We’re already here. The regular season finale is upon us as the Irish prepare to face off with their nemesis, the USC Trojans. As always, here are twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play USC at the Coliseum in primetime.
1. After two seasons on the shelf, Michael Floyd makes his debut against the Trojans.
Many Irish fans are worried that junior wide receiver Mike Floyd’s career will end after just three seasons, meaning this could be the only time Floyd hits the field against the rival Trojans. The previous two seasons Floyd missed the game, a knee injury holding him out of the 2008 game and a broken collarbone keeping Mike on the sideline last season.
While Floyd says he hasn’t made any decisions on next season, it’s clear this game means something to him.
“I’m really excited,” Floyd said. “My first time playing SC. This is one of the reasons you go to Notre Dame. It’s kind of like starting a whole new tradition. New coaches and stuff like that. Kind of start our own history. We’re all excited. It’s a big rivalry, SC-Notre Dame and we’re up for it.”
If there’s ever a time for Floyd to make a statement in the biggest rivalry game of the season for the Irish, this is it.
2. This is not the Trojan defense of old.
Maybe the best thing on Lane Kiffin’s coaching resume is his father Monte, who followed Kiffin from Tennessee to USC after spending the majority of his career in the NFL as one of the best defensive minds in all of football.
Both the elder Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron run a defense that’s astounding full of star power, with nearly every player in their two-deep having a four-star rating, and those that don’t are almost as likely to have five stars than three.
But the defense is a shell of the ones put together under former coach Pete Carroll, and the Trojans rank an astoundingly mediocre 92nd in total defense in the country. (92nd. Right between Wyoming and Idaho. The Irish rank 55th.)
There are only six teams in the country doing a worse job stopping the pass than USC, most likely a testament to the two healthy scholarship cornerbacks that the Trojans have at their disposal. The Trojan run defense is middle of the road, so there’s very good reason to believe that Notre Dame should be able to move the ball, even with Tommy Rees playing in hostile territory for the first time in his career.
3. Another plus for the Irish? It’s looking less and less likely that Matt Barkley will play.
On Wednesday, Lane Kiffin went on the Dan Patrick show and reported that starting quarterback Matt Barkley has been held out of practice this week with a high ankle sprain, an injury suffered last week that would make playing on Saturday incredibly unlikely.
“Matt didn’t practice yesterday,” Kiffin said. “Mitch Mustain took all the snaps yesterday. We have great confidence in Mitch.”
The news from Wednesday’s practice was even more predictable, with Kiffin calling Mustain’s work in practice “Phenomenal. the best we’ve seen him since he’s been here.”
Meanwhile Barkley still hasn’t practiced, but no longer is in a walking boot.
“It’s improving every day, which is great,” Barkley said. “It’s still a day-to-day thing. I’m definitely above 50 percent.”
Barkley was one of many quarterbacks to have a career day against the Irish last season, but he’s struggled the past few weeks after getting out of the gate quickly. The Irish may get a break if he’s unable to go on Saturday night.
4. That said, Mitch Mustain is no slouch either.
Before there was hotshot, uber-recruit Matt Barkley, there was hotshot, uber-recruit Mitch Mustain, who signed with Arkansas after then head coach Houston Nutt made the nearly unprecedented move of hiring Mustain’s high school coach Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator. While Malzahn has become a star at the collegiate ranks, Mustain has fallen flat.
The consensus high school National Player of the Year took the reins of the Arkansas offense immediately, leading the Hogs to a freshman record eight straight wins before losing playing time before the SEC Championship game.
From there, Mustain’s relationship with Nutt and Arkansas soured in bizarre fashion, including Mustain’s family making an open records request for Nutt’s cell phone records that revealed a personal relationship between the head coach and a local female news reporter. With bridges burned in his home state, Mustain transferred to USC, where he has yet to win the starting job.
Now Mustain’s final two games as a Trojan might be two of the biggest starts of the season. And the senior quarterback is ready.
“There was always a chance it would never happen, but I’ve always looked forward to the chance, however slim it may be,” Mustain said this week. “It’s what I’ve been practicing for, and it’s why I stuck around this year. I’m ready to go.”
