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Last updated: Fri. Nov. 23, 2012 - 11:51 pm EDT

Notre Dame runners will be critical in defense of USC

Irish running game can slow Trojans offense

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SOUTH BEND – Not much worries Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly these days. Earning 11 straight victories and climbing from nowhere to No. 1 over the course of three months can make a guy relaxed. However, there was an edge to Kelly this week when he discussed his team's task at hand, which is containing the potent USC (7-4) offense on Saturday (8 p.m., ABC).

“USC is a very, very talented football team,” Kelly said. “(It is) Playing in rivalry game, so they'll play their very best against us.”

The Fighting Irish (11-0) caught a huge break when Trojan senior quarterback Matt Barkley got injured last week against UCLA and won't play this week. Throughout this season, the Trojans have averaged over 467.5 yards and 36 points per game.

“It's what you thought,” Kelly said. “It's the USC offense with great weapons, great balance, and it will be great challenge.”

The obvious plan to slow an explosive offense down is to figure out some type of defensive scheme that can stymie the Trojans' plans. However, in actuality, the Irish running backs may be as responsible for that chore as the Notre Dame defense will be.

The best way to keep USC from scoring is to not let them take the field offensively and that can be done by the Irish running the ball successfully and eating up huge chunks of time.

USC has only allowed opponents to rush for 150 yards per game. However, Kelly's guys are accumulating over 200 yards on the ground each time out, so something has to give.

Kelly spoke this week of the importance of running through a defense that his coaching staff has taught this season, as opposed to trying to run away from a defense – in particular – one that has the speed of the Trojans.

“It is much more difficult to make a head on tackle,” Kelly said. “It's easier to run with speed and make an angle tackle. When you're running north and south, we have run through so many tackles this year when we get north and south, and so that's been a point of emphasis.”

Though he isn't his team's leading rusher this season (720 yards trails senior Theo Riddick's 734) as he was last year (1,102 yards), senior runner Cierre Wood has made strides in running with a purpose according to his coach.

“Route running (and) ball catching, those are two huge areas where he has elevated his game,” Kelly said. “Practice, he practices with a purpose every day now. He is locked in. He's getting more north and south in his running. The inside outside zone scheme is set to run north and south. We don't want a lot of cutting.”

With a victory, the Irish will receive an opportunity to play for their first national title since 1988, so a lot rides on this game. However, Kelly isn't trying to overanalyze anything.

“Stopping the run and running the football and taking care of it are really what we're built on,” Kelly said.

Beware of the Trojan Horse

Notre Dame is traveling to do battle with hated-rival USC on Saturday at 8 p.m. (ABC). The Trojans have dominated this series over the past decade (nine victories). Here is some information to keep in mind:

* No fear

USC has played the top-ranked team in college football 18 times and won seven of those games, including four of five in Los Angeles Coliseum.

The Trojans have beaten Notre Dame as the No. 1-ranked squad twice in seven meetings overall, with both of those victories having come in California.

* Lots of 'pub'

Not only will this epic game air on national television in prime time, but the ESPN GameDay crew will be broadcasting from the Coliseum beginning Saturday morning. The Trojans are 6-2 when the show broadcasts a Trojan home game.

* No worries?

Three of the last four games that Notre Dame has played as the No. 1-ranked team in the country the Fighting Irish have lost, including each of the last two (vs. Penn State in 1990 and Boston College in 1993).

* Goodman to go

Bishop Dwenger High School graduate John Goodman will start his second game of this season (according to the depth chart released Tuesday). The fifth-year wide receiver also started the season-opening game against Navy.

* Pressure up front

Notre Dame is ranked 13th in the country in generating sacks (2.82 per game) and will be facing a redshirt freshman quarterback (Max Wittek), who is making his first career start in place of injured senior Matt Barkley.

Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt ranks fourth nationally with 1.09 sacks per game (12 for the season).

* Coverage in back

USC features the wide receiving tandem of Marquise Lee and Robert Woods, who Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly termed the Trojan receiving corps as the “the best in the country.”

Lee (107 receptions for 1,605 yards and 14 touchdowns) and Woods (66 receptions for 721 yards and 10 scores) will be covered by an Irish secondary that ranks 11th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

The Fighting Irish are allowing 195 yards passing per game, while USC generates 307 yards passing each time out.

tdavis@news-sentinel.com


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