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.
Jul 27, 2015, 3:02 PM EDT
Ready or not, Cole Luke was thrown into the deep end in 2014, forced into a starting role after KeiVarae Russell’s August suspension. Paired with Cody Riggs as the team’s field cornerback, Luke more than held his own as a sophomore starter, taking on one of the most challenging schedules in college football, with elite receivers testing the Irish secondary nearly every week.
Jul 27, 2015, 11:52 AM EDT
Looking for a sledgehammer in an offense that sometimes gets branded finesse? Look no further than tight end Tyler Luatua. The big-bodied thumper may not look like the rest of the tight end depth chart, but certainly will come in handy as the Irish do their best to transform into a run-to-win team in 2015.
Jul 26, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
The big news of the spring was supposed to be DeShone Kizer ascending to the job of holder on field goals and PATs. Instead, Kizer is one snap away from being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, his development kick-started with Everett Golson’s decision to transfer.
Jul 24, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
After Jim Grobe presided over the Wake Forest football program for 13 seasons, the school made a change bringing in coach Dave Clawson after five consecutive losing seasons. What followed was ugly, an understandable bottoming out—and a three-win season that may have been one of the least impressive in any Power Five conference.
Jul 24, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
After struggling to find his way in the program as a defensive end, Jarron Jones saw a lightbulb come on after filling in for Louis Nix at nose guard. With no other options available, the Irish defensive staff called on Jones to fill Nix’s sizeable void, and Jones responded—turning the trajectory of his career around in the process.
Jul 23, 2015, 1:15 PM EDT
Notre Dame won a long recruiting battle for Alizé Jones, landing one of the best tight ends in the country over UCLA. To the victor goes one of the most ready-made pass catching tight ends in the country, and Notre Dame gets a potential difference maker from the moment Jones takes the field.
Jul 23, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
After a long recovery following a gruesome non-contact injury at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Torii Hunter Jr. fought his way back to the field in 2014. Now comes the hard part—playing up to the potential that had many so excited before the broken femur.
Jul 22, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT
The fact that Chase Hounshell is still a part of Notre Dame’s football program is noteworthy. After shoulder surgeries essentially derailed the defensive lineman’s career, Hounshell was given the opportunity to reinvent himself this spring, serving as a tight end when many expected him to be done with the program.
Jul 22, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT
Notre Dame finally got back into Florida high school powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas when they landed Corey Holmes. After establishing in roads with Sam Young and holding court with specialists Ben Turk and Jordan Cowart, landing an elite receiver out of one of the country’s best programs was the handy work of Tony Alford.
Jul 21, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
Harry Hiestand finally recruited a true center in early-enrollee freshman Tristen Hoge. Now it’s up to the two-time Idaho state player of the year to earn the opportunity to replace Nick Martin at the heart of the Irish offensive line.
Jul 21, 2015, 12:39 PM EDT
Our Offseason Q&As continue as we look at Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt Panthers. Anson Whaley of Cardiac Hill gets us up to speed.
Jul 20, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
Rising sophomore Kolin Hill had a dazzling debut, notching 1.5 sacks against Michigan to send the Wolverines packing. Irish A-to-Z continues as we look at one of Notre Dame’s best pass rushers.
Jul 20, 2015, 12:05 PM EDT
When Notre Dame recruited Mike Heuerman, they were chasing a tight end unlike any other on their roster. Undersized but highly-touted, Heuerman didn’t look like Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert or Ben Koyack, but he certainly came with a similar recruiting pedigree.
Irish A-to-Z continues.
Jul 20, 2015, 11:37 AM EDT
We finish up the mailbag, talking the A-to-Z marathon, the Irish return game, Ishaq’s fate and travel logistics.
Jul 18, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
The emergency removal of Jay Hayes’ redshirt gives you an idea that Notre Dame’s coaching staff believes in the young defensive lineman. But burning Hayes’ redshirt was also immediately followed by a significant ankle injury against USC, making it difficult to get a season’s worth of work in the year’s final three games and bowl practices.
Jul 17, 2015, 3:13 PM EDT
Notre Dame’s wide receiving depth chart is fast becoming one of the toughest two-deeps to crack. And that was before the freshman class stepped on campus. Among that new group is Jalen Guyton, the most electric playmaker on the top team in the state of Texas.
Jul 17, 2015, 3:05 PM EDT
In part one of the mailbag, we imagine what Hard Knocks: Notre Dame would look like, talk about the Navy hangover, and covet Urban Meyer’s offense.
Jul 17, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
As a versatile senior along the offensive line, senior Mark Harrell is something we haven’t seen around Notre Dame in quite some time: Veteran Depth. No, we haven’t seen much from Harrell in his three seasons in South Bend. But he’s among the elder statesmen in Harry Hiestand’s position group, and a piece of the puzzle that can shift inside and out.
Jul 16, 2015, 8:13 PM EDT
In their search for a pass rusher, Notre Dame added an intriguing piece to the puzzle in Michigan defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder picked the Irish over offers from Rutgers, Oregon, Cal and Toledo in a ceremony on Thursday evening. Ogundeji was an early commitment to Western Michigan until he reopened his recruitment as his game tape spread across college football.
Jul 16, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
His long road back after a catastrophic injury has been well-discussed. Now Jarrett Grace gets to the fun part—finding his way back to the middle of the Irish defense. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at one of Notre Dame’s emotional leaders.