Hype: Excessive publicity and the ensuing commotion.
Did I rip this straight off of the first credible definition found from a Google search? Yeah, I did. Based on everything else that is been said leading up to the eighty-second meeting of Notre Dame and USC, that seems to be the gold standard of thoughtfulness and insight behind this game.
It is all too easy to say things on the internet, in front of a camera, or to a microphone that are half thought out and dripping with unnecessary drama. By the same token, it is just as easy as it is to become consumed by the pomp and circumstance being poured into tonight’s match up.
Newly christened gold helmets – now with added sparkle!
Brian Kelly’s winks and nudges towards the inevitability of alternate uniforms.
Notre Dame’s first night game since the death of the beeper.
Kelly camping out in Bristol, Connecticut a week in advance of game day.
Speculation on grass height. That’s right, you heard me.
Chuck Martin playing Pied Piper to dozens of elite high school prospects, with their own form of sparkles next to their names as well.
Kiffin calling this game Notre Dame’s Super Bowl, and being honored to be a part of our history – tongue, meet cheek.
You see, that’s just what they want you to think about. If the powers that be throw enough nostalgic, flashy, enticing, exciting, and emotional words and images at their fan bases, the waters are muddied and replaced with this ambiguous, ominous feeling of “What if?” Kiffin vowing to never lose to Notre Dame again. This highlight reel of USC posterising the Irish for a decade. That Ronald Johnson’s drop heard ’round the world. This Robert Hughes pushing the pile into the end zone. That Youtube; ATTACK!
You know what none of those things will impact?
Tonight’s final score.
The fact remains that none of these factors being discussed address the reality of what we will see transpire Saturday night between the lines. The “swag” of ND’s jerseys will not make Cierre Wood run any harder. Kiffin’s personal feelings about it’s significance to Notre Dame’s histrionics will not make Nick Perry any more physical at the point of attack. Kiffin, media, and others alike want you to think that those things matter. They want you to soak it in and become consumed by all things unimportant. They want you to watch the birdie.
Once the sediments of sentiment settle in, and the muddied waters become clear again, all you have left to see is a reflection of you and your opponent. That is all this game really is. You vs. Them.
Its Notre Dame. Its Southern Cal. Lets get down to it.
Why the Irish?
Its easy to make excuses for being 4-2. Too easy, in fact. Reality is, this team entered the 2011 season without an identity, despite everyone’s best guess leading up to opening kick against South Florida. While progress has been made in execution and discipline, this team still has yet to repent for it’s sinful turnover ratio after it’s first two games. Especially when considering how much the athletically average Tommy Rees struggled to keep the ball out of Trojan mitts last year, it would be foolish to assume the Irish are immune to getting in their own way.
The simple fact is this is the best offensive line Notre Dame has enjoyed in about a decade. They keep Tommy Rees upright (to the tune of less than 1 sack a game), and they give both Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray UPS truck sized holes to run through (as evidenced in their team average of 6.0 YPC).
Its a position nuanced and inglorious enough that is almost immune to all hype, and yet it remains the backbone to any decent football team. This year’s Irish squad is no different in that regard. For the first time since I emerged from my Y2K bunker, I feel that our line can hang with whatever waves of Trojan edge rushers are thrown at us.
They, in turn, enable the Irish to try and exploit their one clearest mismatch, found in Notre Dame’s receiving corps. Most feel that Michael Floyd is a one-man band driving the rhythm and sound of Brian Kelly’s spread offense. Those that do are significantly miscalculating the caliber of player Tyler Eifert is. He’s tall (6’6”), he’s big (250), has great hands, and looks like a giant, hairy wide receiver when flexed out next to our 6’3” 224 pound battering ram in Floyd.
Like it or not, verbal jumping jacks won’t change the inherent mismatch posted by fielding a pair of big, physical, speedy receivers who are as close to money as you’ll find with the ball in the air. And as long as USC’s Nickell Robey surrenders 7 and 10 inches respectively to these two, odds are the Irish will win that match up should it come to fruition. Floyd has a history of pulverizing shorter corners (Michigan’s Boubicar Cissoko in 2009), so Kelly’s shifting of X’s and O’s on offense should be a consistent advantage.
The final feather in Notre Dame’s cap is the depth of their defensive front. For once, the Irish enjoy the perks of having athletes worthy of rotating in along the front seven. This is not to say that guys like Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, Troy Niklas, or Sean Cwynar are equal to the starters they relieve, but for once, the 2nd name on the two deep brings a unique skill set to the table rather than simply a fresh pair of legs.
