Pregame Six Pack: Time for the Trojans

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If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then The Observer’s Irish Insider saved me a few columns. As Douglas Farmer and his crew aptly note, “the wait is over.”

Sure, it’s been tough waiting those 21-odd years for a night game, but I’m just happy we’re finally approaching the annual Notre Dame vs. USC game. In a series marked by dominant stretches between teams, the Irish might be primed to finally flip the script on a story that’s long been dominated by Pete Carroll and the renaissance he brought to Heritage Hall.

Yet those glimmering days where SC dominated the talent pool not just in their Notre Dame match-up but in just about any game they played is over. A long contentious fight with the NCAA, the removal of Mike Garrett from the athletics director’s chair, and Carroll’s well-timed departure to the NFL have all contributed to the current probationary plight of the USC — a school that has already seen its NCAA missteps trampled by places like Ohio State, Miami and almost Auburn.

If there’s been luster lost on this rivalry, you’d have a hard time proving it. While the 83rd meeting between the Trojans and Irish is only the 10th time in the intersectional battle that neither team is ranked, the nation’s attention — not to mention its blue-chip recruits — will be watching.

As always, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as Notre Dame prepares to take on University of Southern California at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC. (Live blogs to follow!)

***

After a long stretch of dominance the tide is turning in the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh. 

For much of the last decade, while the Irish recruiting classes may have looked comparable to the Trojans, once the two teams got on the field, the personnel difference was overwhelming. As Pete Carroll continued to hand-pick elite athletes from Southern California and pluck others from around the country, there was a noticeable difference in the athletes wearing cardinal and gold from those wearing the blue and gold.

Not any more.

“To me, I think Notre Dame has a higher talent level right now,” NBC analyst Mike Mayock said. “USC is comparative at the wide receiver position – two very gifted kids with Woods and Marqise Lee. They’re as good as anybody in the country. So at wide receiver it’s similar. However, I think Notre Dame’s offensive line is better than USC’s defensive line. And I think their front seven is better than USC’s front seven. I think where USC has the edge right now is the quarterback. He’s a three-year starter and a potential All-American. And a better quarterback is a great equalizer.”

We’re saving up some thoughts on Tommy Rees for tomorrow, but let’s finish the exercise.

Quarterbacks:USC (Top player: Matt Barkley)
Running backs: Notre Dame (Top player: Cierre Wood)
Wide receivers/tight ends: Even (Top players: Michael Floyd > Robert Woods, Tyler Eifert > Rhett Ellison)
Offensive line: Notre Dame (Top Player: Matt Kalil > Zack Martin)
Defensive line: Notre Dame (Top Player: Nick Perry)
Linebackers: Notre Dame (Top Player: Manti Te’o)
Secondary: Notre Dame (Top player: Harrison Smith)

If my talent evaluations leave a little to be desired, let’s let the best evaluators in the world determine things: Las Vegas. If you’re looking for a statistical trend, take a look at the point spreads from the last four match-ups between Notre Dame and USC:

2008: Opening line — USC -28.5. (Final score: USC 38, ND 3)
2009: Opening line — USC -10.5 (Final score: USC 34, ND 27)
2010: Opening line — USC -4.5 (Final score: ND 20, USC 16)
2011: Opening line — USC +8.5

We’ll see how Vegas did tomorrow night.

***

The balance of the Irish offense could be the difference on Saturday night. 

When Brian Kelly made the controversial decision to replace senior Dayne Crist with Tommy Rees, he mentioned giving Tommy the ability to play with a balanced offense. In the Irish’s four game winning streak, that balance has been pretty amazing.

The Irish have scored 18 touchdowns in their wins over Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Purdue and Air Force. Nine have come on the ground, while nine have come through the air.

The run-pass mix has been close to perfect as well: The Irish are running on 48 percent of their plays and throwing on 52. Even more incredible, during this four game run, the Irish have averaged 6.4 yards a rushing play and 6.5 yards a play when passing. (Kudos to Andrew Hendrix’s long gallop for making the stats work just so.)

Mayock mentioned that in his conversations with the Trojans defensive architect Monte Kiffin, the thing that impressed him the most was the balance the Irish displayed on offense. It’s also what could be the Trojans demise.

If USC has to commit seven men to stopping the run, the passing game with Floyd, Eifert, Theo Riddick and TJ Jones will be tough to stop. If the Trojans try to roll coverage over Floyd and employ a nickel base, Notre Dame could run all over Southern Cal.

It’s balance that’s been key to the offensive renaissance in South Bend. It could also spell trouble for an SC defense that is far from dominant.

***

It could have been a much different story for Manti Te’o and Michael Floyd. 

It’s not much of a leap to say that Manti Te’o and Michael Floyd are the two most irreplaceable players on the Irish roster. They’re also the two guys on the Irish team that were most likely to be donning the cardinal and gold, with both Irish stars having eyes for Southern California before ending up in South Bend.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly allowed himself to wonder openly what life would be like without Te’o. While losing the production on the football team would’ve obviously hurt the Irish, the linebacker brings so much more to the team.

“We could have lost Manti Te’o in terms of the football player,” Kelly said. “What we would have never overcome is the leader that he is.”

In many ways, it seems like Lane Kiffin is still feeling Te’o’s absence, with the middle linebacker (along with Arizona State’s Vontez Burfict, another last minute USC defector) haunting the Trojan head coach.

“USC thought they had him locked up three years ago,” Mayock said of Te’o. “And Lane Kiffin the other day was like, could you imagine us with Manti Te’o on our team?  You know, I mean, he’s – and then he went on for about three minutes describing Manti Te’o and how great a football player he is.”

