Oct. 15, 2009
|By Tim Prister ’82|
Game 6: USC (Oct. 17)
Conference: Pac 10
2008 record: 12-1, including a 38-3 victory at home over Notre Dame on Nov. 29 and a 38-24 victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
2009 record: 4-1 – defeated San Jose State, 56-3, and Ohio State, 18-15, in Columbus before falling 16-13 at Washington. Bounced back with a 27-6 home victory over Washington State and a 30-3 victory at California. Like the Irish, USC is coming off a bye week.
Location: Notre Dame Stadium
Kickoff: 3:42 p.m. ET
TV Coverage: NBC
USC head coach: Now in his ninth season at USC, Pete Carroll has an incomparable 92-16 record with the Trojans, including a 59-11 mark in the Pac 10. His teams have won an unprecedented seven consecutive Pac 10 titles and have appeared in seven straight BCS bowls (with a 6-1 record).
Carroll’s Trojans have recorded at least 11 victories in seven straight seasons and have finished all seven of those seasons ranked among the nation’s top four. USC has been ranked in the AP top 25 for the past 96 games, and Carroll has a 34-7 record versus Top 25 teams. USC was ranked No. 1 in the nation for a national record 33 straight polls and was ranked in the AP top 10 for a school-record 63 consecutive games. The Trojans won the 2004 national title.
Series history: Notre Dame made the cross-country trip to Southern California to take on the Trojans for the first time in 1926 (a 13-12 Notre Dame victory), and then the Trojans came to Chicago in 1927 where the Irish won, 7-6. Notre Dame defeated USC four of the first five times they squared off. With the exception of the war years (1943-45), the series has continued each season since. Notre Dame holds a 42-33-5 lead in the series.
The series has been incredibly streaky. From 1926-1966 – a 38-game span – Notre Dame won 25, lost 11 and tied two. Since then, however, beginning with the O.J. Simpson era at USC, the Trojans have won 22, lost 17 and tied three.
From 1967-82 – spanning the John McKay and John Robinson eras – USC was 12-2-2 against Notre Dame. Ara Parseghian’s only two victories over the Trojans came in 1966 and 1973, which happened to coincide with Notre Dame national titles.
From 1983-93, Notre Dame won an incredible 11 straight over USC. Lou Holtz, who was 9-1-1 against the Trojans – lost his final game against the cross-country rival in 1996, which began another sequence of dominance by USC. Bob Davie won his final three games against the Trojans in 1999-2001, but Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis have combined for seven straight losses to USC entering this Saturday’s clash.
USC’s dominance: Since USC’s loss to Notre Dame (27-16) in Pete Carroll’s first season as head coach in 2001, the Trojans not only have won seven in a row, but have thoroughly dominated the series. Excluding the legendary 34-31 game in 2005 (see below), USC has out-scored the Irish an incomparable 250-64, including victories by 31 in 2002-04, 20 in 2006, 38 in 2007 and 35 in 2008.
One for the ages: The term ‘Game of the Century’ often is thrown around loosely. But anyone who saw USC’s 34-31 victory over the Irish in 2005 truly saw one of the most remarkable match-ups in this legendary rivalry. The game was tied three times in the first three quarters before the Irish took a 24-21 lead on D.J. Fitzpatrick’s 32-yard field goal. USC moved ahead 28-24 on a nine-yard touchdown run by Reggie Bush. Brady Quinn’s five-yard touchdown run gave the Irish a 31-28 lead. USC quarterback Matt Leinart completed a 61-yard pass to Dwayne Jarrett on 4th-and-9 to keep the Trojans’ hopes alive. Leinart was stopped inside the Irish five as the clock hit 0:00. But the ball had been jarred loose by Irish linebacker Corey Mays, sending the football shooting out of bounds. The officials conferred and put seven seconds back on the clock. Leinart, with the help of the legendary ‘Bush Push,’ scored from the one to give USC the victory.
2008 – More dominance: Trailing just 7-0 after one quarter in the Los Angeles Coliseum in the regular-season finale, the Irish surrendered 17 second-quarter points and never mustered an offensive attack en route to a 38-3 loss. Notre Dame did not record its initial first down until the third quarter and did not penetrate USC territory until the fourth quarter while finishing with four first downs and 91 yards total offense (six in the first half).
“That was probably the toughest loss that I’ve ever faced in my life,” said Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen. “I never want to feel that way ever again. Just going against some of the guys that I know, that I’ve grown up with, played against, it’s not a good feeling at all. Like I said, it’s something that I never want to feel again.”
Even Weis admits his team was dominated in every facet of the game.
