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.
Oct 31, 2014, 1:59 PM EDT
As Notre Dame and Navy meet for the 88th straight time, we reach a familiar time of year and a particularly scary Saturday for the Irish. As ghosts and goblins prepare to roam the streets in search of trick or treat, the Irish coaching staff receives its annual scare in the form of a triple-option offense and a football team with nothing to lose.
Oct 30, 2014, 1:33 PM EDT
With a little over 48 hours until Notre Dame and Navy play, the final pieces of installation around going in before the chess match between two coaching staffs take place. For the Irish, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder gets his first chance at stopping the triple-option in over a decade.
Oct 29, 2014, 3:32 PM EDT
Drop your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Oct 29, 2014, 2:11 PM EDT
For a man that’s had more success against Notre Dame than any of his predecessors over the past two generations, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo certainly doesn’t think he’s figured out the Irish. In fact, for his Midshipmen team to win, Niumatalolo acknowledges that it takes more than just his team playing near-perfect football. He needs Notre Dame’s help as well.
Oct 29, 2014, 12:21 PM EDT
With last night’s announcement had all eyes on the first announcement of the College Football Playoff rankings, the immediate concern is Navy. While we can spend the next five weeks worrying about the view from 30,000 feet, credit Brian Kelly for understanding that the Midshipmen present the most clear and present danger.
Oct 28, 2014, 8:44 PM EDT
The first College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday evening. And Notre Dame has some work to do. The selection committee’s first ballot has the Irish slotted in at 10th in the country, a middle-of-the-pack one-loss team according to the 12-person voting panel.
Oct 28, 2014, 4:33 PM EDT
With a week off between Florida State and Navy, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff had an extra week of preparation for Ken Niumatalolo’s triple-option attack. Allowing his team to leave campus during the university’s fall break, Kelly afforded his players a chance to recharge their batteries after being on campus since June.
Oct 27, 2014, 2:09 PM EDT
Among the many reasons Charlie Weis lost his dream job coaching Notre Dame was the Irish’s stumbles in November. Even with a guaranteed 10-year contract, Jack Swarbrick couldn’t watch Notre Dame melt down in November for another year, with Weis’ final two seasons ending with Notre Dame going 1-9 after Halloween. That’s a scary movie franchise that needed killing, no matter the expense.
Oct 25, 2014, 2:31 PM EDT
Before we have an Irish-free Saturday, let’s get to some questions. For those of you wondering what you should do on a day usually committed to football, the world is your oyster. Or you could watch some of Notre Dame’s opponents do battle.
Oct 24, 2014, 1:09 PM EDT
When Brian VanGorder’s name surfaced as Notre Dame looked for a new defensive coordinator, there wasn’t necessarily a lot of buzz behind the hire. While VanGorder fit many of the criteria that went along with a Brian Kelly hire, the big-picture reaction wasn’t one of universal support.
Oct 23, 2014, 1:28 PM EDT
There is no football game this weekend. For a Notre Dame football team that just played three-straight tight games, that’s a good thing. (For Irish fans, it’s a victory as well. Go buy a pumpkin and get outside in the fall weather.) As promised, let’s look back at the first eight weeks of the season. Notre Dame sits at 6-1, with a place in the College Football Playoff still very much in play.
Oct 23, 2014, 10:41 AM EDT
For the second time in a week, Notre Dame’s recruiting class landed a playmaking linebacker. During a press conference streamed live on ESPN.com, Florida’s Tevon Coney pledged his commitment to the Irish, picking Notre Dame over finalists Miami and Florida.
Oct 23, 2014, 12:07 AM EDT
Drop your questions below. Or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Oct 22, 2014, 11:43 AM EDT
With Notre Dame’s scheduling agreement in place with the ACC, Jack Swarbrick and the Irish athletic department can find some certainty in their future slates. That certainty was announced Tuesday, with dates for five ACC games in place through 2019 and matchups set through 2025.
Oct 21, 2014, 7:28 PM EDT
After eight weeks, the forecast for the first College Football Playoff is coming into focus. After falling to Florida State last weekend, the Irish lost pole position. But as a one-loss team now likely competing for one of the final spots in the four-team event, Notre Dame remains one of the top dark horse candidates.
Oct 21, 2014, 12:14 PM EDT
At this point, it doesn’t matter that the ACC has reversed course, deciding that the pass interference penalty was on C.J. Prosise after all. And that they’ve acknowledged that the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty they missed for P.J. Williams removing his helmet should’ve set up Notre Dame with a 1st-and-goal at the 9-yard line.
We’re moving on. (I promise.)
Oct 20, 2014, 1:33 PM EDT
Usually, Brian Kelly gives his team 24 hours to celebrate a win or get over a loss. That rule was likely tested — and you couldn’t blame him if it was slightly relaxed — after Saturday night’s 31-27 loss.
“We need to give our kids a break. They’ve been going since June,” Kelly said on Sunday. “Our first bye week we kept them here to stay on top of their academics. We’re going to give them a little time off. But we’ll come back recharged, ready to go.”
Oct 19, 2014, 3:56 PM EDT
Upon second inspection, Brian Kelly hasn’t gained any clarity on the offensive pass interference call that took a game-winning touchdown off the board. While the head coach has moved on, with the Irish getting some much-needed time off during fall break, Kelly’s opinion on the play — now that he’s realized the penalty was on Will Fuller, not C.J. Prosise — is even more muddled.
Oct 19, 2014, 2:37 AM EDT
With 13 seconds left, Corey Robinson caught the 4th-down pass from Everett Golson and walked into the end zone, all but uncovered. And for a moment, it looked like Notre Dame pulled off a win for the ages.
Oct 18, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT
It’s finally here. Not just the biggest game of the year, but the ultimate test for this Notre Dame football team. Entering Doak Campbell Stadium against the defending national champs and Heisman Trophy winner, we’ll see if the Irish have what it takes to upset the Seminoles.