USC travels to Notre Dame Stadium for a Saturday night showdown in what is one of the nation's top rivalries. Both teams are 4-2 and unranked, but the Trojans appeared to have been granted a new lease on life under interim coach Ed Orgeron, as they topped Arizona in their first game without Lane Kiffin in charge. The Irish, meanwhile, are coming off a much-needed win over Arizona State and a bye, as they look to make it three-for-their-last-four against USC after previously dropping eight in a row.
Matt Fortuna and Ted Miller take a look at this weekend's matchup.
Matt: We'll start with the obvious, Ted. USC is a talented team that just got a bit of a second wind this past week under Orgeron. Was the performance against Arizona simply the culmination of weeks of frustration? Or do you think these Trojans have new life and need to be looked at as the kind of threat many of us have been expecting them to be the last two years?
Ted: Is it fair for a know-it-all sportswriter to type that he has no idea? USC has been so difficult to read the past two seasons. You look at the 22 starters and think, "That's a lot of talent." But it doesn't translate to execution. Was that all Kiffin's fault? I don't think so, though the offense looked significantly better with Clay Helton calling the plays. Even the quasi-redemptive win over Arizona revealed the Trojans' tangible Achilles heel -- depth. USC jumped to an impressive first-half lead but seemed to wear down in the second half. I do think the locker room will continue to unite around Orgeron, as fiery a motivator as there is. The question is whether USC will be as motivated and focused on the road as it was at home. And can it maintain that in the fourth quarter?
Speaking of mercurial teams, the Fighting Irish. I picked Notre Dame to beat Arizona State (reaches around, pats self on back), but I did that as much because of the Sun Devils' tendency to throw up on themselves just when they seem to take a step forward as believing the Irish were better. Where does this team stand? How did the week off help -- or hurt -- the cause?
Matt: Well, this answer may sound quite familiar, too, but I think we're all still trying to figure out the Irish. A loss to ASU would have been brutal, as BCS hopes would have been eliminated by the mid-point of the season. Of course, USC can erase those scenarios this week, too, much the same way it did two years ago in a similar situation -- seventh game of the season, prime time at Notre Dame Stadium, Irish coming off a bye. Everyone slept on those Trojans that time, and they ended up turning in a 10-2 campaign while the Irish locker room nearly revolted on its head coach in that game's aftermath.
Notre Dame's front-loaded schedule looks a little less daunting in retrospect -- losses to Michigan and Oklahoma look worse by the week, as does a tight win at Purdue. But there is that small matter of Stanford underwhelming, too, and the Cardinal are easily the toughest opponent the Irish have left after the USC one, so it is not out of the question to see Notre Dame make a final push for a 10-2 mark and BCS bid.
That said, it needs to take some of the lessons from the ASU win and apply them moving forward. Coach Brian Kelly showed his players a highlight tape of three tight wins from 2012 leading up to that game in an effort to demonstrate just how razor-thin the margin for error was. We saw a much more complete performance from the Irish against the Sun Devils, but there was still a pick-six and a defense that looked little like last year's dominating unit.
I'll say this: USC's improved play under the one-game regime of Orgeron has seemed to add a much-needed jolt going into this matchup. It's USC-Notre Dame, with the Irish looking like they may have turned a corner in the rivalry last year and going for three wins out of four this year. Do you think the Trojans, having seen the Irish clinch a title-game berth on their field last season, carry a bit of a chip on their shoulder coming into this year's game? I know it sounds cliche, but from over here it looks like USC's 2013 issues have been more mental than anything else.
Ted: This is one of the truly great college football rivalries, one that is unique with its cross-country feel. If the Trojans can't get fired up for this one, then that will show you the Trojans' problems were as much the sort of player they recruited as the guy leading them onto the field. And, of course, in a rivalry game, the players who lost the year before should be particularly motivated to exact revenge.
Still, I see that as an uphill slog for USC. For one, the Trojans are banged up, with receiver Marqise Lee and outside linebacker Morgan Breslin, among others, highly questionable for the game. Second, Notre Dame is superior on both lines. I see USC hanging early but then getting worn down. Further, the pass defense has been poor, which means Irish quarterback Tommy Rees could again look like the solid decision-maker he was against Arizona State.
That said, if USC does manage to get the upset, we might have to re-evaluate USC's prospects this season. And, perhaps, even raise an eyebrow at what Orgeron is doing leading the Trojans.