Monday, November 20, 2006

Heavyweight Championship

Charlie Weis has termed Notre Dame's November schedule as "playoff mode". Made sense, especially when you see the Irish taking care of business two weeks ago against Air Force while nearly half the Top 10 fell in head-scratching upsets, and Florida narrowly avoided disaster against the Ol' Ball Coach. You have to play Week 1 well in order to get to Week 2.

And once the Irish were in Week 2, they spent most of that time getting prepped...for Week 3. Except that nobody other than Weis knew it. By the coach's count, roughly 66% of the practice time during the last week was focused on stuff the Irish would only need against USC. Smacks of Tiger Woods tanking early season tournaments just to perfect shots and strategies he's only going to need at Augusta National. Difference of course being that in this metaphor, the Trojans would have to be considered Tiger and the Irish, on their best day, might be Jim Furyk.

So it's come to this: a meeting of two powerful rivals on a Saturday night in the City of the Angels, one loss dangling over the head of each team, nearly everything still in front of them. The Trojans have the inside track all the way to "The Game" against Ohio State. Notre Dame would probably need to win this game by 17, have Florida and Arkansas respectively implode in their final two games, then pray for enough voter amnesia to vault past Michigan. Still, a spot in one of the four BCS bowl games is a virtual lock for the Irish, provided they don't embarrass themselves. Game 12...

#6 Notre Dame vs. #3 Southern California
5:00 PM PST
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum - Los Angeles, CA


Why USC Will Win

They're good. They're very, very good. And they know it.

Pete Carroll's brand of coaching, which consists of part strategist, part motivational speaker, and part bats**t-crazy pep clubber on speed, has made USC into the team of the '00s for college football. No getting around it - a chance to play for a third title in 4 seasons, to say nothing of 5 consecutive Pac-10 championships and 3 Heismans since 2002, tell you everything you need to know about the type of program Carroll has built since migrating to college after two unremarkable stints at the pro level.

The big question mark for the Trojans coming into 2006 was how they would replace their All-Heisman backfield, and while John David Booty may not be Matt Leinart quite yet, he's certainly no young and inexperienced first-year starter (come to think of it, neither was Leinart when he stepped in for Carson Palmer back in '03. Coincidence? I think not.) What a lot of people didn't account for in assessing USC before the season began was how much they retained, and how it would more than offset losing the three-headed monster of Leinart, Reggie Bush, and LenDale White. Sure, the Trojans miss the Hollywood A-Listers, but they kept almost all of the supporting cast and beefed up their roles: OL Sam Baker and Ryan Kalil, WR Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett, DE Lawrence Jackson, DT Sedrick Ellis, and the deepest LB crop in the country with Rey Maulauga, Dallas Sartz, Keith Rivers, Thomas Williams & Brian Cushing. They're stacked, plain and simple, at every position, and they have outstanding coaching to boot.

So the Trojans don't even have to focus on any one element in order to succeed Saturday night - they've got a clear-cut edge in a lot of categories on the Irish, across the board: more depth, more speed, more athleticism, particularly across the front 7, which absolutely demolished the morale of the Cal Bears last weekend. If they don't beat themselves (like they did against Oregon State), it's tought to see anybody beating them.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

I have yet to see the movie, but I already like the overarching theme of "Glory Road", even though it's the same as every other predictable yet honest and outstanding sports film produced by Disney during this decade. Coach Haskins, cajoling his players during a timeout (which I'm assuming is from the NCAA Championship game which Texas Western won), tells them:

"IT'S NOT ABOUT TALENT! IT'S ABOUT HEART! IT'S ABOUT WHO CAN GO OUT THERE AND PLAY THE HARDEST! THEY'RE NOT GONNA GIVE US ANYTHING! SO YOU GOTTA GO OUT THERE, AND YOU GOTTA TAKE IT!"

The Irish will need to reach down deep and get in touch with every axiom about "who wins football games and why". At day's end, after all the coaching and prognosticating, it's about which group of 11 guys on the field wants it more. Who's willing to do what the other guy can't? Who's ready to fight for that extra inch, throw that extra block, surrender that extra ounce of themselves for the good of the team? Can the Irish be that group? If not, then statistically and physically speaking, they might as well not show up on Saturday. And if they should fight valiantly and lose by 13, they can go home with a 10-2 season, the only losses being to 2/3 of the top 3 teams in the country. Sometimes there are no rational explanations for why one team beats another. Sometimes the other team just makes one more play than you do, even though you had all the skill. Notre Dame needs to be "that other team".

Even so, tangible needs have to be met for Quinn & Co. to have a chance. Turnover battle - a must-win for the Irish. Some protection up front on the offensive line - essential. Extreme, extreme discipline along the defensive back seven in matching up with USC's stable of receivers and running backs - indispensable. But all that is secondary behind one deal-breaking question:

WHO WANTS IT MORE?

Notre Dame does.

The Prediction

Notre Dame and USC battle it out in the cool Los Angeles night, producing another taut, exciting game. ND has not played 60 minutes of flawless football, and that's exactly what it will take just to have a chance with an opponent of USC's caliber. Want to silence the critics? Then Win. Sometimes you do things without any rational basis, which is what I'm doing with my prediction on who's going to win this game. Every other measuring stick says USC should take it by at least 10 points. If the game played out 100 times, USC would probably win 96 or 97 times. But anything can happen, especially with what turned out to be two weeks of game prep for the Irish and a senior class that doesn't want anything else in the world except to defeat USC.

Notre Dame 38, USC 37.

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