Nov 23, 2012, 1:09 AM EDT
On Friday afternoon, Notre Dame will board a plane for Los Angeles. By the time they leave, they’ll know if they’ve punched their ticket to Miami, awaiting a challenger in the national championship game. After three months of twists and turns, the No. 1 Fighting Irish take on Southern Cal in the country’s greatest intersectional rivalry.
We’ve spent three months leading up to this game, with no amount of hyperbole overselling the importance of this Saturday night to the Irish. Win and the Irish will be 12-0 for the first time since 1988 and just the second time in school history. They’ll also spend the next six weeks preparing for a title game many thought was out of the school’s reach.
It’s a season finale unlike just about any other. With all of college football’s eyes on them, Notre Dame will have a chance to walk out of the Coliseum with not just the Jeweled Shillelagh, but a chance to play for the crystal football.
Before No. 1 Notre Dame takes on USC, let’s run through six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings in the pregame six pack.
The Irish have traveled to Los Angeles undefeated in five previous season finales. They’ve come out alive three times.
Notre Dame is 3-2 against USC when the team is undefeated and playing in the season finale. In 1938, they lost 13-0 to a No. 8 ranked USC team and won in 1947 after beating the No. 3 Trojans 38-7. In 1964, the Irish had their undefeated dreams dashed when the Trojans roared back from down 17 to score 20 points in the second half and beat the Irish 20-17. In 1966, the Irish took care of business, demolishing the Trojans 51-0.
It’s been 24 years since an undefeated Notre Dame team went into the Coliseum with the No. 1 ranking on the line. That year, the Trojans were No. 2 in the country at 10-0 with Rodney Peete captaining the high powered offense. Making things more difficult for Notre Dame, Lou Holtz sent home Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks after the duo was late for the team dinner the night before the game.
“There’s no excuse for anybody being late now, because everyone’s got a Cotton Bowl watch,” Holtz quipped.
The Irish jumped all over the Trojans, taking advantage of four first half turnovers as they ran away with a 27-10 victory. After beating the Trojans, they went on to finish the dream season with a 34-21 victory over West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Trojans have fallen off a cliff in the past month.
Starting the season atop the AP rankings, it’s been a four-loss disaster for the Trojans. With the odds-on Heisman Trophy favorite, two All-American caliber wide receivers, and nearly an identical defense to an upstart 2011 unit, Lane Kiffin’s team has been in free fall.
“It hasn’t turned out so far how we’d have liked or how we anticipated. We were probably over-hyped at the beginning of the season to be perfectly honest,” USC athletic director Pat Haden earlier this week.
Earlier in the week, Kiffin talked about the swing the season has taken in just the last month, going as far as to identify the play where things turned south.
“It’s been a disappointing season as we all know, but as I look at it and break it down, it’s been a disappointing month, we’ve had a bad month, a disaster month,” Kiffin said. “One month ago we’re sitting at 6-1 and we’re up 15 points in Arizona. We run a double-move and we’re getting ready to go up by 22 and put the game away. From that play on, not a lot of good has happened.”
“Not a lot of good,” might be an understatement. Dropping three of four games, the Trojans defense has fallen off a cliff, giving up 156 points and 1,974 yards to Arizona, Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA. Offensively, they’ve killed themselves with turnovers, coughing up the ball 16 times, including nine interceptions.
Putting that into context, the Trojans have given up 45 more points in that four games stretch than Notre Dame has all season. They’ve also turned the ball over more this year than the Irish did last year, shocking when you consider Matt Barkley was expected to be the No. 1 quarterback taken in the draft.
Add it all up, and it’s a recipe for disaster.
For the Irish to win on Saturday, they’ll need to follow a familiar script on offense.
Make no mistake, helping the Irish’s rock solid defense will be a consistent offense. More to the point, a running game that can eat of the clock and move the ball efficiently, something the Irish have done well this season, averaging 200 yards a game this season.