Mustain always has Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel to look at for inspiration, who spent his career at USC as a backup to Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart before being plucked out of obscurity by the Patriots and signing a monster contract with Kansas City.
5. Time to rise to the occasion, Tommy Rees.
If Notre Dame wants to end their losing streak against the Trojans, it’ll happen because Tommy Rees doesn’t get swept up in the moment.
A lot has been made about Rees’ entrance into college football — games at Notre Dame Stadium, Yankee Stadium and now the Coliseum. But this will be the first time Rees faces anything resembling a hostile crowd, and the freshman will need to keep his composure early for the Irish to have a chance. Kelly’s comments before the Army game likely still apply to Rees’ first true road start.
“We’ll try to give him some more opportunities within what I believe are is strengths,” Kelly said then. “He distributes very well, his ball placement, it’s all now about what he sees and how he reacts.”
Rees spent some of his youth in California, where his father spent fourteen years working in the football department for UCLA and his brother Danny Rees is a senior holder for the Bruins, making Tommy familiar with the crosstown Trojans. While he won’t face a linebacking corp with guys like Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, and Rey Maualuga, he will face the fastest, most talented unit he’s seen, so keeping turnovers down will be imperative.
6. Can the Irish defense stop USC’s passing game?
At the beginning of the year, would anyone have thought the Irish would’ve given up just one less passing touchdown than Alabama? The Irish rank 8th in the country in limiting passing touchdowns with only nine conceded, only two behind the national leaders and ahead of teams like TCU and Nebraska.
The improvement the passing defense has shown is a testament to the improvement of the defensive backs under secondary coach Chuck Martin and the ability for the Irish to get after the passer better, ranking 29th in the country with 26 sacks, already a six sack improvement over last year’s unit that finished with just 20.
It’s been 11 consecutive quarters for the Irish defense without giving up a touchdown, the longest streak since 1981, and done against three teams that average about five touchdowns a game. The Irish have to come into Saturday’s game feeling very good about their defensive chances.
7. The star-crossed path of Dillon Baxter brings him back to the gridiron on Saturday.
Highly touted running back Dillon Baxter became a YouTube sensation for some fancy running during spring drills last year. Since then, he’s been mostly a headache for Southern Cal.
“It’s been an up-and-down season with him in general,” Lane Kiffin said diplomatically this week.
Baxter was suspended for the season opening game against Hawaii for what was largely reported as a on-campus incident that involved marijuana. He’s suffered injuries that have hurt his ability to push for playing time, and has gotten over 10 carries in a game just twice, gaining 75 yards on 14 carries against lowly Washington State in his best game as a Trojan. Almost surprisingly, Baxter’s longest play from scrimmage has been 17 yards, with a run against Virginia in his first collegiate game matched by a reception against Minnesota the week after.
Baxter sat out last week’s game after he reportedly received an improper benefit from a NFL certified agent — a golf cart ride from a USC student that’s started his own agency.
“I’m sure a lot of people look at this one as something that could happen to anybody and that he wasn’t necessarily in the wrong,” Kiffin said. “But it doesn’t matter. He’s already put himself in position where there isn’t room for any poor judgment.”
Regardless of the headaches, Baxter is a supremely talented player, and Irish fans hope the freshman’s coming out party is delayed another week.
8. Familiar faces roam both sidelines.
A quick look at both rosters reveals just how often the Trojans and the Irish compete for the same recruiting targets. USC is still smarting that they lost out on linebacker Manti Te’o, who just about everybody had pegged as going to USC. But for every Irish recruiting victory, there are Notre Dame targets dressed in Cardinal and Gold.
Starting running back Marc Tyler seemed a near lock for Notre Dame when his high school best friend Jimmy Clausen committed to the Irish with Tyler in attendance. Star freshman Robert Woods had an offer from the Irish before choosing the Trojans, and he’s become one of USC’s best offensive weapons. Names like Kyle Prater, Blake Ayles, Brice Butler (more on him later), Butch Lewis, Malcolm Smith, Chris Galippo, and Jawanza Starling all were targeted by the former Irish coaching staff.
