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NO. 5 USC (9-1) VS. NOTRE DAME (6-5) Today at the Coliseum,
5 p.m., ESPN

Charlie vs. the Horse

Trojans' 80th meeting with Irish could turn up heat on the embattled Weis

November 29, 2008|Gary Klein | Klein is a Times staff writer.

USC remains a longshot to reach the Bowl Championship Series title game, but the Trojans can stay in contention for a seventh consecutive BCS bowl game appearance with a seventh straight victory over the Fighting Irish in the 80th meeting between the rivals. Times staff writer Gary Klein looks at some of the key issues and matchups when USC plays Notre Dame in a game that lacks buzz but has plenty of buzzards circling embattled Coach Charlie Weis.

Quarterback spotlight

Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart clinched Heisman trophies and John David Booty passed for three touchdowns in USC's last three games against Notre Dame at the Coliseum.

Trojans quarterback Mark Sanchez might be due for his own late-season breakout performance. The junior has not had a pass intercepted in three games, but he has also struggled at times because of a conservative game plan.

Sanchez has completed 65% of his passes and has thrown for 26 touchdowns with only seven interceptions.

Coach Pete Carroll hinted this week that the Trojans might take the shackles off Sanchez, who passed for four touchdowns against the Irish last season.

"I wouldn't be surprised . . . that we do get a lot of opportunities to throw the football and the ball does get out and down the field again," Carroll said. "We're always looking for it."

Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, from Westlake Village Oaks Christian High, will be playing against USC for the first time.

The sophomore is averaging 248 yards passing per game and has thrown for 20 touchdowns. But he also has had 15 passes intercepted, which does not bode well against the nation's top-ranked pass defense.

Emotional rescue

Both teams are dealing with emotional issues that could affect the outcome.

USC, a 32-point favorite, has as many as a dozen starters who are seniors or draft-eligible juniors playing their final game at the Coliseum.

Carroll has counseled them all week about avoiding the type of tearful breakdown Leinart experienced in the first half against UCLA in 2005.

Clausen's return to the Southland, and the inherent pressure to perform well in his first game against the Trojans at the Coliseum, is only part of the Irish equation.

In 2004, Carroll and the Trojans ended Tyrone Willingham's tenure at Notre Dame by defeating the Irish, 41-10, at the Coliseum.

Now, Weis is on the hot seat.

Making a run

Carroll and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said this week that the Trojans would continue alternating tailbacks by series rather than every few plays because it allows them to get into a rhythm.

(Feel free to insert your own comment here.)

The Trojans rolled up 282 yards rushing in their last game, two weeks ago against Stanford, with sophomore C.J. Gable showcasing the philosophical shift by carrying six times on a seven-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter.

Gable has run for a team-best 567 yards and seven touchdowns for the Trojans, who rank 18th nationally in rushing. Stafon Johnson has 569 yards and seven touchdowns. Joe McKnight has run for 484 yards but doesn't have a rushing touchdown.

Notre Dame is averaging only 119 yards rushing a game, which ranks 91st out of 119 major-college teams.

Armando Allen has run for 569 yards and three touchdowns for the Irish.

On the line

Notre Dame's pass-first philosophy could translate into a big day for a USC defense eager to increase its 24 sacks.

Starting defensive ends Clay Matthews and Kyle Moore both have four.

But this is an improved and cohesive Notre Dame offensive line, which has four players who have started in every game this season. Last season the Irish gave up 58 sacks; this season, only 16.

USC's offensive line has given up 15 sacks, but several of late resulted when Sanchez failed to step up into the pocket.

Linebacker Harrison Smith and lineman Pat Kuntz both have 3 1/2 sacks for an Irish defense that has 17.

That's progress?

After accruing only six penalties against Stanford, USC is averaging 8.3 penalties a game, which ranks 114th nationally.

Notre Dame is 54th, averaging 5.7 penalties a game.

By the numbers

*--* USC CATEGORY ND 38.4 Scoring 24.5 8.3 Points given up 20.8 242.2 Passing off. 248.7 208.8 Rushing off. 119.2 451.0 Total offense 367.9 132.3 Passing def. 176.7 90.2 Rushing def. 139.7 222.5 Total defense 316.5 *--*


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