Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Their Best Shot | by Mike

In their last three games, the Trojans have sleepwalked through the first half before exploding in the second half. At the half, the scores were:

USC 13, Oregon 10
Arizona State 21, USC 3
USC 14, Arizona 7
Irish fans would love for USC to open the game this Saturday with a similarly lackadaisical attitude. Unfortunately, this will not happen.

It’s tempting to believe otherwise. While USC’s worst loss of the Pete Carroll era came against Notre Dame in 2001 (an 11-point loss, despite Davie allowing USC to score a touchdown while his defense remained in the huddle), that was four years ago, and few Trojans from that team remain. Most of this year’s Trojans only know Notre Dame through their repeated humiliations of Tyrone Willingham-led Irish squads.

Given recent history, why should USC players approach the Notre Dame game any differently than their games against the Ducks, Sun Devils, and Wildcats? After all, the party line from the Trojan camp is that this game is no different than any other. For starters, there will be the crushing media hype of this week. Additionally, the circus-like atmosphere on the overcrowded sidelines of the last two ND-USC games in the Coliseum has probably given the USC players some sense of the importance of the game.

But these reasons alone would not lead one to expect a marked change from the first half nonchalance that has characterized the Trojans’ last three games. Instead, we should expect a fired-up USC team not because of what the game means to the players, but because of what it means to Pete Carroll.

For the past three years, Carroll has pranced along the USC sidelines while his teams dominated the competition. He rebuilt a program that was in shambles to what is currently the hottest program in the college football world. Yet for those who only follow pro football, Pete Carroll’s coaching acumen remains suspect. Consider this exchange between Bill Simmons and one of his readers:
Q: I agree with you that John Navarre should not be starting in the NFL. However, he is FAR from obscure. Very important question for you, Bill: Do you even watch college football?
--John T., Chicago

SG: Sorry, I refuse to watch any sport where Pete Carroll can be considered a genius. One of my rules in life.
For many in New England, Pete Carroll is still regarded as a coaching failure. His success at USC has not legitimized Carroll in their eyes; rather, it has delegitimized college football in their eyes. These are the people, after all, who gave him the nickname “The Poodle.”

Carroll’s perceived failings as the head man in New England are in large part due to the success of the coaching staffs that preceded and followed him. Weis, of course, was a member of both the Bill Parcells staff that brought the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXI the year before Carroll took over and the Bill Belichick staff that delivered three Super Bowl championships in the five years immediately following the Carroll era.

The arrival of Charlie Weis, one of the faces of the New England success that eluded Carroll, at Notre Dame gives Carroll the opportunity to exorcise some of his professional demons. On top of this, Carroll is likely to be motivated by Weis’s success against him in their head-to-head matchups in the NFL. In the games after Weis was promoted to Jets offensive coordinator – the games that pitted Weis’s offensive schemes against Carroll’s defensive schemes – Weis holds a 3-1 advantage:
Jets 24-14
Jets 31-10

Patriots 30-28
Jets 24-17
Hammering a Weis-led team could help mitigate the lingering black mark on Carroll’s resume, his time with the Patriots. And if you don’t think Carroll is concerned with his reputation, just look at how he’s been running up the score this year so that Southern Cal will end up with better offensive statistics than they had under Norm Chow.

USC Head Fluffer Coach Pete Carroll will make
sure Matt Leinart has no trouble getting up for Saturday

Given what the game means to Carroll, we can expect him to find ways to fire up his charges. Carroll began preparing his team for Notre Dame last week, despite the Trojans’ game against Arizona last Saturday. Last Wednesday Carroll had crowd noise pumped into USC’s practice. Since USC’s game against Arizona was at the Coliseum, this wasn’t done for their game last week. It was done with an eye toward this week’s game against Notre Dame. Carroll continued to turn up the intensity this week, as he has upped the ante on special teams by adding starters to the kickoff coverage unit.

