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Friday, October 16, 2009
Blogger debate: USC vs. Notre Dame



Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller and Brian Bennett


There's always a lot to talk about when USC and Notre Dame hook up, but Saturday's game might be even more saucy than recent tilts for one reason.

The consensus is the Fighting Irish have a fighting chance, unlike the previous two seasons, when they were throttled by a combined count of 76-3.

Fact is, five of USC's seven consecutive wins in the series have come by 31 or more points.

Sure, USC is ranked sixth and is again a national title contender, while No. 25 Notre Dame has struggled against middling foes like Purdue and Washington.

Wait. Didn't Washington and USC play?

Anyway, it seemed like a good time to check in with Notre Dame and Big East blogger Brian Bennett to see what's shaking with the Irish.
 
 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
 Charlie Weis is still seeking his first victory against USC.
Ted Miller: Sorry I'm late, Brian. I was just trying to finish the 7,400-word transcript of Charlie Dickens' -- make that Charlie Weis' -- news conference. As much as I want to be snide, I actually found Weis refreshingly candid and insightful. He wasn't at all like that back in 2005. Before we engage on the big battle this weekend, what's your take on how Weis has developed -- dare I say grown? -- along with his program?

Brian Bennett: Well, it was only about six weeks ago when some alumni bought a billboard calling Weis an intern. I do get the sense that he's more comfortable now in his position, and really, he should be. The offense, which is his calling card, is now completely in his hands, and he's basically leaving the defense up to Jon Tenuta. While you can debate how much of a schematic advantage Notre Dame has, there's no questioning that Weis is a terrific offensive playcaller who's been at his best in that area this season. Sometimes it seems he believes in his intellectual superiority too much, like at the end of the Michigan game. Whether he makes it through this year remains to be seen, but he seems confident that things are on the right track.

It's an interesting parallel between him and Pete Carroll, two NFL guys who have vastly different personalities. Is it just me, or does Carroll relish beating Weis to a pulp?

Ted Miller: It doesn't appear to be a warm relationship, starting with the fact that Weis is tight with Bill Belichick, who replaced Carroll when he was fired by the New England Patriots. Their personalities, of course, couldn't be more different, with most -- at least media sorts -- giving Carroll a big advantage there.

And the whole "strategic advantage" hiring boast from Weis probably plays well with Carroll when he's celebrating another blowout win in the rivalry.

It didn't seem, however, that either tossed a barb in east or west this week. Weis, obviously, has been humbled and has to act graciously, while Carroll might want Weis to keep his job so he can continue to dominate the series.

Now, if Weis were to win a couple in a row, it's not hard to imagine there might be a tweak or two from him sent special delivery to Heritage Hall. And that might reignite the tensions, which would be great fun.

Brian, I watched the Notre Dame-Washington before the USC-Cal game and many colorful adjectives were tossed around to describe Notre Dame's defense by the sportswriters on hand. Some are not fit for a family blog, but suffice it to say none were good. What's wrong with the Irish defense and how can it stop the Trojans?

BB: Oh, boy. How much time do we have? Well, to begin with, if you compare Notre Dame's defensive line to USC's front four, it's an almost comical mismatch. Weis has not done a good job recruiting those positions, and it shows each week. The linebackers are decent but not overwhelming, and they've been blitzing a lot under Tenuta's aggressive scheme, which is leaving holes on the field. The defensive backfield was supposed to be one of the strengths, but the corners have not played well at all. Tackling, all across the board, has been a major problem.
 
 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
 Freshman QB Matt Barkley has thrown for 958 yards and three touchdowns this season.


The best way for them to stop USC? Say a lot of prayers at the Grotto before the game. Seriously, the best thing you can say about the Irish defense is that it has come up with plays at opportunistic times, like the goal-line stands against Washington and Kyle McCarthy's interception against Michigan State. The Irish will have to pressure Matt Barkley and not break too much after a lot of bending.

Speaking of Barkley, how will the true freshman handle this atmosphere? He's already won at Ohio State, after all. And is Joe McKnight the X factor here?

Ted Miller: Notre Dame won't be as rowdy as Ohio State, and Barkley seemed to handle himself well in The Horseshoe -- see the dramatic game-winning drive he directed -- so I don't know if playing in the shadow of "Touchdown Jesus" will bother him.

There are two issues worth noting, though. Barkley is all southern California. He's accustomed to sun and warmth -- ideal conditions for a quarterback. He's never played in the cold, though an unusual amount of rain this week around Los Angeles probably helped him become aware of challenges from the elements.

Problem with that is it appears that the weather will be fairly nice -- probably a bit chilly in the second half, but certainly not frigid. Still, if it's below freezing in the fourth quarter, or perhaps colder than expected, that could throw Barkley off his game.

Second, Barkley is a cool character, but he's also very competitive. He's buddies with Jimmy Clausen. Both are from southern California and they've known each other for a long time because they've shared a quarterback coach. Seeing Clausen across the field may make Barkley want to outshine the Heisman Trophy candidate. He might press a bit or force a throw, trying to make a big play, and that could cost the Trojans.

Of course, McKnight could solve the need for big plays in the passing game by running through and around the Irish defense. The Trojans' O-line is strong and experienced, and it looks like they have a substantial advantage vs. the ND front seven. McKnight has been playing well, so he could be the X factor.

Of course, he's also had some fumbling issues through the years. That could be a Z-factor.

Let's get down the brass tacks.

Weis and company talked this week about, perhaps for the first time since 2005, believing the Irish could win. First, do they really believe that? And, second, do you? In other words, how do you see this playing out and what's your prediction?

BB: I talked to a couple of players this week, and they really do seem confident. I think all these last-minute wins have them believing this is a storybook season, and this is an experienced bunch. Do I think they can win? Well, everything would have to go perfectly, and there would have to be plenty of leprechaun magic. I can see Notre Dame keeping it close because USC's offense doesn't look that explosive and Clausen will make sure the Irish put up some points. But in the end I think the Trojans pull away by about two touchdowns.

What is your prediction for the game?

TM: My prediction is 31-20, USC.

Clausen and the Irish will make some plays, and I think Barkley will make at least one major mistake that keeps this one close.

But, ultimately, I think the Trojans' advantage on defense is too significant. They will be able to make key stops and the ND defense won't.

Still, since the Trojans started dominating the series, I've paused over one thought before picking this game: At some point, the Fighting Irish are going to beat Carroll and USC.