringing in his own coach.

5) Marqise Lee is putting up Heisman Trophy worthy numbers for a four-loss team. Even without Matt Barkley, how dangerous is this offense?

When the offensive line plays well, the offense is still capable of being Mortal Kombat deadly. Some even believe the offense will be more dangerous than it has been the last few games because Max Wittek may spread the ball around more than Barkley has this season.

While Marqise Lee has been out of this world and would potentially be the Heisman frontrunner if USC’s record was better, other offensive weapons have been rusting in the barn. The lack of production (and targets) for Robert Woods has even prompted the hashtags #freewoody and #freerobertwoods on Twitter. The Trojans also have a pair of dynamic tight ends that often get overlooked until in the red zone.

Wittek has the arm strength to make some throws Barkley can’t, but will Kiffin be aggressive with a young quarterback that has a reputation as a risk taker? Two years ago against Notre Dame, Kiffin didn’t trust senior Mitch Mustain enough to open up the playbook. Will he trust Wittek?

6) At the end of a disappointing season, do the Trojans have the mental fortitude to spring the upset? What’s the recipe for success for USC?

USC has too much talent to be counted out in this game…especially considering it is a rivalry game where anything that can happen is liable to happen.

Recipe for Success:
1) USC has to continue playing with more discipline. The Trojans have committed only 13 penalties in the last three games.
2) Win the trenches. Whoever can establish a strong rushing attack takes the pressure off their redshirt freshman quarterback. The defense that stops the run game puts the onus on a freshman quarterback in the biggest game of his life.
3) If the Trojans can hold onto the ball, avoiding the turnovers that have plagued them this season, they have a great shot at upsetting the No. 1 Irish for the third time in this historic rivalry.

  1. nudeman - Nov 21, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    Hate them
    Hoping for 1966 redux
    51-0 for you young ones out there

    • 808raiderinparadise - Nov 21, 2012 at 5:04 PM

      BIGGEST KEY TO THE GAME:

      usc o-line vs ND D-LINE.

      Thats the ballgame folks.

      USC needs to get Redd (if plays) or a run game going, need time to make big plays to Lee & Woods. Wittek needs time and to feel comfortable.

      ND BLOWs-UP THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE and they win.

      The rest will take care of itself.

  2. bernhtp - Nov 21, 2012 at 12:46 PM

    ND was favored in last year’s game. The Irish came out flat and the Trojans kicked our butts, especially in the first quarter. I don’t expect this Irish team to be flat and lay the big egg.

    His three points for success – discipline, win the trenches, and no turnovers – give the Trojans a chance. If the Irish do it, they win period. We will (largely) stop the run, force an inexperienced QB to be one-dimensional, and Golson, Eiffert and company will expose their sloppy defense.

    Irish by 15. It would be more but Kelly will slow things down to a crawl to secure the win once the game is in hand. He was never a believer in style points, and none are required at this point.

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Nov 21, 2012 at 12:59 PM

      I like the analysis bern. I would be more than happy with that. Hope you’re right.

  3. yaketyyacc - Nov 21, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    Irish, you have travelled a long and tough and for many of us a rewarding road. You met every kind of offense,and defense, and stood tall and brought home victory after victory.
    Now. it is itime to dig even deeper. Two battles left.
    And make no mistake, they will be battles. USC has nothing to lose. Such a foe is even more dangerous. And, if USC can defeat Notre Dame, and send the Irish home no 4 or 5, the 8-4 season will rank as undefeated for them.
    Follow NUde’s lead, 51-0, and yes Nude, I saw that game in person. Can you do it? Well, if you were the no 1 team in the country you could pull it off. Heeeeeyyy, you ARE the no 1 team in the country. Go get em Irish.

  4. nudeman - Nov 21, 2012 at 1:40 PM

    ND could go into the Coliseum with a perfect record, averaging 700 yards and 50 points/game, and 11-0, yet … STILL many would pick them to lose.

    Part of this is their history there (1964, 1970, 1974, 1978) and part of it is that when the largely east coast media sees pics of USC running around in bright sunshine in November, the cheerleaders, the fu**ing horse … they get hypnotized. Despite having already lost 4 times this year, backup QB, being last in FBS in fewest penalties, near last in turnovers, and coached by a circus clown/carnival barker … most will still pick USC

    No way ND loses this one

  5. ctfivula - Nov 21, 2012 at 1:51 PM

    I can not express in words the deep hatred I have for the Trojans. There is just no way to explain it. I was born an Irish fan and so were my two sons. I can still remember dropping to my knees in my living room in 2005 when they put time back on the clock and gave them another chance to score.

    • nudeman - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:27 PM

      ctfivula, Sir … THAT is a beautiful post.
      I concede there are two things I like about USC. Their colors are truly bitchin’; and the cheerleaders. Other than that, the top 5 things I hate about USC

      1. Generally speaking, everything else
      2. The horse
      3. An iconic fight song, but do they really have to play it after 3 yard gain?
      4. Full of entitled punks like Todd Marijuanovich
      5. Not fair that USC players have to take a pay cut when going to the NFL

      • ctfivula - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:37 PM

        As much as I hate to admit it there is something about those southern california girls.

