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Can the Fighting Irish clinch a spot in the national championship?
The mission for Notre Dame on Saturday night is very simple. The Fighting Irish are 60 minutes away from playing for a national championship in early January. With a win, Notre Dame can go ahead and book a trip to Miami. The Irish are virtually locked into a BCS bowl, but there’s no question this team wants to be 12-0 and playing for the national title, rather than 11-1 and making a trip to the Sugar or Fiesta Bowl.
Most expected USC to challenge for the national championship this season, but the Trojans have been one of college football’s biggest disappointments. USC has four losses and won’t represent the Pac-12 South in the conference title game. Although the Trojans are still a dangerous team, quarterback Matt Barkley is out for Saturday’s game due to a shoulder injury suffered against UCLA.
USC has dominated this series recently, winning nine out of the last 10 games. The Trojans won 31-17 in South Bend last season, which helped to spark their 4-1 finish to the end of 2011. Notre Dame’s last win in this series was in 2010, knocking off USC 20-16 in Los Angeles.
When the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have the ball:
Although the Fighting Irish’s defense has led the way this year, the offense has shown steady improvement over the second half of the season. Redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson has thrown seven touchdowns and just two interceptions over the last three games. The redshirt freshman is also a dangerous threat with his legs, rushing for 258 yards and five scores.
The Fighting Irish don’t have a standout No. 1 wide receiver, but tight end Tyler Eifert is one of the nation’s best. Eifert has 40 catches for 555 yards and four scores this year. TJ Jones is the team’s leading wide receiver, nabbing 40 receptions so far this year. Robby Toma, John Goodman and running back Theo Riddick will be Golson’s other key targets on Saturday night.
With Golson in his first year as the starter, it was important for the Fighting Irish to establish their ground game this season. Mission accomplished. Riddick leads the team with 734 yards, while Cierre Wood is a close second with 720. George Atkinson III has also chipped in 346 yards. Combine these three backs with Golson’s mobility, and it’s easy to see why Notre Dame ranks 33rd nationally in rushing offense.
USC’s defense has suffered its fair share of criticism this year, especially after allowing 51 points to Oregon on Nov. 3. The Trojans have struggled to stop spread offenses and will have their hands full with Notre Dame on Saturday night.
The Trojans are averaging 3.8 sacks per game and generating pressure on Golson will be one of the keys pulling off the upset. If USC can force the redshirt freshman into a couple of bad throws, it will be a huge opportunity to give its offense a short field and a chance for easy points. The Trojans also need to limit Notre Dame’s rushing attack on early downs, forcing Golson to beat them on third and long situations.
When the USC Trojans have the ball:
Beating Notre Dame was going to be difficult enough with Barkley under center. And with the preseason Heisman favorite sidelined, the Trojans have to turn to redshirt freshman Max Wittek. He has completed 8 of 9 passes for 95 yards and one touchdown this season, but Saturday night will be his first taste of extended action at USC.
With Wittek making his first start, the Trojans need a strong effort from his supporting cast. Receiver Marqise Lee is one of the best in the nation and needs to have around 15 touches in this game. Wittek’s inexperience probably won’t allow USC to air it out against Notre Dame, but Lee needs to get the ball on short screens and reverses.
In addition to finding ways to get Lee and Robert Woods the ball, running backs Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal should expect to see more carries. McNeal rushed for 161 yards against UCLA last Saturday, while Redd leads the team with 740 yards and nine touchdowns.
Although USC needs to have a big day from its running game, that’s easier said than done against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish rank fifth nationally against the run and have allowed just two touchdowns on the ground all year.
Wittek has a lot of talent, but he has to be careful not to do too much. If USC can simplify the gameplan and give him some easy throws early on, the Trojans will have a chance to hang around until the fourth quarter.
The recent history in this series heavily favors USC, but it’s tough to ask Max Wittek to knock off Notre Dame in his first start. The Trojans will hang around until the fourth quarter and that’s when the Fighting Irish defense will take control. Expect Manti Te’o and the rest of the Notre Dame defense to put the clamps on the USC attack in the second half, which is enough to send the Fighting Irish to the national championship.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, USC 17
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