There's a strong possibility that the best thing about this weekend's Notre Dame-USC game, from an Irish perspective, is that by 8:00 PM Saturday, it will be over. At that point, mercifully, the first 8 games of a lost season will finally be over, and the Irish will have two weeks to catch their breath and think about what needs to happen in order to end the season on a positive note against a slate of Navy, Air Force, Duke, and Stanford.
One game at a time though, and for the Irish that means sealing off all the other distractions and controversy (real or manufactured) surrounding them and focusing on USC. We here shall do likewise...
Notre Dame vs. #9 USC
3:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame Stadium - Notre Dame, IN
3:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame Stadium - Notre Dame, IN
Why USC Will Win
There's no way to avoid it when sizing up the Trojans - this batch of USC players resembles a M*A*S*H unit as much as they do a football team. You can count on one hand the number of key players that haven't seen their season hampered, cut short, or ruined before it started by injuries. LB Rey Maualuga decked WR Patrick Turner so hard in practice Turner missed the season opener. Turner's back and is the top threat at wide receiver; Maualuga could miss Saturday's game with a hip injury. LB Brian Cushing pronounced himself ready to go after a lingering ankle injury; veteran O-linemen Sam Baker and Chilo Rachal are doubtful with hamstring and knee problems, respectively. The "10-deep" at running back everyone hyped during fall drills for the Trojans has turned the fight for carries into a war of attrition, as Stafon Johnson (foot), CJ Gable (knee), Broderick Green (foot), and Marc Tyler (leg) have all been hampered or eliminated, while Emmanuel Moody transferred to Florida. Also, did we mention how veteran corner Josh Pinkard was lost for the season? And key DB Shareece Wright is on the mend from a hamstring injury? Then there's the Trojan QB, John David Booty (pictured, left), who fractured the middle finger on his throwing hand during his 4-interception performance that was a big factor in SC's stunning loss to Stanford two weeks ago. Signal-calling duties will pass to redshirt sophomore Mark Sanchez for a second straight week, and look for freshman tailback Joe McKnight to get his share of touches too.
Here's all USC need focus on though - despite an offense that's been stuck in neutral most of the season (with or without the injury factors), most of the key players on defense haven't been hurt, nor have they let the team be hurt by the offense's lack of dominance. The Trojans still know how to put points on the board, still have experienced playmakers at most of the key positions, still have an outstanding coaching staff, and quite frankly spook me with all the attempts to sandbag their own state of affairs heading into the game. To me, it may seem like every USC player under the sun is a member of the walking wounded, but it just seems that way. Right now the biggest wound USC is nurturing is its own ego after dropping to the edge of the national title conversation, but they're still a one-loss team in a year where the number of unbeatens is dropping daily (latest victim, the Cinderella Bulls of South Florida). With a stout defensive effort paced by LB Keith Rivers, DT Sedrick Ellis, and DE Lawrence Jackson, the Trojans don't need to be concerned. For all the perceived faults, they're still 5-1 and Notre Dame is still 1-6.
Why Notre Dame Will Win
If 1-3, 41-point underdog Stanford can do it, anything is possible. That's talking point #1 for an Irish fan when assessing the chances for the upset. Here's the significant follow-up question: does Notre Dame, this 2007 unit which fell so flat and so hard, which has been the butt of jokes and the target of SNL parodies; does THIS TEAM, walking out on Saturday in replica throwback green jerseys to honor the 1977 championship squad...does this team have enough pride and enough guts to take down a team they have no business being on the field with? If the answer be yes, than anything is possible. If the answer be no...it could be a 4th 31-point deficit in 6 years.
Putting aside the intense emotions that rise to the surface during rivalry week, the Irish do have the blueprint for how the beat USC laid out in front of them. 1) Force turnovers - in the last three games, all of which were against sub-.500 teams and all of which could have been losses, USC committed 12 turnovers, 8 of which were interceptions. 2) Pressure the quarterback - Sanchez and Booty haven't found much success when forced to think on their feet this season. The Irish have stepped up the blitz packages over the past two weeks, and Saturday is no time to pull back. 3) Be smart on offense. The perception over the Irish QB situation is that Jimmy Clausen has been banged around like a pinball enough for one six game stretch, so we might as well feed Evan Sharpley to the Lions and let 'Jimbo' get right for the "honor bowl" that comprises the November schedule against two service academies and two academic bastions. But Sharpley could be a key factor in throwing away any hopes of an upset if he keeps his pattern of high-risk, high-reward passes from a week ago. When you're down 20 in the second half to Boston College, you can understand the risks. But starting at home against a highly-ranked rival, with the score 0-0 from the outset, Sharpley needs to be calm and keep taking the 7-to-10 yard gains SC gives. Carroll's schemes are designed to clamp down on chances for big plays and feast on creating turnovers even during what looks like a successful play (key reference point here: Brady Quinn's 15-yard post pattern to Anthony Fasano that would've put ND deep in 'SC territory during the 3rd quarter two years ago...except Darnell Bing popped the ball loose at the end of the run). If the Irish don't give the game away early, they have a chance to stay in it late.
There's a lot of negativity surrounding Notre Dame right now, some of it with malicious intent from people who can't stand Notre Dame, some of it from people who love Notre Dame and are coping with the depression by lashing out, and you can't think it hasn't dented the psyche of the program by now. Similar to last week's Boston College game, the Irish can win if they totally close ranks and playing 60 FULL MINUTES of inspired football that reflects how little margin for error they have. Sadly, it's just too remote of a possibility for me to see it happening. Doesn't mean it can't happen. But like I said...remote.
USC 27, Notre Dame 14.