First, first look: Notre Dame

July, 1, 2011
7/01/11
2:21
PM PT
The weeks are counting down until fall camp begins for the USC football team the first week of August. During each of the in-between weeks, we've been offering up an early first look at the 12 scheduled opponents for the 2011 season, in chronological order. We began with Minnesota and Utah, continued the next three weeks with Syracuse, Arizona State, and Arizona, and added Cal last week. We now present Notre Dame, who the Trojans will face on the road on We now present Cal, who the Trojans will face on the road on Saturday, Oct. 22:

History: It's USC-Notre Dame.

There are few rivalries in college football with more history to their name.

The Fighting Irish, all-time, lead the Trojans 43-33-5. But USC has, of late, caught up some. Until last season's ND upset at the Coliseum, the Trojans had won eight straight games in the series, the second-longest such streak between the two teams after the Irish's 11-game streak from 1983 to 1993.

Of course, USC had a clear opportunity to win that November game last year, with Mitch Mustain starting at quarterback in place of the injured Matt Barkley. Mustain delivered an on-target pass to an in-the-clear Ronald Johnson with under two minutes to go, only to see Johnson drop the ball in rainy conditions. He would soon throw a pick and give Notre Dame the 20-16 win.

Other memorable recent games include the 2005 'Bush Push' game, 1999's 25-25 Irish win in South Bend, and the 1994 17-17 tie.

Offense: Irish freshman Tommy Rees was the signal-caller who beat the Trojans last year, but he was only replacing an injured Dayne Crist, who will be Notre Dame's starter for his senior season in 2011.

Crist, who's good friends with USC's Shane and Wes Horton from their high school days at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, is a talented player with mobility and serious arm strength. He has two solid receivers in his arsenal in senior Michael Floyd and junior Theo Riddick, but it's unknown whether Floyd will miss any games while ineligible because of offseason drinking charges. Junior tight end Tyler Eifert is another target.

Running back Cierre Wood, a local kid from Oxnard, was successful against the Trojans last year in running for 89 yards. Three of the five expected starters on the Notre Dame offensive line are returning starters, with the other two being senior Braxston Cave and junior Chris Watt.

Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, who accompanied coach Brian Kelly to South Bend from Cincinnati, is an innovative offensive mind,

Defense: All four projected defensive backs have significant starting experience, including fifth-year seniors Harrison Smith and Gary Gray. Smith was the safety who picked off Mustain at the Coliseum last season.

The star of the defense? Linebacker Manti Te'o, who was thisclose to signing with USC in February 2009 before deciding on the Irish at the last minute. He had an up-and-down freshman season in 2009 but rebounded nicely to lead the team in tackles last season and post double-digit tackles in seven games. Senior Darius Fleming, who thrived in Bob Diaco's 3-4 defense last season, could get to double-digit sacks rushing off the edge in 2011.

Junior Carlo Calabrese and touted sophomore Prince Shembo are believed to have the inside track for the other two linebacker spots, with Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore teaming up as bookend defensive ends. Junior Sean Cwynar could start at nose guard, although he would weigh considerably less than both of his linemates.

This defense was 23rd nationally in scoring defense in 2010, a dramatic improvement from its 63rd overall finish the previous year.

Special teams/special circumstances: Irish redshirt senior placekicker David Ruffer, a Lou Groza Award finalist in 2010, joined the team as a midseason walk-on with little football experience in 2008 but took over for an injured player in 2009 and then missed only one field goal last season.

Junior punter Ben Turk already has two years' experience under his belt and is the nephew of Houston Texans punter Matt Turk. Bennett Jackson was the lead kick returner as a freshman in 2010.

As for special circumstances involved in this October's matchup, it will be the first Notre Dame home game with a nighttime kickoff since 1990. It'll kick off at 6:30 p.m. Central Time.

That's it for this week. Next week comes a look at Stanford.
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