While the Trojan run defense ranks a semi-respectable 49th in the country, they’ve only faced three run games that ranked statistically better than Notre Dame’s. Here’s how they fared:
Arizona: (39-36 loss)
Rushing Rank: 15th
Team Totals: 44 carries, 222 yards, 2 TDs
Oregon: (62-51 loss)
Rushing Rank: 5th
Team Totals: 60 carries, 468 yards, 5 TDs
UCLA: (38-28 loss)
Rushing Rank: 28th
Team Totals: 50 carries, 240 yards, 4 TDs
Digging a little deeper into the numbers, one thing that’s really plagued the Trojans is a mobile quarterback. Before Matt Scott left the game for Arizona, he had run for 100 yards on 15 carries. In Oregon’s juggernaut rushing performance, Marcus Mariota ran 15 times for 96 yards. While Brett Hundley isn’t part of the UCLA game plan as a runner and was sacked five times, his mobility caused problems for USC’s defense before Jonathan Franklin wore out the Trojans on the ground.
In Everett Golson, the Irish have the perfect running weapon to go along with Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, both of whom should have nice days. And as Arizona and Oregon showed, running a spread offense with tempo beats USC. The Irish might not be able to move quite as quickly as the two Pac-12 teams, but they’ve got a defense that can pull its own weight.
With irrelevance long forgotten, Pat Haden talks about Notre Dame’s role in college football.
As a one-time NBC broadcaster that saw Notre Dame for a lot of years, Pat Haden understands the Irish’s role in the college football world. While the former USC quarterback has gone back to his alma mater to run the Trojan athletic department, he hasn’t lost any respect for a football program that in many ways is an aspirational model for USC, a school trying to leave behind the scandal that costs Reggie Bush his Heisman Trophy and USC thirty scholarships.
Haden went on with everybody’s favorite ESPN pundit Collin Cowherd this week and discussed all things Notre Dame, complimenting Brian Kelly for the work that he’s done as he’s become the toast of the college football world.
“I’m a little surprised, I thought they had a very daunting schedule when I looked at it,” Haden said to Cowherd. “They’ve navigated their way through that schedule very well. Brian Kelly has done a great job. Their quarterback has played very well and come on particularly the last few weeks. Last year, Notre Dame got in trouble turning the ball over and they’re not doing that this year. Their defense has played spectacularly.”
Perhaps more impressive than anything Haden said about the work Notre Dame has done on the field was what he said about the Irish’s role in the college football world, crystallizing why Jack Swarbrick continues to keep the Irish independent as conference commissioners like Jim Delany keep trying to swallow up universities in a real estate and cable TV power-plays.
“There’s only one brand name in college football, and that’s Notre Dame,” Haden said. “And I think it’s good for all of us when Notre Dame is playing very well and people are following them. I’ve always had great respect for Notre Dame. They’re a great model for us. They do things so well. Academically, athletically. We have great respect for their institution, their athletic program, and the rivalry.
While USC is saying all the right things about Max Wittek, the reality of a first time starter could be sobering for Trojan fans.
Max Wittek could very well be the next great USC quarterback. But anybody thinking the Trojans will have a strategic advantage because Notre Dame hasn’t seen much of the young quarterback is kidding themselves.
The loss of Matt Barkley is huge. Last season, Barkley and Kiffin engineered a near perfect game plan, using Notre Dame’s defensive strengths against them throughout the game. Every single pass had a playaction element to it, helping to freeze the Irish’s over-aggressive linebackers as Barkley picked Notre Dame apart. That playaction throws also helped the Trojans running game, as the USC offensive line and some solid cut-back running took advantage of an injury-ravaged defensive front and ran the Irish out of commission.
But that was with one of college football’s best triggermen at the helm. Not a redshirt freshman starting his first game. Want a look at every snap Wittek’s taken for the Trojans? Here. You. Go. It’s about what you’d expect from a quarterback playing in mop-up time, with not much to gather from the handful of throws Wittek made against three defenses ranked no better than 70th in the country.
