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October 18, 2007I think Steve Sarkisian said it best when he talked about adjusting expectations. The Trojans have the potential to be an elite football team, but in recent weeks, injuries have not allowed them to show that potential.
They may be able to get to the level that many expected once they get some guys back, but until then, there are no easy wins, including this game against 1-6 Notre Dame. Some people may believe that this is accepting mediocrity, but it is what it is. Besides, trips to South Bend in general have not been easy for USC even when they have had good teams. Here is a look at the struggling Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame Offense vs. USC Defense
Charlie Weis' team has the worst offense in Division 1-A, or the FBS, or whatever it's called now. That is no exaggeration. They have had a myriad of problems. In the first game of the season, they tried to run a spread shotgun read option look similar to what Texas and West Virginia run.
However, since he had also tried to keep his own offense and tailor it to three different quarterbacks, the experiment last only one half and failed miserably in a 33-3 loss to Georgia Tech. In garbage time, Jimmy Clausen looked good, so he gave him the start against Penn State. Clausen played OK, but the Irish were buried. Clausen has slowly declined since that game, and I think the pounding he has taken for a team that leads the n ation in sacks allowed has taken its toll.
Evan Sharpley played decent football in mop up roles against Purdue and Boston College, and he will get the start. He is a little more decisive than Clausen, as he should be with more years in the system. But he has only been marginally better.
Since they junked the spread option one half into the season, Weis has gone back to his traditional ways of using formations and personnel groupings to confuse the defense. The Irish run a lot of plays out of Ace (three wide, one back), I, and twin formations with an H-back. They will use a little bit of motion, but not an overwhelming amount. They use a regular zone running scheme, but they will trap on occasion.
Notre Dame has good personnel at RB and QB, and decent personnel at WR. The problem is that they are painfully young in those spots, and their offensive line, using a technical term, sucks. Generally, I refrain from using language like that in my analysis, but it's the best word to describe them. The Irish cannot run the ball. They have only cracked 50 yards rushing in one game. They don't protect the passer. In fact, Sharpley's best plays in the BC game came when he was forced from the pocket and made a sandlot play on his own.
As a result, Notre Dame is a one dimensional team. They have to pass the ball to win, and it has to be short passing because they can't protect the passer with seven step drops. Teams have blitzed the daylights out of the Irish because they have not showed any propensity to pick it up. In their one win of the season, the Irish had 140 total yards. There will be no excuse for Notre Dame gaining more than 200 yards in this game.
Notre Dame Defense vs. USC Offense
The Irish defense has played better football than the numbers state. At halftime of the Purdue game, the light seemed to go on a little. The defense single-handedly won the UCLA contest, and in my opinion, the defense played a solid game against an explosive Boston College offense.
The Irish started the season with a 3-4 look, and they junked it because too many teams were reaching the corner on run plays. Now they run a 4-3, but they have been doing a lot of different things. They showed a ton of different looks against Boston College. In essence, they played nickel or dime defense for the entire game.
In the nickel look, they would often line up CB Ambrose Wooden as an outside linebacker, possibly because they feared BC's screen game with their backs, and that the Eagles get good production from tight ends. In dime looks, Wooden would float to the outside, and SS Tom Zbikowski would line up in the mike backer spot, and they blitzed him a lot out of this formation. I think the Irish coaches may have figured out that Zbikowski should not be playing in space far away from the ball.
The other factor in the exotic looks has been that starting middle backer Maurice Crum was out last weekend. The Irish really don't have a true middle linebacker, and Crum is the only guy they have who can really play the spot. At this point, it's not clear whether Crum will play, but I expect him to.
The thing that concerns me a little about this match-up is that ND has showed and blitzed a lot more in recent weeks, and it reminds me of Stanford, who confused the Trojans front with those looks. That was when the line was healthier than it is now.
It could be a game where things are ugly for long stretches, especially if SC can't pop a long run or two against these looks. This is the kind of play as well when you can get some big play in the passing game with drags across the middle. This is another game tailor made for Fred Davis, because Notre Dame's linebackers are slow, and the blitz looks could keep them from getting back.
I believe that the offensive play calling will be very conservative, as it should be. Notre Dame's offense is terrible. They beat UCLA because the Bruins gave them opportunities to win with turnovers. If the Trojans don't turn the ball over or hurt themselves in the special teams game, ND will not be able to score enough points to win the game. They're not going to be able to run the ball, and even with Sharpley at the helm, you can bet that we'll see lots of blitzing to rattle him. He took a ton of sacks against Georgia Tech.
This game will likely fall on the shoulders of the offense. The Irish will give up some yards, as they are prone to do. If Stafon Johnson and/or Chilo Rachal do not play, I can see the Trojans again struggling to run the ball as they have the last two weeks. Then it will come down to the efficiency of the quarterback, whether it be Mark Sanchez or John David Booty. I bet it will be Sanchez.
The coaches are going to try to eke it out and get everyone back for the Oregon game, where a conservative gameplan will not win the game. This is not going to be a pretty game, but as long as Sanchez doesn't get hurt and put us down to a walk on at QB, which happened to UCLA, the Irish don't have enough offense to win.