Key Match Up: USC’s Offensive Line vs. Notre Dame’s Defensive Line
The 5-1 Trojans come into the game as a heavy favorite, but have uncharacteristically struggled the last few weeks. The Irish limp into the game with a record of 1-6.
The Irish will come into this game with nothing to lose, while the Trojans, ranked 13th in the BCS standings, are looking for a convincing victory to get back on track and into the national championship hunt.
Key match-ups in Saturday’s game will be between the big men in the trenches. The banged up USC offensive line will look to establish a physical running game against a Notre Dame defensive line that hasn’t had much success against the run this season.
When the season began, the Trojans offensive line was considered one of the top units in the nation and one of the strengths of the USC team. Through the first three weeks of the season that was certainly true as the Trojans ran over and around Idaho, Nebraska and Washington State while displaying a physical running attack.
Then the injury problems began. Against Washington starting center Kristofer O’Dowd and starting guard Chilo Rachal both went down with knee injuries on the same play. And from that moment in Seattle the injuries haven’t stopped.
Thomas Herring and Charles Brown both suffered ankle injuries. Butch Lewis spent last week with his foot in a boot. Zach Heberer injured his shoulder and All-American tackle Sam Baker pulled his hamstring against Arizona.
“They’ve been mixing and matching a little bit, but I’m sure they’ll come up with a very, very dependable offensive line when it’s all said and done,” said Notre Dame Head Coach Charlie Weis. “We’re just not sure who’s going to be playing what position.”
This Saturday the Trojans will most likely start Matt Spanos, Jeff Byers, Alatini Malu, Drew Radovich and Butch Lewis. Alex Parsons, Nick Howell and converted defensive end Gerald Washington will all be available. Sam Baker, Thomas Herring and Chilo Rachal have battled all week to return and should be available in limited roles.
Even with all the injuries and shuffling of positions along the USC offensive line, the Trojans are still second in the Pac-10 averaging 199.8 rushing yards a game.
If the Trojans were healthy there would be no doubt that they would be able to run the ball straight at the Notre Dame defense. But with an injury plagued group the success of the running game remains in doubt this Saturday.
First year defensive coordinator Corwin Brown arrived in South Bend and the first thing he did was switched the Notre Dame defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 alignment.
On the defensive line the Irish return only one starter from last year’s squad, Trevor Laws. The Irish lost tackle Derek Landri, and ends Victor Abiamiri and Chris Frome from their 2006 team.
Like the entire 2007 team, the Notre Dame defensive line has struggled to find much success so far this year. Notre Dame is currently 93rd in the nation in rush defense giving up 186.7 yards a game.
Trevor Laws has been Notre Dame’s top defensive player and should give the Trojans banged up offensive line a lot of problems this Saturday. The senior defensive end is the team leader in tackles with 58. Laws’ 58 tackles is first among defensive lineman in college football.
Laws, also leads the Irish with 5.5 tackles for loss. Last week against Boston College he had a career-high 11 tackles.
Since moving to the 3-4 alignment, Pat Kuntz has emerged as a solid contributor at nose tackle. Kuntz is a bit undersized and hasn’t been particularly successful against the run but has a respectable 33 tackles on the year.
Kuntz has been very successful getting pressure on opposing quarterback’s from his nose tackle spot. With 7 pass break-ups already this season, Kuntz is on pace to tie the school record for pass break-ups in a year.
Senior Dwight Stephenson will get the start at the other defensive end spot while Justin Brown and Derrell Hand will also see action for Notre Dame.
The Irish defensive line will be fired up to face USC this weekend and could pose a real threat. But the USC offensive line should still be able to find enough healthy players to open up holes for Chauncey Washington and the electric freshman, Joe McKnight.
The Trojans, even with all their injuries, have too much depth and fire power for the Irish. Look for the Trojans to extend their win-streak over Notre Dame to six games.