Nov 23, 2012, 1:09 AM EST
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.
Dec 6, 2013, 10:47 AM EST
Welcome to our first non-game / pre-bowl weekend. While conference championship games play on and bowl assignments will be coming soon, let’s throw some headlines out to get you to the weekend. * Members of the Irish coaching staff stayed on the West Coast to recruit after the Stanford game. We’ll see if it has…
Dec 5, 2013, 2:14 AM EST
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Dec 3, 2013, 1:21 PM EST
Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin has boarded a private plane with his family to Oxford, Ohio, where he’ll be named the new head coach of the Miami Redhawks. Martin interviewed for the job on Sunday and will likely be introduced later today by Miami athletic director David Sayler. Martin will fill a job vacancy…
Dec 3, 2013, 11:54 AM EST
No deal is done, but multiple outlets are reporting that Miami (OH) will offer Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin its vacant head coaching position. Former Michigan State offensive coordinator Don Treadwell was fired after a 0-5 start, along with offensive coordinator John Klacik. Martin has served as the Irish’s offensive coordinator the past two…
Dec 3, 2013, 1:46 AM EST
When Notre Dame finishes the season next year in the Coliseum, they’ll square off against head coach Steve Sarkisian, who was tabbed to run the Trojan football program on Monday. After firing Lane Kiffin early this season, USC athletic director Pat Haden brings in another visor wearing, high-energy young coach from the Pete Carroll coaching…
Dec 2, 2013, 8:14 PM EST
It looks like seniors Alex Welch and Lo Wood are nearing the end of their careers at Notre Dame. The reserve tight end and cornerback are looking to transfer, set to graduate from Notre Dame and play their final season at a different college without restriction. Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated was the first to…
Dec 2, 2013, 3:35 AM EST
Ultimately, TJ Jones said everything that was needed after the Irish’s 27-20 loss, putting into context the 8-4 season the Irish just completed. “You’re not great. You’re not terrible,” Jones said of the 8-4 record. “Little better than average, I guess you can say.” Notre Dame was game for most of the evening against Stanford,…
Dec 1, 2013, 1:01 AM EST
STANFORD, Calif. — Like many Notre Dame losses, you can look at the Irish’s 27-20 defeat at the hands of No. 8 Stanford in a variety of ways. The pragmatist sees a beaten Irish squad hang with one of college football’s most physical teams while ravaged by injuries. The optimist sees a young stable of…
Nov 30, 2013, 6:56 PM EST
Welcome to the finale of the regular season. As usual, we’re here with our buddies from Irish Illustrated, and we’re live chatting throughout the Notre Dame vs. Stanford game. It’s a beautiful day in Stanford Stadium, with a good turn out by Irish fans who headed to Northern California for Thanksgiving weekend. As usual, standard…
Nov 30, 2013, 10:20 AM EST
The sun has yet to rise in Northern California. But it will soon set on another Notre Dame football season, with the Irish having one more shot to win a very big football game. On first glance, the deck seems stacked against Brian Kelly’s squad, with injuries up front on both sides of the ball…
Nov 29, 2013, 6:55 PM EST
Notre Dame safeties Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate won’t be available for the regular season finale against Stanford. Rumors swirled late Thursday evening that the two safeties wouldn’t be traveling with the team to Palo Alto. Brian Kelly confirmed those rumors Friday afternoon from Northern California, citing a violation of team rules. Here’s the official…
Nov 29, 2013, 1:45 AM EST
The regular season comes to a close on Saturday, with No. 25 Notre Dame visiting No. 8 Stanford. The Irish will have a chance to beat four ranked opponents on the season, though pulling off a victory in Palo Alto will be the biggest win on a season that certainly had its ups and downs.…
Nov 28, 2013, 1:16 PM EST
Happy Thanksgiving. Here’s hoping everybody is spending it with family, friends and loved ones. The Notre Dame football team is gathering today, with coaches and their families celebrating with the team as a new record for turkeys eaten is attempted. Before I get to work in the kitchen today, let’s get to the IBG (sorry,…
Nov 27, 2013, 12:19 PM EST
It took one visit to convince outside linebacker Jhonny Williams that Notre Dame was the place for him. Even amidst the wind and snow of last weekend, Williams knew the best option for him was the school just 30 minutes away from his home in Berrian Springs, Michigan. He made that decision official Wednesday morning,…
Nov 27, 2013, 3:13 AM EST
The regular season finale takes Notre Dame to Northern California on Saturday, where they’ll face No. 8 Stanford, a program that’s spent the past four seasons in rarified air. With the opportunity to win ten games for the fourth straight season, David Shaw’s Cardinal already have their ticket booked for the Pac-12 Championship game. But…
Nov 26, 2013, 11:21 PM EST
For the final Tuesday of the regular season, Brian Kelly hosted his weekly opponent preview press conference. And it’s clear that the Irish head coach understands the challenge that No. 8 Stanford presents. The Irish have played some good teams this season. But Kelly made it clear that he thinks Stanford is the best one he’ll…
Nov 25, 2013, 11:58 PM EST
When Notre Dame takes the field this weekend, the Irish will face a quarterback that grew up dreaming of playing in this game. Only Kevin Hogan always pictured himself calling the plays for the Fighting Irish. Hogan, the junior quarterback for Stanford, took the reins of the Cardinal offense in late October last season, replacing…
Nov 25, 2013, 1:52 AM EST
For the fourth straight season, Notre Dame sent its seniors out with a victory, a wonderful change from the Charlie Weis era where the Irish lost their two final home games in devastatingly painful fashion. But on Saturday, the Irish put together a complete victory, a late-season win that felt like a great pitcher grinding…
Nov 24, 2013, 7:45 PM EST
A little winter weather wasn’t enough to deter 2015 quarterback Blake Barnett from committing to Notre Dame this weekend. The junior quarterback from Orange County, California gave the Irish a building block recruit for next season’s cycle, with the offensive coaching staff finding what looks like an excellent fit for the Irish offense. Barnett’s commitment…
Nov 23, 2013, 9:41 PM EST
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Before an emotional Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly made sure the message to his team was very clear. “We told them that, you’ll get a chance to kiss your mom again,” Kelly said after the game. “But you’ll remember winning the game. That’s the most important thing.” And win…
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