1 -- What is the psyche of Notre Dame right now? 11-0, one win away from playing for a BCS National Championship - but having to face USC in the Coliseum, a team Notre Dame has only beaten once in the last ten years. Do they consider this a major hurdle to get over or just another game? Is there any chance with Barkley out they're overlooking USC?
TO: All season, including the much-hyped matchup in Norman vs. Oklahoma, Notre Dame's players referred to every game as "the next game." That is, no one is more important than the other because the goal was to win them all. They know that's not the case Saturday. It's a one-game season, and though its easy for chief rival USC to be their singular focus, there's a chance they'll play a bit tight in unchartered territory as the No. 1 team. The key is keeping the score deadlocked early as the Irish work out potential nerves through the first quarter.
While fans will overlook USC with Barkley out, its unlikely Bob Diaco's defense will. The 39-year-old coordinator's attention to detail and focus has resulted in just eight touchdowns allowed by his defense this fall (to put that in perspective, USC scored seven touchdowns vs. Oregon). Nothing distracts him from the task at hand and its filtered down to the players in his unit.
2 -- With quarterback Matt Barkley out this Saturday the national buzz is the "Luck of the Irish" keeps coming into play - what do you think have been the "luckiest" breaks for Notre Dame this season?
TO: Through five close games and six blowouts, there's been but one moment where Notre Dame seemed destined to lose (remember, Stanford's dispute regarding an overtime touchdown would have simply tied the score had the call been overturned).
In Game Nine, Pittsburgh lined up for a 33-yard field goal in the second overtime of a game Notre Dame had previously scrambled back from a 20-6 deficit to tie. Panthers kicker Kevin Harper, already 3 for 3 on the day, pushed his 33-yard offering right to ensure a scoreless second overtime and the Irish moved on to win in the third. Prior to Harper's miss, Irish running back Cierre Wood fumbled diving into the end zone for what would have been a go-ahead score. During Harper's kick, Notre Dame had two players with the No. 2 jersey on the field, a penalty not noticed by the officiating crew.
The 14-point comeback tied the 1999 contest vs. USC as the largest 4th Quarter spread Notre Dame overcame at home for victory in program history.
3 -- How do you expect ND's secondary to matchup against Robert Woods and Marqise Lee?
TO: Receptions are guaranteed. Anywhere between 15 and 20 is likely, and up to 25 between the pair pending QB Max Wittek's accuracy and timing. But there are two crucial elements of offense Notre Dame has negated with the back end of its defense this season: yards after the catch and throws over the top of the secondary.
Only one team has hit the Irish deep for a score this season, and that was Navy for a 38-yard score in Week One. Though their pass defense is viewed as a relative weakness, the Irish have allowed just six passing touchdowns this fall, third fewest in the nation, and rank 10th in pass efficiency defense. Lee and Woods are by far the toughest test the Irish secondary will face in space this season, but its a Notre Dame back line that has an inherent advantage entering every contest: there'll be 6-7 Irish defenders playing zone coverage on every play, because Notre Dame doesn't need to blitz to create consistent pressure.
If Lee or Woods hits the Irish deep for six early, it could be a sign that Saturday night will again belong to the Trojans.
4 -- ND's front four can possibly give USC's offensive line fits, who/what has made this unit so strong for the Irish this year?
TO: Manti Te'o is the team's best player, but he has the benefit of four future NFL draft picks playing in front of him in nose guard Louis Nix, defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore, and OLB/DE Prince Shembo. The Irish rotate four more players up front to keep their starters fresh and have benefitted with 29 of 32 team sacks coming courtesy its defensive linemen, along with 38 of its 45 QB hurries. At 6'6" 300 pounds, Tuitt is the most imposing with 12 sacks on the season, but the key is Nix, a 330-pounder that moves well laterally and simply cannot be blocked one-on-one. Of Notre Dame's eight best players -- both sides of the ball -- four man the defensive front.
5 -- If USC does _____ they will win the game. If Notre Dame does ______ they will win the game.
TO: USC will win if Curtis McNeal (or McNeal and Silas Redd) can again run the ball with success vs. the Irish base defense as he did last fall. Only three running backs have had extended success vs. the Irish over the last two seasons, McNeal, Pittsburgh's Ray Graham, and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor. The latter pair didn't have perimeter weapons such as Lee and Woods to work in congress with a running game. Relative balance is crucial to USC's offensive effort, because if Wittek is forced to throw 45 times it'll be tough for the Trojans to avoid turnovers or too many third-and-long situations, and the Irish defense is a killer when it can dictate to its foe.
Notre Dame will win if it protects the football and scores a pair of early touchdowns rather than field goals in the red zone. The Irish offense has constantly produced scoring drives in excess of five minutes this season and has recently unleashed a quick strike attack to boot. They run fairly well, they pass fairly well, and the quarterback is now a legitimate dual-threat. They also occasionally bog down inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Doing so Saturday would prove dangerous with Lee and Woods able to make magic on the other side of scrimmage.
If Notre Dame can run for 200 yards as it has in half its game this season, they'll likely play for the BCS Title on January 7.