      • ctfivula - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:43 PM

        As much as it pains me to admit it there is something about those southern California girls. The the pay cut line is priceless. Love it.

      • ctfivula - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:51 PM

        not sure how I posted that twice?

      • 9irish - Nov 21, 2012 at 3:32 PM

        gotta love them sweaters

      • dillonbigred - Nov 22, 2012 at 1:07 AM

        In ’79 I went on the field pre-game and got a nice picture of a blond USC song-girl. I put the picture on my dorm desk. My roommate told people she was my girlfriend, and a few people asked me about her. What idiots! Like a dork like me from Indiana would have a shot with this girl. Maybe it helped them believe that they had a chance, as another Indiana winter approached.

      • yogihilt - Nov 22, 2012 at 7:53 AM

        9Irish.. the sweaters, oh those sweaters… with all that teams do with changing their c-leader uniforms over the last 40 years, those sweaters are classic/priceless/timeless ..like cowboy c-leader unis. And they fill them nicely

      • 9irish - Nov 23, 2012 at 3:14 PM

        Exactly! dirty minds think alike!

    • frankb51 - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:29 PM

      to ctfivula:

      it has been a while (7 yrs), but I seemed to remember the play before the bush push. When the ball was fumbled out of bounds and the line judge from pac 12 had the ball placed back at the “previous spot”, rather than where it went out of bounds, about 3 yds from the end zone? Am I right or am I just getting senile?
      just asking…..

      • ctfivula - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:49 PM

        I can’t recall the spot but that is the play I’m referring to. The ball went up in the air and the clock ran out. Never should have had the chance for the “Bush Push”. I think I am having a flash back right now I can’t take it please someone knock me out and wake me up on Saturday at 8. AHHHHH!

      • 9irish - Nov 21, 2012 at 3:34 PM

        I can’t remember the specific chain of events, but they got the biggest breaks in what was an impossible situation. One of my most aggravating moments.

      • andy44teg - Nov 21, 2012 at 4:18 PM

        As I recall..we shoulda won the game when it was 4th and like 18 with under 2 minutes to go in the 4th or something along those lines. If we could’ve got the stop then, there wouldn’t be any such thing as “The Bush Push”. Gotta win the game when you have the chance!

      • dillonbigred - Nov 22, 2012 at 12:53 AM

        I have always wondered the same thing. The ball went backwards 2 or 3 yards before going out of bounds, but the announcers never seemed to discuss it with everything that was going on. I thought it was a terrible spot. Like some of the bizarre calls from the 70s games with USC.

      • miked8577 - Nov 22, 2012 at 1:01 AM

        @andy

        it was 4th and 9.

        the ball did go backwards on the fumble, and should have been spotted where it went out of bounds. but like what was said, stop them on 4th down, and the game was over.

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:47 PM

      Agree with the cheerleader assessment nude. The cheerleaders of most of our competition can usually be seen grazing the natural turf at our stadium between their routines. The Song Girls are always fun to look at. SC must have somebody with a keen eye in charge of that department.

      • papadec - Nov 21, 2012 at 4:45 PM

        joisey – I still say they aren’t students – but from Central Casting.

  6. goirishgo - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:18 PM

    Respect all, fear none. Go Irish! Beat SC!

  7. oldestguard - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:36 PM

    ND OL + EG / CW > Troy D = Nike !

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:49 PM

      Again, nobody told me there was going to be math on here.

  8. brewha4food - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:50 PM

    Run and hide in your ” independent” conference…. Max Wittek for POTUS…

  9. dermmite - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:50 PM

    Happy Thanksgiving to everyone and their families on this site. Be safe and lets give thanks to the important things in life: God, Family, and Notre Dame football.

  10. brewha4food - Nov 21, 2012 at 2:59 PM

    Run and hide in your “independent” conference… Max Wittek for POTUS

    • andy44teg - Nov 21, 2012 at 4:20 PM

      yeah..you said that once already…idiot

      • papadec - Nov 21, 2012 at 4:49 PM

        andy – what do you expect from a new troll? Travelocity must be running some kind of package for the scenic views under the bridge.

  11. brewha4food - Nov 21, 2012 at 4:51 PM

    I wanted to make sure you saw it again FUKTARD!!!!

    • papadec - Nov 21, 2012 at 7:28 PM

      ahhhhh yes – very intelligent troll speak!

    • dillonbigred - Nov 22, 2012 at 1:12 AM

      Oh boy you showed him! Those fifth grade curses never get old.

  12. don74 - Nov 21, 2012 at 5:18 PM

    Always hated SC. They are the only team that got me to root for Ohio State in their almost yearly Rose Bowl……………..

    My best memory is Eric Pennick running for a TD in 73.

    Love the Song Girls hate the team.