However, the most effective arrow in Carroll’s motivational quiver is likely to be the media disrespect one. Carroll will invoke the articles describing USC as listless and those questioning whether the Trojans are really the best team in the country. The spate of media figures talking up Notre Dame’s chances this week only provides Carroll with further ammunition. Carroll will have his team outraged at being the subject of insufficient adulation.

Carroll knows how to get his team fired up and playing with intensity when they really need it. And that is exactly what is happening now.

Some things I will be looking for during the game...

Notre Dame’s Pass Protection. The Irish offense appears to have put the mental breakdowns of the Michigan game behind them and become quite adept at blitz pickup. Purdue’s blitzes were repeatedly exploited. Furthermore, Purdue defensive end Ray Edwards, who appeared as if he might be able to get pressure in a four-man rush, was largely shut down. It will be interesting to see whether this trend will continue against USC, who should present two new challenges. First, I expect Pete Carroll to be more creative both in the timing of his blitzes and in the actual blitzes he uses than the defensive coordinators Notre Dame has faced thus far. Second, USC has a pair of defensive ends – particularly Frostee Rucker – good enough to generate pressure from a four-man rush. In the face of USC blitzes, Weis’s abilities as a teacher provide reason for optimism:
"Coach (Ron) Powlus turned to me and said, 'That was the simplest I think I've ever heard -- through college, NFL, everything -- going through hots and sight-adjusts and having someone explain it," Quinn said. "That's a great example of coach Weis as a teacher. He makes things so simple that can be complicated at times."
As for the USC defensive ends, it is up to the Irish tackles to win the one-on-one battles. They have been up to the challenge so far this season. Hopefully this continues against USC. If Quinn has time to sit in the pocket, he should be able to take advantage of USC's corners - the (relative) weakness of the SC defense.

LenDale White v. ND Front Seven. I suspect the Irish defense’s ability to contain LenDale White will be critical to Notre Dame’s chances this Saturday. Last year, Notre Dame’s defensive front seven did an admirable job of controlling USC’s ground attack. Consider last year’s rushing stats:
Rushing         No Gain Loss  Net TD Lg  Avg
White, LenDale 14 52 1 51 0 9 3.6
Bush, Reggie 8 27 2 25 0 18 3.1
Leinart, Matt 3 10 3 7 0 7 2.3
Reed, Desmond 1 2 0 2 0 2 2.0
Of course, stopping USC’s ground game did not stop USC’s offense last year, as they gained enough yardage through the air to rack up a blowout win. Why then, would a repeat of these rushing numbers be a good sign? Because I believe the Irish pass defense has improved enough to slow USC down if we can get a similar effort from the front seven. While I don’t expect the defense to stop or shut down the USC passing attack, if they can slow it down, Quinn and the rest of the offense will have the opportunity to outscore the Trojans.

However, the Irish have lost some key members from last year’s front seven. Greg Pauly, Kyle Budinscak, Mike Goolsby, and Derek Curry have all departed. The loss of Pauly means that the quick but undersized Derek Landri will be matched up against Duce Lutui, who outweighs Landri by approximately one Song Girl. While the replacements for Goolsby and Curry appear to be upgrades in pass defense, it remains to be seen whether they can be as stout against the run. If the front seven are unable to contain White, expect Zbikowski and Ndukwe to cheat against the run and bite on play-action more than usual, opening up the USC passing game considerably.

Notre Dame Pass Rush. It is imperative that Notre Dame generate pressure on Leinart. He simply cannot be allowed to sit in the pocket and go through his progressions. I cannot help but look back to October 15, 1988, when Notre Dame took on the top-ranked Miami Hurricanes. Though Steve Walsh would pass for an opponent-record 424 yards, the relentless pressure – particularly by Frank Stams – led to six Miami turnovers and an Irish victory. Minter will need to devise a gameplan that involves drilling Leinart into the turf as often as the rules allow.

Tomorrow I board my flight to South Bend to witness the greatest rivalry in college football firsthand. Travel will likely preclude me from posting any postgame thoughts in timely fashion.