Yet Kiffin and the Trojans are doing their best to talk Wittek up, whether its truth, strategy, or to boost the young quarterback’s confidence.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Kiffin said earlier in the week. “Had a great command of the huddle out there. He’s been working really well with the skill guys. Does not seem like a freshman.”
At his best, Wittek brings a strong arm to the table and the ability to try and stretch the Irish defense vertically. With decent mobility for his size, expect Kiffin to continue to use playaction, often rolling Wittek to a half field look, where he’ll have an easier read before he needs to get rid of the football.
There’s a version of Saturday night that ends with Wittek triumphant, carving out the first chapter of a legendary career in South Los Angeles. But the more likely scenario ends in disappointment for USC, with a team already prone to turnovers facing the toughest defense it’s seen all season.
Forget about superstition. Notre Dame will win on Saturday by following the script.
Enough stories will be written about destiny, stars aligning or magical third season. Enough worry will be wasted on SI cover jinxes or mystical superstitions. Throw it all in the garbage. Notre Dame will win on Saturday by following the blueprint that got them this far.
On defense, the Irish will face their most dangerous test yet. Even with Max Wittek at quarterback, Notre Dame hasn’t faced talent like Marqise Lee, college football’s best receiver, Robert Woods, and Nelson Agholor, who broke the Irish staff’s heart when he picked Southern Cal last signing day. The Trojans also have a powerful running attack, with Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal running for almost 1,400 yards this season.
Yet Manti Te’o and company will win if they do what got them there. Suffocate offenses with an elite front seven. Shut down the run. Keep the football in front of the secondary and tackle like crazy. Up front, the Irish should give the Trojans’ suspect offensive line all it can handle. And Te’o should have more than a few opportunities to take the ball away from Wittek. And after eleven weeks of playing assignment correct football in the secondary, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott need to drum up one more game plan that keeps the opposition away from the big play.
On offense, everything runs through Everett Golson. After playing his best football the past month, Golson will make one more primetime road start, and if he’s as sharp Saturday night as he has been in the past, Notre Dame will be just fine.
Get Cierre Wood established. Let Theo Riddick run hard and make plays out of the backfield. Move the chains with Tyler Eifert while taking some shots down the field as well. Most importantly? Hold onto the football. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a way the Irish lose this football game if Notre Dame doesn’t lose the turnover battle.
A week after having to channel emotion into enthusiasm, Brian Kelly’s team will be tasked with channeling nervous energy into synchronicity. In the season’s defining moment, it’ll be fun to see if the Irish can summons the play of a champion, or if they’ll let the moment define them. These are the seasons you remember for decades. These are the games that build coaches statues.
But not for the Irish. It’s just sixty more minutes of following the plan.
Aug 30, 2014, 12:43 AM EDT
Consider this a public service announcement for all of those unable to get in front of a TV this afternoon. If you’re stuck at work or on the road over Labor Day weekend, we’ve got you covered to watch the game.
Aug 29, 2014, 5:46 PM EDT
Putting up a better fight for the starting quarterback job than anyone expected, sophomore Malik Zaire reminded many Irish fans that he’s more than just an afterthought in the program. Irish A-to-Z concludes with a look at Notre Dame’s backup quarterback.
Aug 29, 2014, 3:45 PM EDT
Arriving late on the scene during the recruiting cycle, Notre Dame looks like they found a good one in freshman Jhonny Williams. Irish A-to-Z takes a look at the local defensive end, who shows early promise as a pass rusher.
Aug 29, 2014, 2:08 PM EDT
Happy Labor Day weekend, everybody. Here’s hoping you’re spending the holiday with friends, family… and some long-awaited college football. Before we get to the game tomorrow, let’s clean out our first regular season mailbag.
