#1 Notre Dame (11-0) v. Southern Cal (7-4)
The Coliseum - Los Angeles, CA - 7pm EST on ABC
First Things - It's just like we were told all offseason: Notre Dame heads to Los Angeles for a game that features a senior Heisman candidate who turned down the riches of the NFL in favor of leading a team toward a possible National Championship berth. Just switch "USC" & "Matt Barkley" into the 9 month offseason declarations for "Notre Dame" & "Manti Te'o" and we find where perception has met reality. Neither USC or Barkley met any of their lofty preseason expectations and Notre Dame has put together 11 weeks of "How do you like me NOW?" performances that find the Irish with the #1 ranking in the BCS polls, the Human Polls, Scoring Defense Rankings & just for good measure the Irish lead the nation in graduating Student-Athletes. Please national media, tells us more about how these things can't be done in concert! Now the Irish can punctuate it all by sending Troy into some bowl you've never heard of and vaulting into a National Championship game that will feature 6+ weeks of a #1 ranked Irish team. Let's discuss
This is all quite surreal if we're being honest. If I had predicted Notre Dame to be 11-0 and hold the #1 ranking in America AND for USC to be 7-4 during pre-season posts you'd have rightfully questioned my reality and blatant homerism as a blogger. The 2012 Fighting Irish team hasn't just turned the tide on national opinions. Irish fans have been witness to a change in program culture, attitude, resiliency and some fortuitous breaks that had gone away from them for many seasons. Maintaining dominance, even with an iconic coach, is extremely difficult and the signs of USC's unraveling were evident before significant sanctions crippled their current edition's depth. I was among many who expected them to stumble during 2012, but certainly didn't expect the Trojans to defeat only a single team with winning record and be unranked at any point. Here's to playing actual football games over handing out paper championships
Here's my defining theory about this game and it's a two part question:
1. If USC takes a 10 point lead in the third quarter - what do you expect the attitude of the Irish players & coaches to be?
2. If Notre Dame takes a 10 point lead in the third quarter - what do you expect the attitude of the Trojan players & coaches to be?
My expectations are that the Irish, led by juniors, seniors and grad students who have sacrificed so much for Notre Dame during tumultuous, disappointing seasons, to continue to fight to the bitter end and never lose focus or intensity. USC, led by players who spent an entire offseason being told they couldn't be stopped and were the team to finally end the SEC dominance, will lay down and mail in the rest of their season. Notre Dame will never quit on this game. Getting USC to call it a day is going to be much less difficult. I can define their entire team and season by Matt Barkley's body language after throwing an interception on his first pass against UCLA last week. Barkley saw the Bruin player catch it and, along with most of his offensive line, made no attempt to go after the UCLA player and stop him from possibly returning the ball for a touchdown. USC does not know how to respond to adversity or even finish a game versus a quality opponent. I expect that trend to continue.
Five Things To Watch
Editor's Note: There is only ONE thing to watch. Notre Dame, whether they win by 1 point or 100, will play for a championship with a win. That's all that matters with Oregon, Kansas State, Florida State, Alabama, Georgia and Florida looking to cash in all their "style points" at the BCS Change Counter for a chance at the title. As the Irish have done all season - Get this win by ANY MEANS NECESSARY.
5. USC QB Max Wittek - After 11 weeks of dominance, it seems mildly absurd to believe Wittek, in his first career start, can move the ball effectively enough to win against this Irish defense. Insane numbers from over at One Foot Down - When Irish opponents have attempted a pass over 20 yards their combined stats are 7-41 with 4 interceptions & 1 TD. Wittek's receivers are good ... Bob Diaco's everything is going to be better.
4. Protecting Golson & Turnovers - The easiest path for USC to make this a game or pull an upset is to force turnovers. USC is #9 in America at sacking opponents with 34 on the season or 3 per game. They've also forced 29 turnovers in 11 games. With Golson's often tenuous grip on the football, the Trojans could make this a game by giving their freshman QB a short field or some free points.
3. Stopping Marqise Lee & Robert Woods - My friend BlogDavie detailed on this site how USC will most likely attempt to get the ball into their talented receivers hands on quick/short passing routes and depend on their play-making ability to break big plays. Both players are future pros who can turn 5 yard gains into 25 very quickly. That's not been the problem for Irish opponents. Opponents have been unable to finish drives and punch it in when reaching the Red Zone. Diaco may be willing to give Wittek, Lee & Woods the short game in favor of daring the group to come over the top or beat 3-5 Irish defenders for more yardage.
2. Maintaining The Balanced Offensive Attack - USC isn't elite in stopping the run (49th) or the pass (67th). The Trojans have lost 3 of their past 4 games and given up 46 points/game in those defeats. Notre Dame should feel comfortable attacking USC in all facets of the game and more importantly be pretty successful.
1. Te'o Will Be Given His Moment - Lane Kiffin is a cocky sonofabitch if we ever saw one. Unlike Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest, he'll spend little effort trying to game-plan his offensive attack around a single player. Expect USC to run right at Te'o and attempt the quick inside receiver screens that Te'o feasts on due to his elite recognition skills. Double digit tackles can be expected from an Irish player who has risen to the biggest moments at each turn in 2012.
Predicting The Game & What We'll See
Notre Dame is going to win this game. The Fighting Irish will take advantage of a lethargic bunch that won't punch back in the second half. Everett Golson doesn't need to be spectacular and I don't expect Brian Kelly to ask it of him. Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick will find plenty of holes to gash big plays while setting up Tyler Eifert, TJ Jones & Roby Toma for favorable defenses when running play-action. I do expect both offenses to be a little tight in the beginning of the game and won't be surprised if the 1st quarter ends at 0-0 or 3-0. The second quarter will highlight the disparity of mental and physical toughness between both teams. ND will take a small lead into the break and stretch it out early in the second half. An early 4th quarter score closes the deal and Irish fans will shut down the travel websites searching for flights to Miami.
Notre Dame has the better "team". Notre Dame has the better coach. Notre Dame has players who want this win more. Notre Dame will not beat itself. Notre Dame will win this game.