Last Saturday provided two great examples of how the right underdog can upset the right favorite fairly easily in college football. The way Stanford flipped Oregon on its ear wasn't that different from Oregon's three other losses since the beginning of the 2010 season: the Cardinal kept Oregon under five yards per carry, if just barely, like every other team that has beaten the Ducks since 2010 has, and there was a missed field goal, like the one USC got last year. Same for Baylor's win over Kansas State: the Wildcats have lost 16 times since Bill Snyder's return in 2009, and teams averaged more than five yards per carry on K-State's defense in all but three of those games; Baylor gashed Kansas State for a massive 342-yard total on the ground, coming just eight yards shy of doubling up the best a running game had done against K-State to this point.
That suggests, to me, that styles make fights. And I wouldn't rule out USC against Notre Dame, even with a freshman throwing the ball, because of it. Here are four reasons I think USC could upset the undefeated and top-ranked Irish.
1. USC can throw. Like, really throw.
Notre Dame's No. 5-ranked run defense has been hailed throughout this season for its reluctance to yield yards (3.13 yards per carry) and touchdowns (just two), but that's at least in part because Notre Dame's pass defense hasn't been tested very much. That crew is a little further down the rankings, at No. 24, and it's been remarkably soft of late, allowing opponents to complete 62.8 percent of their passes in each of their last five games.
Dropping back doesn't come without risks against ND (the Irish have 16 sacks in those five games, too), but it's an easier road to beating the Irish than trying to run on that formidable front seven. And USC's obviously uniquely equipped to try that route, with Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, and Nelson Agholor; Notre Dame's seen good receivers, like Oklahoma's Kenny Stills and Wake Forest's Michael Campanaro, but their stats look more like Woods' than Lee's, and no team's had a trio like the fearsome Lee-Woods-Agholor one.
Notre Dame's given up just 124 plays of more than 10 yards, but 93 of those have been pass plays; USC has 121 pass plays of 10 or more yards. Notre Dame has allowed no pass plays of more than 40 yards; USC has eight. The Irish haven't been broken on deep balls yet, but no team's presented the potential for back-breaking bombs like USC does. USC won't have Matt Barkley throwing to anyone, but Max Wittek has weapons like no one else Notre Dame has seen.
Hey, speaking of...
2. Max Wittek is no slouch.
Making a first collegiate start against a defense as hostile as Notre Dame's is not ideal. But Wittek enrolled early at USC, and so he's not your average redshirt freshman; he's been in L.A. for 22 months, more than long enough to master Lane Kiffin's offense.
And Wittek was only a four-star recruit, but he was a four-star quarterback recruit in what's looking like the deepest class of high school quarterbacks in some time. Other four-stars from 2011, according to Rivals: Florida's Jeff Driskel, Ohio State's Braxton Miller, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater. And other three-stars: Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Texas' David Ash, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, and some guy at Texas A&M that you might have heard of. Wittek was higher-ranked than all of those guys, except for Driskel, Miller, and Hundley, and he beat out Cody Kessler, a guy who was higher-ranked than he was, at USC.
Wittek isn't no one, and his "guarantee" of a win (I happen to think saying "We're gonna win this game" is exactly what you want your players to say, even if ESPN will feverishly play it up) shows that he isn't lacking for confidence. He's got the best complement of talent he'll have at USC right now, and a chance to make his name with it. He'll have to be precocious to do so, but since when have USC quarterbacks not been precocious? (Sit down, John David Booty. We know.)
3. USC can also run.
Admittedly, this is easy to forget: of teams that average more than five yards per carry, none gains fewer yards per game than USC ... because when you have Marqise Lee, you throw to him, right? The tandem of Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd is among the best in the nation (one of the only duos that is better plays for Notre Dame) and the only team Notre Dame has faced that can run better than USC can is Navy, which obviously approaches running a bit differently with its option offense.
Notre Dame's defense is really and truly elite, in the sense that it's demonstrably better than almost every other defense in the nation in another down year for defense during the spread offense era. But it hasn't played a lot of great offenses, with Oklahoma serving as the only team that really fits that bill, and the Sooners still moved the ball on the Irish (379 total yards), mostly failing to capitalize on red zone opportunities (one TD in four trips). Oklahoma only mustered 15 rushing yards in that game.
I doubt USC will be held to that tidy a total.
4. No one uses disrespect as fuel better than Lane Kiffin.
Remember when Oregon looked like it had a chance to make a second straight title game in 2011? USC put up 38 on the Ducks in Autzen and stepped on that opportunity. Remember when Tennessee frustrated Florida and nearly upset Alabama in Kiffin's only year in Knoxville? He was doing that with far less talent than USC has now, and maybe far less talent than Tennessee has now.
Kiffin failing upward, from Oakland to Tennessee to USC, has made him a target for all sorts of jokes and hate, and his centrality to NCAA violations at both of his stops has given him good reason to have a persecution complex. But he's won in college football despite that, at least until this year, and the losses this year have everything to do with the defense that his dad coordinates and not the offense he's turned into a terrifying football Cuisinart. Kiffin has been able to say "No one believes in me, in you, in us" for years, and has probably cultivated an us against the world mentality at USC.
When has that mentality been more valid than this Saturday? Notre Dame inspires antipathy, too, but this undefeated run feels like and has been framed as a true return to glory, and that Sports Illustrated cover is calling it a "miracle." USC is starting its backup quarterback, a talented but green redshirt freshman. Its defense is a tire fire that might have one stellar performance for pride's sake left in it.
"What will they say," Kiffin can ask his charges, "when we tear that miracle down? Go write your own headline." And USC just might.
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