Aug 29, 2014, 12:34 AM EDT
That took long enough, didn’t it? After far too long, football is back. With a preseason camp that the Irish survived mostly healthy, the biggest hits came off the field. As an academic investigation claimed its fifth player Thursday, let’s run through the Pregame Six Pack to get you ready for Saturday’s kickoff.
Aug 28, 2014, 7:42 PM EDT
The look of Notre Dame’s defensive line changed drastically when senior Ishaq Williams was suspended indefinitely for his role in the academic dishonesty case now pending at the university level. Irish A-to-Z takes a closer look at the one-time five-star recruit.
Aug 28, 2014, 5:46 PM EDT
It appears that Notre Dame’s internal investigation surrounding academic dishonesty charges is nearing a close. But before it gets there, one additional player will be held out of practice and from competition this Saturday.
Aug 28, 2014, 3:55 PM EDT
Busy prepping for her debut as NBC’s sideline reporter for Notre Dame football, NBC Sports Group’s Kathryn Tappen was nice enough to catch up with me before the season begins.
Aug 28, 2014, 1:22 PM EDT
With Notre Dame on a roll at tight end, freshman Nic Weishar enters “Tight End U” trying to make a name for himself. Irish A-to-Z looks at the Chicagoland tight end.
Aug 28, 2014, 12:34 PM EDT
As most hard-core recruiting fans notice Brian VanGorder’s willingness to break the mold when it comes to recruiting, freshman cornerback Nick Watkins looks the part of a perfect prototype. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at the newest blue-chipper in the secondary.
Aug 28, 2014, 11:52 AM EDT
Brian Kelly appeared on the Dan Patrick show this morning and shed some light on the academic investigation that’s holding out DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams.
Aug 27, 2014, 8:10 PM EDT
Entering his fifth year in Notre Dame’s football program, grad student Justin Utupo is still looking to find a role in the Irish defense. Irish A-to-Z continues with the reserve defensive lineman.
Aug 27, 2014, 3:02 PM EDT
After being buried on the safety depth chart, junior John Turner became one of the talks of spring practice when he moved from forgotten man to a potential starter at outside linebacker. Irish A-to-Z looks at the unlikely outside linebacker.
Aug 27, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT
The season is finally here. Got questions before the opener? Drop them in the comments or over on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Aug 27, 2014, 12:15 PM EDT
Notre Dame opens the 2014 season with a visit from Rice on Saturday afternoon. While on paper, a matchup with the Conference USA squad looks like it could be a good way to get the rust off, taking the Owls lightly would be a large mistake. The Houston Chronicle’s Joseph Duarte gets us ready for Rice.
Aug 26, 2014, 8:38 PM EDT
Brian Kelly announced his captains for the 2014 season, naming safety Austin Collinsworth, defensive lineman Sheldon Day, center Nick Martin and running back Cam McDaniel his four leaders for the upcoming season.
Aug 26, 2014, 5:32 PM EDT
After enrolling early this winter, Andrew Trumbetti has forced his way into the starting lineup. Irish A-to-Z looks at the freshman defensive end slated to start against Rice.
Aug 26, 2014, 1:50 PM EDT
When Brian Kelly leads Notre Dame out of the tunnel to open the 2014 season on Saturday afternoon, he’ll be leading his youngest and most inexperienced team into battle on the new artificial surface of Notre Dame Stadium. He’ll also be short three key starters, still left in limbo as an academic investigation and Honor Code ruling continues.
Aug 25, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
If there’s one coach counting on freshman Drue Tranquill to find the football field, it’s head coach Brian Kelly. Irish A-to-Z looks at the freshman safety who earned his scholarship thanks to Kelly’s evaluation of his high school film.
Aug 25, 2014, 10:46 AM EDT
After watching Zack Martin quietly spend four years dominating along the Irish offensive line, junior Ronnie Stanley steps in at left tackle. Irish A-to-Z looks at Notre Dame’s new starting left tackle.