    Irish win this one with a great defensive game that marks the changing of the guard from an old master, Monte Kiffin to a new one, Bob (I have hair envy) Diaco.

    • dillonbigred - Nov 22, 2012 at 1:21 AM

      Agree abou the hate. The 70s were miserable except for the 73 and 77 championship years. I still feel terrible over the 78 game. My Dad, who worked nights, went to sleep after ND went down several scores. He missed the great comeback to take the lead with 45 seconds left. I excitedly woke him up, and he watched bleary eyed as USC went downfield and kicked a field goal to win. He was pissed and I never woke him up again.

      • nudeman - Nov 22, 2012 at 9:37 AM

        Aided by a terrible call. The Irish D had Paul McDonald sacked and there was a fumble which they recovered.

        Nope … Ref called it a fwd pass which it definitely was NOT.

  13. dutch31 - Nov 21, 2012 at 5:21 PM

    I have seen portions of USCs last 4 games. What I see is a defense that gets mauled. Literally you would see D linemen and LBs still engaged with their blockers 10 yards downfield. The numbers are mind boggling, almost 800 yards against Oregon well over 600 yards against vs Arizona, over 400 yards allowed vs UCLA (would have been worse but for the 24-0 1rst qtr lead). When defensive players are blocked for that long it is a clear sign that their players have quit. A lot has been said this week that the reason for the poor D is because they can’t defend the spread. I don’t buy it, no matter what the other team runs you have to win the line of scrimmage. Look at Stanford against Oregon they won the line of scrimmage and put Oregon behind the chains.

    Seems to me that ND runs the ball best from power formations, two TEs. Yet I hear these “experts” saying ND will spread them out and run. I feel you should do what you do. Plus the way I have been watching D Smith and TJ Jones block I can’t imagine anything less than 200 yards on the ground. Even with Eifert in tight teams can’t commit their safeties too close to the line of scrimmage or else Eifert will kill them over the top.

    USC has defensive talent way better than their performance (one of which I coached in HS, Anthony Sarao #56, think he is 6th on the D in tackles and 2nd in solo tackles, playing under 40 percent of the defensive snaps) great work by SCs defensive coaches, lets hope they keep it up! Can they flip the switch and play a great inspired game? I don’t see that happening

    Score early as USC is looking for a reason to quit. I will say 27 10 (same as 88) with the game not being as close as the score.

    GO IRISH!!!!!!

    • yogihilt - Nov 22, 2012 at 7:56 AM

      Wow, Atlantic City area boy, huh Dutch?

  14. jgater1981 - Nov 21, 2012 at 5:26 PM

    I’ve got a nit about one thing the interviewee said. He mentions people though USC would be mediocre because of the sanctions. What people fail to mention is that it is the coming years they will be mediocre. They are obviously still recruiting as well, or even better, than anyone, but the problem lies in the depth the team is going to have. Not every 5 and 4 * works out, so they’re going to be awfully thin in the seasons to come. They haven’t defied lowered expectations yet, because the worst is yet to come.

    • papadec - Nov 21, 2012 at 7:34 PM

      jg – especially with the rest of the PAC-12 getting stronger (even WSU will be better under Leach)

  15. irishdodger - Nov 22, 2012 at 12:33 AM

    Looking back at their loss vs Stanford & UCLA, I was surprised to see that both teams had more penalties than SC.

  16. irishdodger - Nov 22, 2012 at 12:47 AM

    As far as college goes, Jimmy Clausen had a helluva final year than Barkley considering Barkley was surrounded w/ ons more talent. Granted Clasusen left after his JR yr like Barkley should have done but nevertheless.

    I wasn’t a big Clausen fan early on w/ he rich kid Cali persona, but he earned my respect when I found out he played his freshman season despite needing elbow surgery & played his JR season w/ torn ligaments in the big toe of his plant foot that was injured in the Sparty game (also the game that Floyd was injured).

    While not being mobile, the kid was extremely efficient & could thread the needle when it came to accuracy. He still has yet to really get the reins to an offense in he NFL, so there’s a chance he can still fulfill his potential.

  17. norcalirish - Nov 22, 2012 at 6:03 AM

    Hate people that use the word “cali”. It’s CALIFORNIA, you tourist.

    • ndgoldandblue - Nov 22, 2012 at 10:57 AM

      At least people remember that California is a state. I’m originally from North Dakota, and I think everyone, except people that grew up there, forgets that it still exists. I’d accept No. Dak. as long as someone remembered that there was still a No. Dak.

  18. jgater1981 - Nov 22, 2012 at 8:45 AM

    @irishdodger You’re absolutely right about Clausen. In my opinion, he is criminally underrated. He ended up being one heck of a QB. I hope he gets traded and has a chance to start somewhere, because I think he has a chance to be really good in the NFL.

  19. mikes1160 - Nov 22, 2012 at 9:28 PM

    Does anyone remember they said we quit last year? I’m sure some players haven’t forgotten.

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