On their first drive of the season, Notre Dame went 76 yards in just eight plays. It was a flawless mix of run (Cierre Wood had four carries for 21 yards) and pass (Dayne Crist completed passes of 31 yards to Wood and 26 yards to Michael Floyd). And then Jonas Gray was stripped at the South Florida four-yard line, and the fumble was returned 96 yards for a touchdown. Ten minutes later, the Irish drove 61 yards in 11 plays. Crist found Floyd for 11 yards, T.J. Jones for 13 and tight end Mike Ragone for 10. Wood broke off runs of 11 and 18 yards. And then, from the South Florida seven, Crist threw an interception in the end zone. In the third quarter, new quarterback Tommy Rees would do exactly the same thing. Kicker David Ruffer missed a 30-yard field goal as well.
All this, and Notre Dame lost by just three points.
A week later, almost the same thing happened. Notre Dame raced to a 14-0 lead over Michigan in Ann Arbor, but Rees was picked off at the Michigan two-yard line, killing one scoring opportunity, then Wood lost a fumble at the Michigan 29. Then, in the fourth quarter, Rees lost a fumble at the Michigan nine. All this, and it still took a miracle Michigan drive in the final 30 seconds to take the Irish down, 35-31.
Through two weeks, Notre Dame had committed ten turnovers, worth approximately 55.3 equivalent points (as defined here), and lost two two solid teams by a combined seven points. On a play-for-play basis, they were performing at an incredibly high level, but by eschewing common mistakes for a series of apocalypses, they began the season 0-2 and fell off the national radar.
Since then, the Irish have continued to play at the same high level, only without the ridiculous glitches. After failing to score in seven of their first 15 trips inside their opponent's 30, they have scored in 22 of their last 25 and each of their last 14. They scored 31 points on Michigan State, which currently ranks 10th in Def. F/+, sixth in Def. S&P+ (granted, with help from a kick return touchdown and a short-field field goal). The last two games, they have racked up 1,111 yards and 97 points. Now, in one of the bigger recruiting weekends the Irish have ever seen, they welcome USC to town. The Trojans still wear USC jerseys and look like USC-caliber athletes, but taking their opponents into consideration, the USC defense has been lacking to a dire degree in 2011.
In terms of Def. F/+, USC's defense currently ranks 72nd in the country, worse than any Notre Dame opponent not named Air Force. And they have not been able to hide their primary weakness. In general, teams run about 60 percent of the time on standard downs, 33 percent of the time on passing downs. Against USC, those percentages are 49 and 22, respectively. The Trojans have not been particularly adept at stopping the run either (they rank 74th in Def. Rushing S&P+), but breakdowns in pass defense have allowed inferior opponents (Minnesota, Syracuse, Arizona) to stay much closer to USC than should have been the case.
There does not seem to be one specific reason why the Trojans struggle against the pass. They rank 77th in Passing Success Rate+, 54th in Passing PPP+ and 81st in Adj. Sack Rate (75th on Passing Downs). They are not particularly proficient in any one area, so equal blame appears to be needed. Corners Torin Harris, Nickell Robey and Isiah Wiley haven't been quite adept enough (they've combined for one interception and seven passes broken up), the safeties have not given quite enough support over the top (T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling have combined for two picks and two passes broken up), and both the blitz and the pass rush in general have been inadequate outside of end Nick Perry (six tackles for loss, four sacks). Because of the weak slate of offenses they have faced, their raw numbers (6.8 yards per pass allowed, 65% completion rate) might look decent; adjusting for opponent, however, paints a picture of a defense that will struggle to stop an offense that has, thus far, only been stopped by itself this year.
So how will Notre Dame choose to attack the Trojans? With a recipe that has worked so well, they probably won't need to change much. On standard downs, expect a 50-50 mix of runs and passes, with the great Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert as the primary recipients through the air. On either standard downs or passing downs, Notre Dame has been steady and quite consistent in their approach:
|Michael Floyd||46 targets, 38 catches, 419 yards
(83% catch rate, 9.1 yds/target)
|34%||25 targets, 15 catches, 220 yards
(60% catch rate, 8.8 yds/target)
|Tyler Eifert||33 targets, 25 catches, 258 yards
(76% catch rate, 7.8 yds/target)
|24%||16 targets, 7 catches, 105 yards
(44% catch rate, 6.6 yds/target)
|Theo Riddick||23 targets, 14 catches, 126 yards
(61% catch rate, 5.5 yds/target)
|17%||13 targets, 10 catches, 110 yards
(77% catch rate, 8.5 yds/target)
|T.J. Jones||19 targets, 11 catches, 104 yards
(58% catch rate, 5.5 yds/target)
|14%||13 targets, 10 catches, 125 yards
(77% catch rate, 9.6 yds/target)
There are two potential reasons for hope for USC:
1) Their best defensive game was their last one. They sacked Zach Maynard three times and picked him off twice, allowing an admittedly schizophrenic offense almost nothing easy. They slowed Cal down, and they turned the Golden Bears over like teams were able to turn Notre Dame over earlier in the season.
2) The Trojans can move the ball, too. They are in or on the cusp of the Top 25 in quite a few offensive categories -- 26th in Off. F/+, 25th in Standard Downs S&P+, 32nd in Passing S&P+, and while the Notre Dame defense ranks 13th in overall Def. F/+, their glitches have been damaging. The USC defense probably won't need to hold the Irish under 20 points to win the game. They will, however, need to hold them under 40.
The F/+ numbers project a near-massacre in this one: Notre Dame by 22.1. And to be sure, if the Irish continue to stay out of their own way, USC will struggle to keep up. But the damage Notre Dame did to itself in the first two games created quite the lasting image. Tomorrow offers them a high-profile opportunity to prove that they are, or are not, as good as the numbers say they are.