Oct. 17, 2003
By Bo Rottenborn
One of the most storied rivalries in college football will be renewed Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, when the Fighting Irish (2-3) play host to #4 USC (5-1). This series has seen just about everything, and the 75th installment features teams that are at different places in their respective campaigns, but also have a number of similarities.
The Trojans have continued the dominance that became their trademark a year ago on their way to an 11-2 record and a final No. 4 ranking. USC, listed eighth in the preseason, opened with a convincing 23-0 shutout of sixth-ranked Auburn on the road. The Trojans then posted wins over BYU (35-18) and Hawaii (61-32) to extend their winning streak to 11.
On Sept. 27, the nation’s second-longest winning streak was snapped, as Southern California fell in triple overtime at California. The game was close throughout, with Trojan kicker Ryan Killeen hitting a 33-yard field goal with 16 seconds remaining to force overtime. Though USC blocked potential game-winning field goals in both the fourth quarter and the first overtime, Cal connected on a 38-yard attempt in the third extra session for the victory. The Golden Bears amassed 469 yards of total offense in the contest.
Since losing, USC has been dominating again, rolling up 529 yards of offense in posting a 37-17 win at Arizona State. Last week, the Trojans scored the first 27 points of the game in a 44-21 win over Stanford.
In its five wins this season, USC has an average margin of victory of 22 points. Each of the last 10 Troy triumphs, dating back to last season, have come by 17 or more points. Southern California has put up 30 or more points in 13 of its last 14 games.
Notre Dame also enters the game on a high note, after a strong performance a week ago resulting in a 20-14 upset of #15 Pittsburgh on the road.
The win snapped a three-game losing streak against teams that are all ranked among the nation’s top 20. The Irish opened the season with an overtime triumph over Washington State, which has won five in a row and is now ranked sixth.
USC’s explosive offense is one of the main reasons it has been successful this season. Over the last two games, the Trojans are averaging 504 yards and 40.5 points. On the season, Southern California is scoring 38.5 points per contest, ninth-best in Division I.
The ’03 Trojan offense has been similar to last year’s version, which averaged 449 yards per game and had 625 versus the Irish. But the notable thing about this season’s arsenal is that it features a number of different performers than that unit.
Most obvious is the absence of Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the ’03 National Football League draft. Palmer, who started at quarterback for four consecutive seasons, set or tied 33 Pac-10 and USC records in his career and had 3,942 yards and 33 touchdowns last season.
Replacing him is sophomore Matt Leinart, who had never thrown a collegiate pass prior to this season. The southpaw has responded brilliantly, completing 59 percent of his passes for 1,473 yards and 13 touchdowns thus far this season. He ranks second in the Pac-10 in pass efficiency and has completed 61 percent of his attempts for 549 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception in the last two games.
Leinart has one of the top receiving duos in the nation to throw to in sophomore Mike Williams and senior Keary Colbert, who have combined for 68 receptions, 1,069 yards and 11 scores. Williams has 39 catches this season for 631 yards and seven touchdowns after gathering 81 receptions for 1,265 yards and 14 scores as a freshman. He scored twice against Notre Dame in ’02, while catching 10 balls for 169 yards. Colbert has at least one catch in 29 consecutive games and has 167 in his career, which is fourth on the all-time Trojan chart.
Notre Dame’s offense has been more effective over the last two games, showing two vastly different looks. Against Purdue, freshman Brady Quinn made his first career start at quarterback and threw 62 passes, just one shy of the school record. He completed 29 of them for 297 yards. Sophomore Maurice Stovall was his favorite target, pulling in nine balls for 171 yards.
After gaining just 49 yards on 25 carries against the Boilermakers, Notre Dame rededicated itself to the running game last week against Pittsburgh. That move resulted in a school-record performance by senior Julius Jones, who amassed 262 yards on 24 carries for an average of 10.9 per attempt. It broke the Notre Dame single-game rushing record of 255 yards set by Vagas Ferguson against Georgia Tech in 1978. In all, the Irish had 352 rushing yards against Pittsburgh, the most in a game since 1999.
A major reason Notre Dame’s offense was much improved against the Panthers was the ability of the offensive line to control the line of scrimmage. That group has had a difficult transition this season after losing four players to the NFL.
In addition to a dearth of previous experience, the Irish line has been hit by injuries this season. The only returning starter, senior right guard Sean Milligan, did not play in the last three games due to a back injury. His replacement, sophomore Jamie Ryan, then missed the Pittsburgh game due to injury. In response, junior Dan Stevenson moved from right tackle, where he started the first four games, to right guard. Sliding into Stevenson’s spot versus the Panthers was freshman Ryan Harris, who was seeing his first collegiate action.
Sophomore Bob Morton has been the starting center, though he missed a game due to injury. Meanwhile, the left side has been a constant with senior Jim Molinaro at tackle and junior Mark LeVoir at guard.
The Irish offensive line came together last week, paving the way for the school-record rushing performance, while also surrendering just two sacks, after giving up 13 in the first four games.
Notre Dame controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball against Pittsburgh. The defensive line also was outstanding, shutting down the Panther rushing attack and pressuring Rod Rutherford, who came in as the nation’s most efficient passer, all day. Pittsburgh managed just eight net rushing yards on 27 attempts, while Rutherford was sacked eight times. Over the last two games, Notre Dame has 13 sacks after registering just three in the first three contests.
Junior end Justin Tuck has been a force, ranking third on the team with 28 tackles and leading the Irish with six sacks. He had a career-high 10 tackles and 3.5 sacks vs. Pittsburgh, while also forcing a fumble. On the other side, senior Kyle Budinscak is in his second season as a starter. He has a pair of sacks and a fumble recovery thus far this season.
In the middle, seniors Darrell Campbell, Cedric Hilliard and Greg Pauly are veterans who were a big part of last year’s defense. They have combined for 49 career starts and 38.5 tackles for loss.
Also contributing on the Irish line are reserves Derek Landri and Victor Abiamiri. The latter, one of six true freshmen to see significant playing time for the Irish this season, had his first career sack against Pittsburgh, while Landri started at nose guard in the opener in his first collegiate game.
Like the Irish, USC has been prolific in stopping opposing rushers this season. The Trojans are relinquishing just 73.67 yards per game, the fifth-best average in the nation.
Their front four has been touted as one of the best in the nation. At one end is junior Kedechi Udeze, who had three sacks and caused two fumbles last week. He has 33 tackles for loss in his career. At the other end is senior Omar Nazel, who is a second-year starter. He has three sacks, an interception and a pair of fumble recoveries.
On the inside are juniors Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody. Patterson has 31 tackles this season, including eight behind the line of scrimmage, and has recovered two fumbles. Cody has four sacks this season and has blocked a kick, a feat also accomplished by Udeze.