“I actually thought our defense hung in there for awhile in that game, but our offense just got manhandled,” Weis said. “From start to finish, we got manhandled. They were able to manhandle us without having to bring a lot of pressure. They were able to pin their ears back with four guys and get after us. They completely controlled the line of scrimmage.”
Can Jimmy Clausen’s improvement at QB (along with ND’s improvement at OL) give the Irish the boost they need this weekend?
Narrowing the gap: How has Notre Dame narrowed the gap to put itself in position to win Saturday after losing by 35 just seven games ago?
“Well, Jimmy (Clausen) is part of this answer,” Weis said. “But the answer starts with the offensive line. If we play like we did last year and get dominated like we did last year, it won’t make a darn bit of difference what Jimmy does. That is where it all starts.”
The Irish offensive line is going to have to be dramatically improved against a USC defense that continues to dominate its opponents. The Trojans rank first nationally in sacks per game, second in tackles for lost yardage, fourth in scoring defense, fifth in rushing defense, sixth in total defense and eighth in pass efficiency defense.
“Last year was just a manhandling, and that’s what they’ll try to do to us again,” Weis said. “They had great success doing it, so there’s no reason to believe they won’t try that same approach.
“That being said, I think that Jimmy’s become the leader, so when he’s out there, the guys expect good things to happen, and he expects good things from his teammates. His expectations for his own play are through the roof. But his expectations for the performance of his teammates have (lifted) everyone’s level.”
Do it for Notre Dame Nation: Having personally lost four in a row to USC, Weis would love to notch his first victory over the Trojans. But he’s not thinking selfishly. He wants to spread the joy to Notre Dame Nation.
“USC is one of the best teams in the country,” Weis said. “They’ve beaten us seven times in a row, which really is the bottom line. Some of them have been ugly. Winning this week would do wonders for my spirits.
“But it wouldn’t just be my spirits, it would be everyone affiliated with Notre Dame. Our university really, really could use this win. Not for me personally, but our football team, our university.
“We don’t just play for us; we play for them, too. We know the challenge we have at hand. We’re not oblivious to that fact. But it’s been a long time coming and we’re going to give it a fair go.”
Pete Carroll on Notre Dame’s passing game: “You can’t be much better than they are. The efficiency (Clausen is) throwing at right now, he’s on it. He’s finding receivers, they’re protecting him well, and he’s keeping the negative plays down. He’s only thrown two picks in all the plays he’s made so far. These guys are loaded.
“This is the best passing team by far that we’ve seen. They pose the biggest challenge, and they’ve got big play guys either coming out of the backfield or the tight end spot. This is a very, very good attack, and they’re challenging the heck out of us.”
Carroll on Golden Tate: “Golden Tate is just having a ridiculous start to the season. He’s really a challenge because they move him to all their receiver spots, and then he winds up behind the center getting the football. He’s like a running back at receiver. He’s a bigger, stronger, more physical guy when the ball’s in his hands. They’ve used him all over.
“So we just have to keep track of him and know the tendencies when he moves. There are so many things he can do that it’s very difficult. They’ve done a really good job of utilizing their special guys, and he’s the beneficiary of that.”
Weis on USC freshman quarterback Matt Barkley: “The one thing he does very well is he knows who his play makers are and he gets the ball in their hands. That is a good tact for a young quarterback to understand. It’s kind of easy because you can just turn around and hand it to No. 4 (Joe McKnight) a whole bunch of times with that offensive line they have and usually some good things are going to happen. He’s done a nice job spreading the ball around and getting the ball in their hands and allowing them to make play.”
Weather or not: The forecast for Saturday is cool with a chance of rain, although forecasters are leaning toward a dry day. Still, with so many southern California players on the Trojan roster accustomed to warmer weather, the conditions in Notre Dame Stadium could prove to be a challenge, particularly for SoCal native Matt Barkley.
It’s something that another southern California native, Jimmy Clausen, can relate to.
“To be honest, it’s kind of difficult,” said Clausen of the adjustment. “It’s going to be different for (Barkley) because he’s never played in cold weather.
“When I first came out here, it was freezing cold. The first day I went out there (in the spring), I was throwing ducks all over the place. I couldn’t really grip the ball. It’s something you have to get used to. It’s good for us being able to practice outside. I don’t know what the coldest game Matt has ever played in, but it’s probably going to be a lot different for him.”
Carroll downplayed the possibility of inclement weather.
“It’s raining on their side, too. It’s snowing or whatever it is. The temperature’s going to be the same (for both teams),” Carroll said. “We understand that. It’s just how you deal with it in terms of what you can control. The weather isn’t one of those things.
