I hope everyone really enjoyed their bye week, but now it’s time to focus. Let’s get a few particulars out of the way.
Current Weather Forecast for Saturday in beautiful South Bend, Indiana: 48 degrees and partly cloudy (expect this to change about a dozen times before kickoff)
Line: Southern Cal by somewhere between 8 and 11, depending on where you’re looking. I’m going to guess that ticks its way up to around thirteen or so by the end of the week.
Anticipation Level: 16 out of 10
As I wrote last week, this is the game that frames the last five games and the rest of the season. Is Notre Dame a great team that was just finding its footing and got screw jobbed at Michigan, or is it an average, mediocre team that can’t stand up against the elites of college football? A close loss to Southern Cal isn’t the end of the world, but a blowout loss would leave the taste in most Irish fans’ mouth that this season is just like every other one after 2005. A win? A win and everything is roses and candy and puppies and sunshine for a week (until the inevitable letdown “HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?!” loss to BC the next Saturday). I want that win and that feeling like everything is right in the world. I want to see everything about the team humbled – from the sunglasses-wearing band to Traveler to Carroll to Barkley.
Can the Irish pull it off? We’ll get into this in more detail as the week goes on, but over the bye week I watched some of Southern Cal’s games on the incredibly useful ESPN360. A few quick observations from going through a couple of halves without too meticulous of scrutiny:
* Matt Barkley, as he comes across in interviews, is a cool customer. He’s not asked to do a whole lot in that offense yet, but the arm and confidence are there to be a great quarterback for a long time. In the Ohio State game he was in an incredibly hostile environment but had the benefit of being in a very low scoring game, meaning the Trojans could always rely on their running game, even late in the fourth quarter. If the Irish can get a lead and the crowd gets cooking….. maybe. We’ll see. He looks a little like Dick Casablancas from Veronica Mars, so take from that what you will.
* Damian Williams is a beast, in the Mike Williams/Dwayne Jarrett mode of just eating defensive backs alive. Packing the box and attempting to cover him on an island could result in a very, very long day. He also is a huge threat on punt returns.
* Taylor Mays is some sort of human-velociraptor hybrid. Against Cal he picked off a (horrible) Kevin Riley pass in the endzone on the first possession of the game and cut down Jahvid Best on a third and short pitch late in the second quarter. He’s everywhere you do not want him to be.
* Joe McKnight is very fast. If the Irish don’t improve at tackling very quickly – that’s what bye weeks are for! – he’s going to have a Reggie-in-2005 type day because he has the breakaway speed and shiftiness to go yard every time. He’s not the best back for a consistent pounding attack at this point in his career, which was where Stafon Johnson came in as a great complement to the rushing attack. Johnson will miss this game as he continues to recover from that very scary weight lifting accident, so expect to mostly see McKnight and Allen Bradford.
* The Irish are going to have a difficult time just lining up and running at the Trojan front. Look at this listing of tackles for loss, it is absurd. I was avoiding watching the Washington game because I wasn’t sure how much it was worth taking notes on a game where Barkley and Mays didn’t play, but I think I’m going to have to to see how the Trojan defense handled the best quarterback on their schedule up until this point. Kevin Riley played like he had a serious head injury for four quarters and there were tomes written about the poor offensive gameplan of Ohio State, but Locker put a nice little game together. The Huskies only scored 16 points, but Locker was solid (21-of-35, 237 yards, no TD’s, no picks).
* This is not a particularly disciplined Trojan team on offense. They average eight penalties for seventy yards a game, they are 113th in the country in third down percentage, minus on turnover margin for the year and only average in the red zone. If Notre Dame were to go into a sort of shell defense and make Southern Cal dink and dunk their way down the field and not score on big plays, I feel like there will be potential for some drive-halting mistakes by the freshman QB. Possibly not, but there’s potential.
* The Southern Cal offensive line is very good, and was blowing Ohio State off the ball by the fourth quarter. It’ll be imperative for the Irish offense to give their defense some time to rest and for the Irish defense to tackle, because if they don’t, Barkley can just hang back and hand the ball off for an easy win.
* Despite the lop-sided nature of the final scores the last couple of seasons, the Irish defense has played pretty well. In 2008 the Trojans really struggled to score until the Notre Dame defense was just too gassed due to offensive failure after offensive failure. Even in 2007, the season of infinite sorrow, it was only a 7-0 game partway into the second quarter. The defense has been fine, it’s the offense that needs to avenge itself if Notre Dame wants to pull off the home upset.