Schedule: October 19, 2013, 7:30pm EST
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
Describing USC’s 2012 season as a disappointment would be an understatement. After a preseason #1 ranking and a strong start, the team lost five of their last 6 games and finished 7-6. Matt Barkley, their Heisman nominee and potential #1 draft pick, ended the season on the bench with a right shoulder injury. The season was a microcosm of Lane Kiffin’s coaching career: a lot of hype but little production.
In the off-season, Kiffin faced intense pressure from Trojan fans and Athletic Director Pat Haden to make changes. Kiffin started by replacing Monte Kiffin, his father and defensive coordinator, with Clancy Pendergast. Kiffin hopes that Pendergast can implement a defense that challenges the spread offenses of Oregon, UCLA and the rest of the PAC-12. Kiffin also replaced three position coaches, two on the defensive side of the ball. Kiffin again succeeded on the recruiting trail as USC signed 8 ESPN 100 players even though the class was limited to 13 recruits by NCAA sanctions.
With the arrival of the new talent, Kiffin will turn his attention to rebuilding a depth chart reeling from the losses of Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and a host of graduated seniors. If USC intends to compete for the PAC-12 title in 2013 Kiffin needs to these mesh his young talent with his returning starters.
Even at USC, where five star quarterbacks routinely ride the bench, the loss of Matt Barkley leaves a considerable void at the position. For four years Barkley commanded a potent USC offense to include 2012 where the Trojans scored 32 points per game and averaged 432 total yards of offense per game. Max Wittek (a five star recruit) replaced Barkley when UCLA DE Anthony Barr dislodged Barkley’s throwing shoulder in USC’s second to last regular season game. In the team’s final two games, Wittek threw for 388 yards and 3 TDs, but USC lost both games and Wittek threw 5 interceptions. Kiffin has declared an open competition in the off-season to replace Barkley. Wittek, Max Browne (2012 High School Gatorade Player of the Year) and Cody Kessler will each have an opportunity to compete for the starting position.
Whoever Kiffin chooses will have the advantage of throwing to arguably the best corps of wide receivers in the nation, led by returning starter and 2012 All-American, Marquis Lee. Last season Lee had 118 receptions and 1,721 receiving yards and returned three kickoffs for touchdowns. Even with the loss of Robert Woods to graduation and George Farmer to an ACL tear, USC still boasts WR Nelson Agholor, a future star, and tight ends Xavier Gimble and Randall Telfer. This group will create mismatches against any team that they play.
In the backfield, USC loses Curtis McNeal, but returns Silas Redd, DJ Morgan and Tre Madden (missed last season to injury). The running game ranked 73rd nationally in rushing yards per game, but USC was forced to throw early and often as many of their games turned into high scoring shootouts.
The running game will also have to suffer the graduation of C Khaled Holmes, a 2012 Rimington Award Finalist and unquestioned leader of the offensive line. USC does return four starters including freshmen All-American Max Tuerk, but they will need to fill Holmes spot if the offensive line intends to take pressure off USC’s young starting quarterback.
USC returns seven starters from a defense that finished 60th in total defense, 69th in rushing defense and 52nd in passing defense nationally. Overall the Trojans performed admirably last season, but in their last five games, they allowed 36 points per game and were torched by the spread offenses of Arizona, UCLA and Oregon. The Trojans failure to stop the spread offenses and interior running games of their opponents forced the offense to abandon their game plan and play from behind. Kiffin hopes to remedy these problems with the hiring of Pendergast and two new defensive position coaches.
The defense did finish 4th nationally in sacks (45 total) behind the excellent play of junior college transfer DE Morgan Breslin (13 sacks and 19 TFL). Returning starters, DT Leonard Williams (8 sacks and 13.5 TFL) and DT George Uko (5 sacks) played well last year, but need to develop into run stoppers if the defense is to improve in 2013.
Behind the defensive line, USC has the luxury of returning all three starting linebackers. MLB Lamar Dawson enters his junior season with two years as a starter while Hayes Pullard, who collected 100 + tackles in 2012, and Dion Bailey cover the outside. If the defensive line can learn to play their gaps, these experienced linebackers can clog running lanes.
Unfortunately for USC, any improvement in the rush defense will be offset by a decline in the pass defense. S TJ MacDonald (115 tackles in 2012), CB Nichell Robey (3 int return for TD in career) and S Jawanza Starling (a 3-year starter) graduated in the spring, leaving Josh Shaw as the lone returning starter. Pendergast will need to fill the secondary immediately because the Trojans face early season matchups against the high octane offenses of Hawaii, Arizona State and Arizona.
In 2013, the Irish have the opportunity to defeat USC two years in a row for the first time since the 2000 and 2001 seasons. In order to send the Trojans home with a loss, the Irish need an outstanding performance from their secondary and blinding pressure from their front seven. Notre Dame’s defense should handle USC’s rushing game, but they need to force USC’s young quarterback to throw the ball early and not allow him to work through multiple reads. If Wittek, Browne or Kessler are afforded the time to throw, USC’s talented wide receiver corps will find holes in the coverage. And once the ball is in their hands, they can break tackles and make big plays.
On offense the Irish need to establish a good run/pass balance to keep the Trojans’ pass rush on its heels. If the offensive line can reach the second level, Atkinson, Bryant and others could rip off big chunks of yardage. A successful running game will force USC’s young safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and isolate their inexperienced cornerbacks on TJ Jones and Davaris Daniels. Rees, who is excellent at pre-snap adjustments, will see the isolation and make USC pay.
If USC scores early they can force the Irish into a one-dimensional passing offense and Pendergast will bring pressure to force Tommy Rees out of his rhythm. But the Trojans will struggle to score against the Irish defense, and I expect Notre Dame to pull away in the 4th quarter and win the game.
Tickets for USC’s October visit to South Bend have an average price of $508.95, compared to only $435.03 when they met at Notre Dame Stadium in 2011. PrimeSport has Notre Dame tickets on sale for as low as $319. You’ll be able to see Brian Kelly try to take down the Trojans for the third time as coach of the Irish.