“I think it’s what you make of it. We can’t control what they do. We can’t control what the weather does. We can’t control what the officials are going to do. We can just control our own stuff and that’s where we’re going to maximize our focus.”
Key match-ups: Notre Dame’s vastly-improved offensive line versus USC’s suffocating defensive front, which is first in the nation in sacks per game (4.20), second in tackles for loss, and is allowing less than two yards per carry and a mere 64.8 yards rushing per game.
“I think our experience is going to be the biggest difference between previous years and this year,” said Irish captain and center Eric Olsen. “As far as what’s happened in the past, it hasn’t been good, it hasn’t been pretty, but I feel like we’re definitely a different group this year. We’re the same guys, but our mindset has been different. Our production has been different. We’re a real prideful group. I doubt our group is going to let what’s happened in the past happen to us again.”
Another key to the outcome of the game will be USC’s running game against Notre Dame’s run defense. The Trojans rank 17th in the country in yards rushing per game at 208 with a 5.5-yard average per carry. Notre Dame’s ranks 68th in rushing defense, allowing nearly 140 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry. In speedy Joe McKnight, the Irish will have their hands full, but it all starts up front.
“They’re good,” said co-defensive coordinator Corwin Brown of USC’s veteran offensive line. “They’re athletic and they do a really good job of finishing blocks and creating holes and space for those runners. Any time you have guys up front who give you time to throw and protect, and they open up holes for the running game, it’s one less thing that (the quarterback) has to worry about.”
Containing McKnight, who is averaging 7.1 yards per carry, is a monumental task. “It’s about knowing where your help is, coming to balance, closing the distance, and getting guys around him and eliminating his options as to where he can go,” Brown said. “It’s definitely a team thing.”
“He’s a heckuva running back, there’s no question about it,” said defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta of McKnight. “We’ve got to get as many guys in the box as we can and stop the run.”
A key matchup to watch – can the Irish OL create room for Irish RBs Robert Hughes (pictured), Armando Allen and James Aldridge?
Notre Dame’s receivers, sans Michael Floyd, were able to exploit the Purdue and Washington secondaries. But Golden Tate and the rest of the Irish receiving corps will have a much more difficult time with the USC secondary, led by two-time All-American safety Taylor Mays. The Trojans are eighth in the country in pass efficiency defense, limiting foes to a 48.4 completion percentage. It should prove to be a strength-on-strength match-up between USC’s secondary and Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen.
USC has really struggled on third down. In its loss to Washington, the Trojans were 0-for-10 on third down and are a mere 17-for-59 (29 percent) on the season. Even if you subtract the Washington game, the Trojans are still just 34.6 percent on third down in its other four games. Notre Dame, meanwhile, is in the middle of the Football Bowl Subdivision pack on third-down conversion defense at 40.3 percent (25-for-62).
Trojans/Fighting Irish facts If you’re going to beat USC, you better do it in September or October. The Trojans are 27-0 in November under Pete Carroll. Carroll also is the winningest active coach (85.2 percent) and has won nine in a row against AP top 25 teams. Notre Dame is ranked No. 25 this week … Ten assistant coaches under Carroll have gone on to coach in the NFL … USC has no players from the state of Indiana, but the Irish have eight from California: quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen and Dayne Crist, offensive tackle Taylor Dever, wide receiver Shaquelle Evans, walk-on offensive guard Mike Hernandez, linebacker Anthony McDonald, walk-on quarterback Matthew Mulvey and running back Cierre Wood … Notre Dame volleyball coach Debbie (Landreth) Brown was a two-time All-American (1976-77) and two-time national championship winner at USC … Due to tickets returned by opposing teams, Notre Dame has cut it close a couple of times this year. But Saturday’s USC game will be the 209th consecutive sellout at Notre Dame Stadium … Due in large part to a couple of goal-line stands against Washington, the Irish rank fourth nationally in red-zone scoring percentage defense, allowing just 65 percent (11-of-17). Notre Dame’s defense also has allowed just one third-down conversion in 16 second-quarter attempts … When Notre Dame has been tied or trailing this year, Jimmy Clausen has thrown eight touchdown passes and no interceptions. Clausen enters the USC game leading the nation in pass efficiency.
Tim Prister – Notre Dame’s starting third baseman in 1981-82 – is an `82 graduate in his 28th year covering Notre Dame football. He is the senior editor of IrishIllustrated.com after serving 20 years as editor of Blue & Gold Illustrated. Entering the 2009 season, he had attended and reported on 279 straight Notre Dame football games – every one since Lou Holtz’s first in 1986.