Of course, the Irish could also be game planning for life against Michael Floyd, a treacherous thought when paired with Robert Woods. Floyd had eyes for the Trojans as a prep star at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, but struggled to get the attention of the Trojans coaching staff.

Floyd’s high school coach reached out to a former player and certain new resident to Los Angeles’ South Bay, asking for help to get his star player’s recruiting tapes into the hands of the Trojans’ offensive staff. (I’m proud to say that I gave less than my best effort.)

Both Te’o and Floyd’s names will go down in the Irish record books at Notre Dame. They could’ve just as easily been enshrined in Heritage Hall.

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Both teams had gotten off to quick starts. It’ll be the team that finishes that wins the game. 

Trudging deep into the numbers gives you an interesting look at both Notre Dame and USC six games into the season. First, the resounding similarity: Both teams get off to fast starts.

The Trojans have come out of the gates smoking, out-scoring their opponents 46-10 in the first quarter. Likewise, Notre Dame has been just as impressive, shaking off a -13 opening stanza against USF to outscore their opponents 63-22 in the first quarter.

Here’s a quarter-by-quarter look at what both teams have done this season:

1st Quarter

USC 1Q: 46-10 (+36)
ND 1Q: 63-22 (+41)

2nd Quarter

USC 2Q: 56-36 (+20)
ND 2Q: 49-32 (+17)

FIRST HALF TOTALS:

USC 102-46 (+56)
ND 112-54 (+58)

3rd Quarter

USC 3Q: 44-52 (-8)
ND 3Q: 42-6 (+36)

4th Quarter

USC 4Q: 34-43 (-9)
ND FQ: 44-62 (-18)

SECOND HALF TOTALS:

USC 78-95 (-17)
ND 86-66 (+20)

Obviously, Notre Dame’s fourth quarter totals are dragged down by the implosion against Michigan and the garbage time touchdowns by Air Force. But for a team with a 5-1 record, the fact that the Trojans have played losing football in the second half of games has to be a major source of concern.

There’s winning football games and then there is finishing football games. After the 28-7 beating the Irish took in the fourth quarter in Ann Arbor, they’ve rallied, and their third quarter scoring margin (a staggering 42-6) is a testament to how well coached this football team is.

If the Irish can keep Matt Barkley and the Trojans from jumping out to a fast start, they should feel really good about their ability to win this game in the second half.

***

 The Irish need to take advantage of the Trojans’ mediocre red zone play.

If you’re looking for another trend that’s kick-started the Irish, take a gander at their red zone offense. After two of the most horrific games you could ever put in your stats ledger, Notre Dame is starting to play some efficient red zone football.

The Irish have scored on 13 of their last 14 trips inside the red zone. More importantly, they’ve cashed 11 of those 13 scores in for touchdowns. After a slow start to the season, Tommy Rees has piloted the Irish offense to 10 straight scoring drives inside the opponent’s twenty yard-line, with nine of those scores going for touchdowns.

Here’s a closer look at the work the Irish have been doing on both sides of the ball in the red zone, courtesy of the Sports Information Department at Notre Dame:

source:

Meanwhile, the Trojans have been mediocre on both sides of the football. Whether its a lack of a consistent running game or lapses in Matt Barkley’s accuracy, the Trojans are 92nd in the country in touchdown percentage offensively and their 76% scoring clip only barely ekes out the Irish’s 72% rate that’s still weighed down from six early and ugly turnovers.

If the offensive numbers are surprisingly bad for the Trojans, the defensive numbers are down right ugly. USC is 107th in the country, giving up scoring drives 90% of the time their opponent gets inside their 20 yard-line. They get even worse when it comes to giving up touchdowns, with 15 of 20 drives going for at least six points, good for 109th in the nation.

In a rivalry match-up like this, the Irish absolutely need to take advantage of what looks like a fatal flaw in the Trojans.

***

USC’s sour grapes is just part of the Trojan’s charm. 

Driving through Michigan City last night around 2:30 a.m., I felt like stopping by to see if Kiffin and the Trojans were enjoying the sights and sounds. Because if you actually listened to Kiffin, you’d think the Irish pulled a fast one on Southern Cal, forcing them into town early with nowhere to stay, then changing the kickoff time at the last minute for an additional home field advantage.

“I wish they would have told us before,” Kiffin complained about the “unexpected” night start. “We wouldn’t have left a day early. We’ll just have to figure out something to do in Michigan City.”

As our friends over at Her Loyal Sons pointed out, the Trojans might need a new travel coordinator. The Irish didn’t exactly spring this change on USC, they did announce it almost seven months ago.

Funnily enough, even then USC was complaining about it.

USC’s game at Notre Dame will kick off at 7:30 p.m. (EDT), the first home night game for the Irish in 21 years. The idea was not warmly embraced by USC athletic director Pat Haden, who worked as a broadcaster at the Irish’s last home night game against Michigan in 1990.

“We won’t get back until three or four in the morning,” Haden said. “That could be a long week for our players.”

USC did not have a say in the start of the game but Haden understood the move was made by Notre Dame for financial reasons.

“I wish we could play every game at 12:30 p.m.,” he said. “But I’d also like to triple our rights fees.”

I poked a little fun at Haden back then and he probably deserves a little more now. The 7:30 start is earlier than any of the games the Irish played in the Coliseum in recent memory, when you take into consideration a little concept called time zones. The Trojans also are flying home to the West Coast, earning back three hours on the way. When USC put the Irish on a red-eye after last year’s game I don’t think they were too worried about the sleep patterns of the Irish players.

Still, consider the Trojan gripes just part of the “charm” in this rivalry. Hopefully the late start lets Trojan fans enjoy more time on Michigan Avenue.