SOUTH BEND, Ind. — You can feel the electricity on campus.
Whether it’s the opening of the Compton Family Ice Arena, where over 5,000 fans turned out to watch Anders Lee and the No. 6 Irish open their new building in style, or the thousands of fans that spent Friday just milling around campus, it’s pretty clear that there are football Saturdays, and then there are USC football Saturdays.
As we did before the Irish took down Air Force, I caught up with NBC’s Mike Mayock, who has criss-crossed the country this week preparing for Notre Dame and USC.
Just like last time, Mike talked while I listened and scribbled.
Here are three things Mayock’s looking for when Notre Dame plays USC under the lights in South Bend, starting at 7:30 p.m. on NBC.
Notre Dame can’t beat themselves.
As I’ve said more than once, the Irish’s biggest opponent is the man in the mirror. And while it’s hard for some people (me for one) to believe it, if the Irish play sound football, this is Notre Dame’s game to lose.
“First and foremost, when Notre Dame takes care of the football they win,” Mayock said. “I believe they are a better football team than USC. If they take care of the football, limit their turnovers, and don’t give up a big touchdown on special teams, Notre Dame should win this football game.”
For Irish fans, it has to be an odd feeling seeing just about every major media pundit picking Notre Dame. And while USC’s top-end talent might be better than the Irish’s, top-to-bottom, Notre Dame is a better football team. It just needs to get out of its own way.
USC needs to find ways to get the ball to Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
It doesn’t look like the shoulder injury that Marqise Lee suffered against Cal will keep him out of the game.
“I won’t be 100 percent, but at least eighty. That’s all I need,” Lee told the Los Angeles Times‘ Gary Klein.
With Lee available, even if he is limited, it’ll allow Lane Kiffin and his staff to run their offensive through their two talented wide receivers.
“USC does a great job with finding creative ways to get the football in the hands of No. 2 and No. 9,” Mayock said of Woods and Lee. “No matter how you look at it, USC need to find ways to get the football to Woods and Lee. Like Brian Kelly does with Michael Floyd, Lane Kiffin moves Woods all over the offensive scheme — wide, tight, inside. It’s going to be ‘Where’s Waldo’ for the Irish, you need to contain Woods, but you can’t let Marqise Lee beat you either.”
The dynamic receiving duo will be the toughest test for the Irish secondary to date. But don’t expect Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to put his veteran cornerbacks on islands.
“They aren’t going to man man up with two corners,” Mayock said. “There’ll be one-on-one opportunities, but more importantly, USC like to use Woods as an extension of their running game — quick throws, bubble screens. They’ll put a lot of pressure on Robert Blanton and Gary Gray to come up and tackle.”
Blanton and Gray are two of the Irish’s best tacklers. But with Matt Barkley’s arm strength, expect to see a lot of quick throws wide and opportunities for Woods to shake a tackler. If the Irish can contain him, they’ll contain the Trojans’ offense.
Saturday night is Tommy Rees’ moment.
Last season, the Trojan defense forced the then freshman Rees into his worst game behind center. Rees did enough to drive the Irish in their final series of the game, but Monte Kiffin’s scheme forced three interceptions, and Rees looked like a freshman against one of football’s best defensive coordinators.
While there have been growing pains since Rees took over the job at halftime of the USF game, Mayock’s seen a different quarterback from the one that turned the ball over early in the year.
“Since the final drive against Pitt, Tommy Rees has played at a completely different level,” Mayock said. “This is a game where he could make his statement.”
He’ll have every opportunity to do it on Saturday night. If Rees puts together a good football game against a suspect Trojan secondary, he’ll win his first two starts against the Trojans, no small feat.