Final thoughts before kickoff

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With Notre Dame and USC set to square off under the lights, let’s go through some final thoughts before kickoff.

Can the Irish get out of the gates? Starting fast is almost mandatory for the Irish, who will need to keep their emotions in check in a big night game. That means no early turnovers by the offense, a good start by the Irish offensive line, and the defense doing its job from the beginning.

Will the Irish defense be able to confuse Cody Kessler? There’s no confusing Kessler for Matt Barkley, Mark Sanchez or Matt Leinart. But Kessler has started to play better football, with his stat line the last four weeks feature a respectable seven touchdown passes and two interceptions.

There’s no doubting Kessler’s weapons, even with Marqise Lee likely still needing some time for his knee to heal. But Bob Diaco will need to be able to generate a pass rush against a USC offensive line that’s not what you’d expect and force some bad decisions out of Kessler.

Can the Irish run the ball effectively? That seems to be the key to the offense, with George Atkinson likely getting first shot at leading the ground game. USC’s ranks 15th in the country, a number that might surprise. Then again, they’ve faced the fifth least rushing attempts of anybody this season as well.

Brian Kelly doesn’t need any help finding passes in the playbook. But it’d behoove the Irish to make sure they can get balance out of the run game, and also wear down a USC defensive front that’s short on manpower.

Can Tommy Rees figure out the USC defense? While Monte Kiffin is gone and Clancy Pendergast is now coordinating USC’s defense, the Trojans have been tough on Tommy Rees.

Here are the senior quarterback’s numbers against USC:

2010 — 20 of 32 for 149 yards. 2 TD, 3 INT
2011 — 23 of 37 for 190 yards. 0 TD, 1 INT

A day like that won’t be helpful if the Irish want to win, and Rees is going to have to find a way to get his completion percentage up while also cutting down on interceptions, having thrown four in the past two games.

Can the Irish secondary win the day against USC’s receivers? Nelson Agholor and Marqise Lee are a dynamic duo. The Trojans also have a nice set of tight ends. But can Notre Dame’s secondary win the day and keep the big plays to a minimum? Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell did a nice job against Arizona State. But Austin Collinsworth gave up a few big plays in coverage and Matthias Farley did as well.

Don’t expect a ton of man coverage out of the Irish defensive backs, with zone defense the preferred recipe for keeping the big plays to a minimum. But for the Irish to win, they’re going to need to keep USC’s playmakers in front of them and do a good job tackling.

Who wins the line of scrimmage? Notre Dame should win up front on both sides of the ball. But USC has had decent success running the ball against the Irish with Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal averaging over five yards a carry against Notre Dame last year, while the Trojans ran for 219 yards against the Irish the last time they played in Notre Dame Stadium. The Trojans are averaging over 200 yards of rushing per game.

Sheldon Day is back healthy and Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo should have some opportunities off the edge. On the offensive side of the ball, the Irish will need to account for Devon Kennard, Morgan Breslin and George Uko. All three have four sacks a piece, while Leonard Williams looks like a star in the making as well.

Will Notre Dame win the second half? There’s a reason Brian Kelly has won 12 of his last 13 games that have been decided by a touchdown or less. There’s also a reason that USC has struggled in the second half of football games as well.

Paul Longo should play a major role in this football game, with the Irish wearing down a USC team that’s really shy on depth.

How will the new sod hold up? After rolling out some new grass after the turf played terrible against Oklahoma, how will the field hold? And will this be the final straw in the real grass obsession? I’m all for pretty and natural, but not when it plays a factor in the game.

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