This will be the 58th USC/ND game that I have in my memory. Jess Hill of USC and Frank Leahy of ND were coaching the two schools when I fell in love with college football and the USC/ND rivalry in 1951. It's hard to look at this series through the telescope like I did in a special article this week about the series itself. What's fun is to look through the microscope. You could do a whole series of articles on Hill and Leahy and never run out of material.
Jess Hill is one of USC's greatest athletes. He was a great running back, a world class long jumper and major league baseball player. He seemed to just do things with the ease of the gods. Frank Leahy was a Notre Dame offensive lineman under Knute Rockne who might have been the most intense athlete and head coach ever to be part of college football. Leahy was the ultimate grinder.
Frank Leahy coached Vince Lombardi as one of his seven blocks of granite at Fordham before he went to ND. Frank Leahy was 20-2 as a head coach at Fordham. He then came to ND and from 1941, with time off to serve in WWII, was right with Rockne when it came to winning games at ND. Leahy's practices were just like USC's are today. He would say if you didn't hit anybody you didn't practice.
Today you have head coaches Pete Carroll and Charlie Weis. Pete's already established a legacy with 2 national championships, Weis could need a good performance this Saturday to hold on to his job. It's hard to believe that one game could mean as much to a coach as this game does to Weis and ND but it does. That and the fact that Saturday's game is in South Bend gives ND a great deal of motivation.
How good is ND? We are going to find out Saturday. They are 4-1 and a much improved team over the last two years. Right now ND is 8th in the country in passing offense at 470 yards a game.
The Irish are 10th in total offense and 27th in scoring offense with an accurate passer in Jimmy Clausen, a fine receiver in Golden Tate and a very good tight end. The flipside is ND is 100th in total defense, 59th in scoring defense. ND is 110th in passing defense and 68th in rushing defense.
What that tells me is that this year's contest could be all about the USC offense. USC quarterback Matt Barkley couldn't have picked a better time to get healthy and wide receiver Ronald Johnson couldn't have picked a better time to return to the USC offense. Look for the play of wide receivers Ronald Johnson and Damian Williams to be a sparkplug for USC on Saturday.
Williams will be just that much better with Johnson back in the lineup. And that's going to open up the USC running game for McKnight and Bradford. Barkley's ready, Johnson's back, that stretches the field and opens things up for a good day for USC's offense.
If Johnson is able to return kickoffs look for an improved field position on kickoff returns as well.
Defensive end Armond Armstead will be back on Saturday, but may not have as much impact as the return of weak-side linebacker Malcom Smith. Both Jordan Campbell and Shane Horton played great in Smith's absence, but Smith is so good in coverage and will be needed against ND passing game.
Wes Horton and Nick Perry have played so well in Armstead's absence that you may not see Armstead start on Saturday. It's hard to stay in shape with a broken foot, and Armstead also has to get back in playing shape. You have to play to do that.
Armstead is a bulwark against the rush on early downs and also a very good pass rusher. He was the best of the defensive linemen all through fall camp, and that's saying something. But Nick Perry is a gamer so look for Armstead only in certain spots on early downs.
Notre Dame is a great matchup for USC. Like Ohio State they are not going to try to do things different because it's USC they are playing on Saturday. They believe if they play great ND football on Saturday at home they will win. But I don't think that is going to happen.
USC's defensive line is going to tee off against Clausen and keep the pressure on him all afternoon. Jimmy's an accurate passer and USC is not going to sit back and let him throw.
Look for tight coverage on Notre Dame's tight ends and more of Will Harris playing CB in nickel situations with Josh Pinkard and Kevin Thomas at the other corners. Taylor Mays and Drew McAllister will be playing safety in the nickel. USC's defense could have a big day sacking a sore toed Clausen.
ND's greatest strengths on offense are well covered by a stout Trojan defense and USC's rapidly improving offense should have success against a less than middle of the road defense. USC offense made a believer out of me up there at Cal. Matt Barkley and company are only going to get better and I look for that to happen on a national stage at South Bend this Saturday.
ND has its own network in NBC. The SEC has its own network at CBS. So much so that announcer Gary Danielson stated that a won loss USC team had no chance to make the BCS championship game against any one loss SEC team.
USC has to cast its own net over the Irish on Saturday. And I think the Trojans are primed to do so with a big showing on offense, defense and special teams.
If USC wins Saturday then it's off to Oregon for perhaps the Trojans toughest test of 2009 against the Ducks at Autzen. This is a game fraught with danger but also filled with opportunities for USC with the national attention it should draw if the Trojans play as well as I think they will in South Bend.
The Trojans are back in the national picture. They are getting better each week. What more could a USC fan want?
The ND game couldn't be coming at a better time.
Mike Morgan and the USC defense will look to pressure Jimmy Clausen. (Paul Pinner Photo)