The Irish pulled guys like Dayne Crist, Cierre Wood, and Ethan Johnson out from under the noses of the USC coaching staff so it isn’t exactly one-sided. Look for guys like Wood to play well, with plenty of motivation to show family and friends the progress they’ve made.
9. Former NBC commentator Pat Haden is now openly rooting against Notre Dame.
There wasn’t a week that went by last season where a reader didn’t openly accuse former NBC commentator and former USC quarterback Pat Haden of rooting against Notre Dame from the broadcast booth. While the accusation was always baseless, for the first time in a long while, Haden can openly root against the Irish this Saturday, when his alma mater takes on the Irish, and Haden is the new face of the Trojan athletic department.
Brought in to create a “culture of compliance” after former athletic director Mike Garrett openly scoffed at NCAA regulations, Haden stepped away from his announcing gig and his successful finance career to become athletic director at Southern Cal.
As the Dillon Baxter story shows, every week is a new challenge for the former Rhodes Scholar and first time university administrator. And while Trojan fans think the new emphasis on compliance is overkill, Haden’s take the drastic measures necessary to turn around an athletic department that had fallen far behind in its organizational structure.
“Where we’re at right now, getting so far ahead of things is good,” Haden said. “Although [recent issues have been] extremely minor, you’re finding them before they become major.”
There’s a large facet of Trojan fans that still have their head buried in the sand about the past regimes indiscretions, but there’s no better man than Haden to restore accountability in the athletic department.
10. Roby Toma is proving most of us wrong.
Of all the receivers you’d think quarterback Tommy Rees would develop a rapport with, you’d hardly expect it to be waterbug Roby Toma. But that was Toma making four big catches for 63 yards against Army, picking up first downs on three of them as he was targeted more often than any other Irish receiver on Saturday.
Messageboard legend Hobbs pointed out last week just how impressive Toma has been, especially when you compare him to one of the Irish’s top recruiting targets of the same class, Trojan Brice Butler, a four-star recruit from Georgia that had his pick of schools.
Butler’s only contributed nine catches this season for 112 yards, with a season high of three catches and 49 yards against Arizona State two weeks ago. After not seeing the field in the first six games, Toma has 12 catches for 172 yards, averaging almost 15 yards a catch.
Theo Riddick and TJ Jones are both likely back on Saturday for the Irish, but expect Toma to continue to play a key role in the Irish offense.
11. David Ruffer is kind of a big deal.
I’ve been out front driving the David Ruffer bandwagon and started the official unofficial David Ruffer for the Groza Award campaign a few weeks ago, but it looks like he won’t need our PR anymore.
Ruffer’s great week continued when just days after being named one of the three finalists for the Groza, Ruffer was named a first-team ESPN Academic All-American, making him the 31st Irish football player to be named an Academic All American.
Ruffer carries a 3.9 GPA in Economics, but more importantly for the football team carries a consecutive streak of 20 field goals into the Coliseum, making two kicks at Yankee Stadium from 47 and 39 yards. Is the streak getting to him?
“It is what it is,” Ruffer said. “As long as it’s on me, people are going to ask questions. I try not to pay attention to it.”
Ruffer’s streak started last year against Pitt when Nick Tausch couldn’t answer the bell after a leg injury. If it lasts through this weekend, it’ll be a very good thing for the Irish.
12. Michael Floyd wanted to be a… Trojan?
It’s hard to imagine it, but Michael Floyd tried his best to get the attention of the USC coaching staff when he was a high school star at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul.
“He wrote us a letter that SC was his dream school and this was where he always wanted to play at the time,” Kiffin said. “He was a dominant player then and still is.”
Kiffin may be practicing a little revisionist history this week, as Floyd’s letters and game tape went largely unnoticed by the coaching staff, who wanted Floyd to camp in Southern California to earn a scholarship offer.
Luckily for Irish fans, Floyd never made the trip to south-central Los Angeles and now Floyd has a chance to feast on a Trojan secondary that has talent, but is incredibly thin.
Floyd celebrates his 21st birthday today and no doubt would consider a victory Saturday night as icing on the birthday cake. Happy birthday wishes to MMF.