Notre Dame vs. USC preview: Take California

Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE

Z.W. Martin breaks down the most important game of the weekend: Notre Dame vs. USC. He explains why the Irish will still be undefeated after Saturday night.

There are some things in life that are so important that the crazy anticipation is actually worth the hype. For me, these have included Turnabout (my high school's Sadie Hawkins), the week when I knew my first choice college letter would come in the mail and the weeks when I was a preferred walk-on trying to earn my way at Miami (OH) to play baseball. (I peaked at 18.) To me, Notre Dame's game against USC Saturday night is their equal.

At this time, it should probably be mentioned the girl I really liked didn't ask me to Turnabout. Nor did I get into my first choice university. I was also let go by the varsity baseball team at Miami after they learned about an arm injury. Such is my life.

But not on Saturday.

On Saturday, things will be different. On Saturday, USC will be without their former Heisman hopeful QB Matt Barkley. On Saturday, Notre Dame is favored by 5.5. On Saturday, the #1 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish will defend their ranking, their tradition, their "relevance" and their fans who have waited 24 years for a National Championship berth. On Saturday, there will be no "Bush Push" nor a miracle 28 second comeback in Ann Arbor. On Saturday, the Irish will not ruin everything.

On Saturday, the hype will finally match the results.

USC

I am 27 years old. My brain didn't really function until 1998. In 1998, USC beat a 9-1 Irish team 10-0. Such is my life. After three years of dominating the Trojans, Pete Carroll's system finally took its evil hold on the world of college football and Notre Dame lost eight straight games, accumulating in a final tally of 4-10 to date. FOUR. AND. TEN. This has been my working memory of USC vs. Notre Dame. Everything about Saturday scares me. Everything.

The Trojans will be starting redshirt freshman QB Max Wittek for the injured Barkley. The Santa Ana, CA native was the #76th overall prospect and third rated QB in the class of 2011 by Rivals.com. This is not Tommy Rees. Wittek is a legitimate, D1 QB brought to Southern California to continue their tradition of National Championships and quarterbacks getting selected in the first round of the NFL draft. However, the 6' 4'' pocket passer is largely untested, only throwing nine passes in his short college career, but completing eight, one for a touchdown. Do not sleep on Max Wittek. He may end up being an upgrade to the, of recent, turnover machine that is Barkley.

The Trojans also boast arguably the best WR duo in the nation in Robert Woods and the record setting Marqise Lee. This will easily be the Irish secondary's hardest test this year. However, faced with a watered down version of this in Norman, OK, they prospered, so it's not entirely impossible for the dynamic duo to be held in check. Especially considering the Irish's tendency to play soft cover-2, keeping everything in front of them.

Stud running back Silas Redd, the controversial transfer from Penn State, has been dinged up as of late, limiting his carries. Curtis McNeal, a 5' 7'' senior, has been the workhorse when Redd cannot play. He was a three star prospect out of high school, a rating that suits him well still.

This offense can score, but will a redshirt freshman be able to keep it afloat against the ND defense? I don't expect Lane Kiffin to limit the playbook or hold anything back offensively. USC literally has nothing to lose. Their season is a waste. From pre-season #1 to four losses. The Trojans will throw everything they got at the Irish defense, even with a redshirt freshman leading the way.

The Trojans cannot stop the run. They are allowing over 150 yards a game on the ground. (Notre Dame is allowing 93.1, fourth best in the nation.) This has led to some pretty crazy scores to be put up against them -- 39 by Arizona, 62 by Oregon and 38 by UCLA. These numbers are not things you expect out of a Monte Kiffin led defense.

Notre Dame

The Irish have made it a point to pound the ball on the ground all year, rushing for over 200 yards per game. USC's most glaring defensive flaw plays right into the Irish's offensive strength. Much like last week against Wake Forest, Notre Dame will pound the ball with their three headed running back machine -- Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III -- until USC is forced to put a safety in the box, then the Irish will play action the Trojans deep down the field. With their own redshirt freshman Everett Golson playing his best football to date, the Notre Dame offense appears to finally be clicking.

The Irish defense's strength is their ability to stop the run. I'm not sure USC will even try to run that much, other than to keep the linebackers and safeties honest. I expect the Trojans to get the ball into their best playmakers -- Woods and Lee -- with screens or slants, exploiting the Irish cover-2. But that also is what the Irish want. Make a redshirt freshman QB earn every single yard, first down and scoring drive. ND has the best red zone scoring defense in the country. With a condensed field, their cover-2 is nearly impossible to move on, also leading to the best scoring defensive, too. The Irish are giving up 10.1 points per game.

Prediction

This will be a tight game. Even with a green QB, USC still has enough weapons to force the Irish offense to score points. Notre Dame's running game should put them in good situations to do so, however, the Irish's inability to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns has been a their achilles heel all year and something that may determine the outcome of this game.

However, I think the Irish defense, especially their front four, will put enough pressure on Wittek to keep the Trojan offense in relative check. With the Irish offense's focus on time of possession and ball control, the Trojans simply won't have the amount of possession they are used to in the Pac-12. This will put the heat on Kiffin to score on every possession. In the end, this may play into the hands of the very opportunistic Irish defense.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish 24, USC Trojans 20

Xanax Threat Level*

All of the Xanax. All of it. In the world. This is for a BCS National Championship berth, folks.

*Typically this is done on a one bar scale, but that doesn't amount to the heart attack-ness of this contest.

Game Time and Channel

7 p.m. central on ABC.

Fun Fact While Researching This Game

PAC 14 is a government access channel in Maryland.

Twitter @ZWMartin

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