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Irish Ready for Trojan Invasion
by John Vannie

Since Charlie Weis became the head coach at Notre Dame, a massive tsunami devastated several Asian and African coastlines, a merciless hurricane ravaged New Orleans and a horrific earthquake leveled a large area of Pakistan. None of these natural disasters, however, approach the level of destruction that the mighty USC Trojans can unleash upon an opponent. If you live in Northern Indiana, this might be a good weekend to pack up the kids and visit Aunt Millie in Ohio.

The Trojans come to South Bend with a 27-game winning streak and a stack of gaudy statistics. They average over 50 points and 640 yards per game. Heisman Trophy incumbent Matt Leinart has completed 65% of his throws and has the cleanest uniform in college football. Tailbacks Reggie Bush and LenDale White average 120 yards each week and eight yards per carry. The receivers, led by Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, are young but sure-handed. Leinart also throws a significant number of passes to his backs, and all of them can turn a short toss into a long gain.

Despite the dazzling array of weaponry and glitz, USC’s real strength is its offensive line. This group has enabled the Trojans to achieve an enviable balance and beat opponents into submission by 168-42 in the second half. The task faced by the Irish defense can be summed up in the fact that tackle Derek Landri will give away 100 pounds when he lines up against USC guard Taitusi Lutui.

Defensively, Pete Carroll has a deep stable of athletes at his disposal, and all of them are fast. Ends Lawrence Jackson and Frostee Rucker have four sacks apiece and are equally effective against the run. Sophomore Jeff Schweiger will also contribute in passing situations. The interior of the USC line has been depleted for various reasons since spring practice, and the Trojans will suffer even more if LaJuan Ramsey is unable to play alongside tackle Sedrick Ellis.

Linebackers Oscar Lua, Keith Rivers and Dallas Sartz are fast, physical players that rarely allow a running back to beat them to the edge or break through a tackle. Thomas Williams will fill in for the injured Sartz if he is unable to go, but there is little or no dropoff in ability. Veteran free safety Scott Ware is effective in run support, while running mate Darnell Bing covers a lot of ground and always seems to break up passes at critical moments.

The Irish game plan should consist of running at USC between the tackles, finding tight end Anthony Fasano over the middle and attacking Trojan cornerbacks Justin Wyatt and Johnnie Walker. USC is more likely to press Notre Dame’s receivers rather than allow the large cushion that doomed Purdue, but the Irish should enjoy some success with Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall.

If the Trojans appear to back off the Irish receivers at the line of scrimmage, their purpose may be to bait Brady Quinn into throwing the quick out pass. A defensive score by USC similar to the interception return by Michigan State would utterly destroy Notre Dame’s chances on Saturday.

The Irish are coming off a bye week preceded by its most impressive game of the season, a 49-28 dismantling of Purdue that was not as close as the final score. The Trojans have steamrolled through their schedule despite slow starts in the last three weeks. Some believe that this pattern of falling behind early might catch up with them this week, but that is probably wishful thinking. USC has a right to be confident, but its coaches and players want to win this game and will show no mercy.

Both coaches will attempt to cover defensive weaknesses using different philosophies. Carroll will play aggressively against Notre Dame’s methodical offense and try to force turnovers and negative yardage plays. Weis will take more calculated gambles in order to contain the more explosive USC attack. Ironically, the Trojans may be vulnerable to an upset if they are overly aggressive against Weis, while the Irish will not be able to hold off Leinart and friends by playing too conservatively.

The Irish attack will probably enjoy early success given the two weeks of preparation, but Carroll is the acknowledged master at making adjustments to shut down upset-minded opponents. In the past three contests between these programs, Notre Dame’s coaches were unable to effectively answer Carroll’s halftime countermeasures. One of the main reasons Weis was hired was to solve this particular problem, and the chances of an Irish upset will largely depend on his success.

Although the coaching element is critical, the athletes themselves are still in better position to impact the outcome. USC has the advantage because its skilled players put so much pressure on the opposing defense. The Irish offense will have to play flawlessly to keep pace and the defense must hope it can force the Trojans into enough mistakes to keep them from one of their patented scoring binges.

Notre Dame’s defenders face several daunting challenges. They must decide who will cover Bush when he lines up in the slot. They must also find a way to pressure Leinart when he drops back or rolls to the left. They must account for fullback David Kirtman and tight end Dominique Byrd in the passing game. They must slow down Jarrett and Smith downfield, since both can make plays even when the coverage is tight. They must neutralize the powerful Trojan line and keep White and Bush from ripping off huge gains. Finally, Notre Dame must accomplish all of the above for 60 minutes and with only 11 players at a time.

The quarterbacks will also be under the microscope in this matchup. Quinn has the stronger arm while Leinart has the experience in big games. Both are cool under pressure and the unquestioned leaders of their teams. Both can pull the ball down and run for a first down if it becomes necessary. The respective defenses will nevertheless try to throw new coverage wrinkles at Leinart and Quinn in the hopes of forcing an errant pass. In a game of this magnitude, one such mistake could be decisive.

Special teams cannot be discounted as a factor in this game. USC has struggled in punt coverage and its return teams have failed to escort Bush or Desmond Reed into the end zone this season. Notre Dame’s performances have been more consistent and the Irish did a stellar job containing Michigan’s Steve Breaston. Still, Bush is a threat that will cause Irish fans to hold their collective breath when he fields the ball and starts upfield.

The Trojan specialists appear to be average statistically, but punter Tom Malone is rarely needed and cannot be blamed if he has trouble staying awake on the sideline. Kicker Mario Danelo has been asked only three times to convert something longer than an extra point, and he was successful twice. Danelo remains untested in a pressure situation and his longest field goal is 36 yards.

This game will be much more entertaining than the past three, but USC will win comfortably if it plays to its potential. Notre Dame has little margin for error such that a missed tackle, a poor pass or a safety who bites on a play-action fake could spell defeat.


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