The size and speed of this versatile front is designed to harass pro style offenses, which happens to be the scheme deployed by Southern Cal. If the Irish win Saturday night, it is because their line keeps #11 upright, creates holes for our backs, allows Rees to find a sizable advantage in his two favorite receivers, and in turn the defense nips at Barkley’s heels enough to throw them out of rhythm.
Why the Trojans?
To say this group compares to the powerhouses Pete Carroll trotted out for a decade of dominance would be far too generous. His defenses were embarrassed to give up more than 30 in a game, let alone back-to-back 40+ point outbursts. The affects of scholarship restrictions and no-strings-attached transfers are clear at a few positions on the roster.
Even when they have won this year, it hasn’t been pretty, and it hasn’t been against opponents that make fans and pollsters believe, as is evidenced by their omission from the AP Top 25 despite a 5-1 record.
Still, that’s not to say they’re dead in the water. Robert Woods IS that one-man-band, totaling a staggering 60 receptions in just six games. In the slot, on the reverse, split out wide, motioned into the backfield – you name it, he does it, and he does it well most every time. Likewise, Matt Barkley is no slouch in his own right. Known for both Jekyll and Hyde moments, the one consistent connection in LA these past two seasons has been Barkley to Woods. Barkley nor Woods may have the stature and accolades of names like Lienart and Williams, but don’t be fooled by the measuring sticks of past – these two can play.
Likewise, the star power of USC’s skill positions still needs to be considered. George Farmer had every school in America drooling over his promise at receiver, and USC decided to move him to running back just for giggles – because they could afford to. When names like Dillon Baxter aren’t even dressing, the hype surrounding USC’s demise seems rather overstated and premature. No, their defense doesn’t have Troy Polamalu, Sedrick Cody, Rey Maualuga, and other Trojan legends patrolling the field, but it does have plenty of dynamic talent waiting in the wings and on the field still searching for an identity.
If USC finds a way to resolve it’s identity defensively, that caliber of athlete is still present in a way that would be felt rather immediately. All that they need is for a light bright enough to shine on the right path, and they’re dangerous.
Furthermore, their special teams unit can’t be ignored. I’m sure there are those in So Cal who have started a swinging gate drinking game, but ignoring the relatively cute concept of catching PAT defenses “napping”, the Irish have struggled with special teams all year, while SC has it’s fair share of standouts.
Kicker Andre Heidari is enjoying a fabulous season of perfection on PATs while missing all but one of his 11 field goal attempts. Offensive tackle Matt Khalil owns the most blocked kicks in all of college football this year with 4, a fact which seemingly picks at a scab for Notre Dame, as they’ve bundled their fair share of snaps and kick opportunities this year without the gigantic Khalil playing the role of windmill.
To say that any of their return men are average athletes is a huge oversight on their overall team speed. If the Trojan faithful are to raise their glasses in praise and glory Saturday night, they will be toasting Barkley to Woods, the fact that any grass shenanigans couldn’t slow down their fleet of athletes, and that special teams helped turn the tide while allowing Southern Cal to play with a lead on defense.
Neither team is without evident flaws. Neither team is devoid of tangible strengths either. Those strengths and weaknesses will decide who wins tonight – not who Lee Corso picks from East Lansing, or whatever celebrities are caught on camera from the stands at half time or on commercial break. No matter how many gimmicks and sugary sentences spill out in advance of tonight’s 7:30 EST kickoff, the fact remains that this is still the same game being played by two teams who don’t like each other very much. Pure, simple, dislike.
I see the proverbial war in the trenches tipping the scales in favor of the Irish just enough to get ahead and stay there. I don’t doubt that Lane Kiffin will trot out something creative and effective on special teams to give Irish faithful a scare, but the injury to Trojan running back Marc Tyler will prove too much to overcome offensively.
Whether its Cierre Wood or Jonas Gray, the ground attack will set up Rees to find Eifert in the back of the end zone for pay dirt glory in the red zone. Barkley keeps his team close, but throws them out of contention late in the game as the depth of Notre Dame’s front seven proves too much.
If you’re looking for one sizzle prediction, newly minted punt returner Michael Floyd goes out with a bang in his final game against the Trojans – flips field position with the kind of physical punt return Tommy Zbikowski would be proud of, firing up crowd and team alike in the early going.
Irish pull away in a game without any frills sans some special teams excitement. Notre Dame 34, USC 21.