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Friday, November 24th 2006

Preview: Notre Dame

Without A Hint Of Homerism: One Of The Greatest Games Of All Time

Despite what the LA Times might implicate, there are no Heisman implications to the eighty year old Trojan-Irish matchup this year (as there have been the past two years). No, your 2006 Heisman winner is here.

And despite the hopes and dreams of Fat Ass’ (how I will refer to Charlie Weis) players, there will be no national championship for the Irish. No matter how well they thump the Trojans.

Should’ve Lost To A Worse Team

And no matter win or lose, both teams will be going to BCS games this year. No, you can only throw up the rage Fat Ass and Brady Quinn and others are displaying as a matter of pride. Pride in standing in the way of a Trojan team’s fourth consecutive trip to play for (at least a piece of) the national championship in a bowl game. Pride in trying to spit out the terrible taste of last year (see the video above).

The Notre Dame National Broadcasting Service has called on the talents of a Notre Dame alum to sum up what this game means for the Irish. Here’s my favorite,

5. Trojan Title. How unbearable would it be for Irish fans to watch USC play in a national championship game — again? Realistically, Notre Dame might be the only team that can prevent that possibility.

Never have I seen a coach as riled up about a game as you can see here and here. As if his players needed any more reason to get riled up, Fat Ass is providing it to them. And while Carroll has taken his shots, they’ve been subtle and it is clear USC is being more “business class” about this game. The question of course is, will this emotion hurt or hinder the Fighting Irish?

Notre Dame Offense v. USC Defense

This game will be about emotion and Brady Quinn for the Irish. It must be. There is no doubt, Weis has thought up clever ways to keep Brady from repeating his Michigan performance (which was as much his fault as the offensive line’s). As Rivals points out,

The main weakness is up front. Notre Dame is not blocking as well as they did last season. They are rushing for 23 yards less per game last year at 124 per game, which is awful considering the fact that four of the eleven teams that they have played are ranked 103rd or worse against the run.

The Irish have faced four defenses in the top 20 nationally against the run. In those games, they averaged 73 yards rushing at 2.3 yards per carry. USC is 13th nationally in rush defense. Therein lies the problem for Notre Dame Last year’s SC defense was mediocre against the run.

Make no mistake, Fat Ass will try to keep the defense honest. He will not abandon the run, even with USC up multiple scores in the second half. But he knows that offensively this game will have to be about confusing the USC secondary (becoming less and less of a possibility), out coaching Carroll, and of course (for the first two to happen) keeping Brady on his feet.

Two months ago, the Trojans’ secondary looked a little too aggressive.

For the past two weeks, the USC secondary has blanketed some of the best receivers in the country. It shut down two good passing attacks: Cal’s and Oregon’s. It will be tested again this week by Heisman candidate Brady Quinn and Notre Dame’s precision passing game. The exam might come at the right time.

There is nothing this secondary hasn’t had to deal with. They covered a 6-foot-6 receiver, Arkansas’ Marcus Monk. They covered a 245-pound receiver, Oregon’s Jaison Williams. They covered one of the nation’s fastest players, Cal’s Jackson. Not one of those NFL-bound playmakers had more than six catches or more than 71 yards against USC.

Weis has talked about controlling the clock, much as he managed to do last year. But this is not last year’s Trojan defense. I say it emphatically, no matter what Fat Ass thinks he’s figured out, the Irish will not be able to run the ball on Saturday. It will be worse than the 3 ypc they managed in last year’s game.

Fat Ass knows this. He knows he will have to seek out the big plays, even if success in that means putting his weakest unit (his defense) out on the field for a bigger chunk of the game. If Fat Ass tries to make this game 17 – 14, he will face more three and longs and three and outs than he can shake a stick at.

And if it becomes a shoot out, it becomes a battle in the trenches for the Trojan defense. Per Rivals,

The Notre Dame front five is strong on the left side but has struggled mightily on the right, mainly due to freshman RT Sam Young, who has done decent work considering his on-the-job training. However, between Young and senior RG Bob Morton, teams have attacked the right side of ND’s line with success.

That is certainly where Michigan came from early. From the ROLB and RE. Although by the end of the game the undersized Irish line was clearly flabbergasted as a whole. The front three (or four, if you want to look at it that way) has been disappointing at times for the Trojans. But it is clear that Pete has taken over the defense (sorry, Holt) once again.

There has been significant blitzing compared to the first half of the season. In part that blitzing is actually part of the answer to why Jackson (finally) made his appearance over the past few weeks, after a sackless first eight games (I believe). If Brady is anything under Fat Ass, he is a smart QB. I have no doubt he learned from the Michigan game and it would be naive to imagine the Trojans can force him into the number of mistakes he made against Blue. But if Carroll can get even 70% of the pressure he achieved against Oregon and Cal then several things will happen:

  • We’ll Be Able To Jam In Man To Man
  • The Trojan Linebackers Will Be Able To Crowd The Box And Stuff Notre Dame’s Weak Run Game
  • The Irish Will Be Forced Into Long Downs
  • And The Pressure Will Force Brady To Get Rid Of The Ball Before The First Down Line
  • We’ll Force Some Turnovers

No doubt Mays and Ellison will be watching for the Irish’s dangerous deep threats, but almost as important if the “game plan” (a very generous term) above plays out is sure tackling. If Brady gets pressure you will see Weis try to let his receivers make plays after the catch (he’ll have no option)…

…And We All Know They Can Make Plays After The Catch

I’ve made it clear here but to reiterate, there are two keys to the game for the coaches and the Trojan defense:

  • LoJack, Cushing, Rey Rey, Ellis, Moala, and company need to get pressure on Quinn
  • There must be sure tackling

USC Offense v. Notre Dame Defense

Boy this defensive unit is maligned. You hear it all the time. I think rightly so. But it is scary to have pundits and such dissing a unit so badly before a big game. Weird things happen,

“Everyone’s talking that our defense is still the downfall of the team,” said Landri, a senior defensive tackle who has seven sacks and 15 tackles for loss this season. “Apparently, there’s a lot of people in the country that feel that we’re not championship-caliber.”

Every time Brockington hears Notre Dame’s star-studded offense being praised, he knows a “but” is coming.

“They’re like, ‘Oh, your offense is good, but…’” the senior linebacker said. “It’s always our defense this, our defense that. It definitely bothers you.”

A stripped ball early, a Booty misthrow, some big hits. It could happen. Maybe not as likely as a quick strike from the Trojans or a bruising Chauncey run leaving an Irish player calling for the trainer, but make no mistake this defense of a one-loss team deserves respect. That’s something, thank God, you can count that Carroll is pounding home.

Now to just hope the younger Trojan playmakers on offense haven’t been watching too much SportsCenter.

Booty didn’t look on against Cal. He will need to be on Saturday. What may be good news is that as a unit (unlike earlier where it was one on and one off) the receiving corp of Jarrett, Smith, and Co. may be playing the best they have all year. Booty still has trouble under pressure, sliding off his first read and to his safety valve. He did find third option Smith on that fourth down play for a touchdown against Cal, but he had all day. He cannot stare down his receivers against the Irish.

Almost as a much as the defense, I feel that this offensive line have come into their own over the past few weeks. They are, I believe, the offensive unit which has grown the most since the Oregon State loss (even though that loss really wasn’t their fault at all and so you might imagine the defense and the roll plays – particularly in holding onto the ball – had more to learn from that game). With that being said, knowing Fat Ass’ desire to be known as a brilliant strategician you can count on some new things to try to put his defense in a position to succeed. More than complicated blitzing schemes, I think you will see Fat Ass try to confuse Booty with coverages.

Certainly, the Irish pass defense is terribly weak. That must be what Pete is salivating over and so, if he sees new coverages he hasn’t seen on film Booty must make good decisions.

The Irish play a physical style of defense, but their lack of speed has hurt them against the pass. The Irish have played only one team ranked in the Top 25 in pass efficiency (a run heavy Air Force team), and yet are an abysmal 81st in the country in pass efficiency defense.

Why? Because they give up 7.4 yards per pass, which is good for 90th in the nation. They give up almost 14 yards per completion, while the Trojans give up 11. They have given up ten TD pass of 20 or more yards, and have surrendered far more completions longer than that. By contrast, the Trojans have given up zero TD passes of 20+.

In part Fat Ass may not need to bring complicated blitz schemes. His defensive line didn’t do a half bad job getting to Leinart last year, and while, like I said, I believe the offensive line has steadily improved for the Trojans it is certainly a possibility that Booty will be dropped more than his fair share on Saturday.

The defensive line however, is undersized. They were manhandled by Michigan. We won’t be talking about half a dozen here and we can live with a few sacks as long as the number of sacks is comparable to the number of big plays the Trojans pick up.

Booty has been oft critiqued on his deep ball. If he throws like he did against Cal we could have some problems, but Booty has certainly shown he has the touch when he feels comfortable. I don’t buy the criticism as much as some. I’m not scared that we will not be able to take advantage of the Irish’s lack of team speed.

That holds, even on the ground. The Irish run defense is a stifle better than their passing defense, however if C.J. runs like he did last week, and is complimented by Chauncey (who will probably have a bigger role this week), then we will get our rushing yards. In fact, as much as I talked about the big plays above don’t expect the Trojans to come out firing on first and second down. Chauncey and C.J. will combine for at least 35 carries. Balance. Balance. Balance. I don’t know why we should expect anything else.

Other Stuff

For all the focus on what the Irish are playing for, the Trojans have plenty. They’re going about it more business class like, but they are playing for a trip to the national championship (lest you forget). And while there shouldn’t need to be any more motivation, there are personal issues here. Lest we forget Desmond Reed and the high grass, the Coaches seething over the perception they were out coached by Fat Ass, and the fact the Trojans are playing at home.

During one of Charlie Weis’ first news conferences, in January 2005, a reporter noted USC’s and Oklahoma’s speed during the national championship game and asked Notre Dame’s new coach to assess his team’s speed.

“I think the grass needs to be longer,” he said. “Next question.”

The response drew laughter.

No one laughed nine months later when Reed turned to field a kickoff and then crumpled onto the nearly four-inch turf without so much as a tap.

“I really don’t think I would have got hurt if the grass wasn’t long,” Reed said last week.

The Trojans will not forget. There’s emotion in the Trojan locker room. They just have it under control. I hate to join in the pundits calling for a blow out. It scares the karma police. But you just can’t escape the feeling that for all the talking, all the yelling, all the emotion that is coming out of South Bend everything is setting up for a Trojan hurricane on Saturday.

USC 35 – Notre Dame 23

[USC Deserves The NC Game If They Beat Notre Dame]
[MSNBC’s Prediction]
[CNNSI Breakdown]
[Mandel’s Prediction]
[CFN’s Prediction]