Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with The Observer

Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE

ESPN's College GameDay comes to USC as No. 1 Notre Dame seeks to finish a perfect season and earn a trip to the BCS title game. We caught up with Allan Joseph at The Observer to give us some insight and analysis.

1. How surprised are you with where Notre Dame football is at right now? Did you ever expect, in your wildest dreams, they'd be one win away from the BCS title game?

By any measure, this season has been a surprise. Notre Dame fans expected a lot out of this team talent-wise, but with what was the hardest schedule in the country in preseason looming, expectations were tempered in terms of a win-loss record. No one expected the defense to be quite this stingy, and no one expected the offense to be quite so dominant on the ground. Combine that with Everett Golson's growth as a quarterback and the team's ability to make the clutch play (something that had been long missing) when needed, and you have one of the most happily surprising seasons in Notre Dame history.

2. Assess Brian Kelly and the job he's done so far this year.

It's hard to overstate the job Brian Kelly has done at Notre Dame. When he came in, the Irish were talented but poorly conditioned at skill positions, and just plan bad on the offensive and defensive lines. With the help of Paul Longo, the strength and conditioning coach, and some other great assistants like defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, Kelly overhauled the program, and the results show. The defensive line is simply dominant, and the offensive line has been incredibly effective, especially the left side of the line. Tackle Zack Martin and guard Chris Watt have been on a tear, and Kelly knows he can convert 3rd-and-5 with a power-left run because of them. It's impossible to overstate how successful Kelly's transition has been - he's not only managed the physical side of the game, but he's kept the squad focused and ready to go each and every week. Year 3 has been the litmus test year at Notre Dame - Lou Holtz, Dan Devine, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian all won championships in year 3 - and so far, Kelly is passing with flying colors.

3. Notre Dame's defense has certainly received its fair share of attention, but quarterback Everett Golson has quietly done a solid job leading this team. What's your impression of his play in his first year starting?

Golson struggled early in the year and made a number of traditional freshman mistakes. He turned the ball over, missed the easy reads and generally tried to do too much - it's why Kelly made the decision to put Tommy Rees in against Michigan, for example. But he's really grown during the second half of the season. He's learned to throw the ball away and to protect it, and in turn that's allowed Kelly to turn him loose. As he's picked up momentum, it's seemed to build - a breakout performance against Oklahoma seems to have sprung him. He's hitting his stride now, and it's really scary to think how good he might be in a year or two.

4. On offense, Riddick and Wood seem to have pretty equal yardage, and Eifert and Jones, too. Is there any particular pattern to how these players are used or is it just a case of splitting carries or receptions?

Riddick and Wood generally split carries to keep each other fresh, and the third and fourth quarters often tend to tilt towards the guy who's running better that day. It's been a great system, actually, because they've been much less tired at the end of games and now at the end of the season. They're both starting-quality running backs, and Riddick has the added advantage of spending two years at slot receiver, giving Kelly the ability to put them both on the field if he wants. Jones and Eifert are a little different. Eifert is double-covered on almost every single play, so getting him the ball is always a bit of a risk. Jones has been a bit inconsistent as a route-runner, but he's been a good second option on plays where Eifert simply isn't open.

5. How good is this Fighting Irish defense? Assuming Wittek gets the ball off to Woods or Lee or Agholor - not a guarantee, given his inexperience and the quality of Notre Dame's front seven - who should SC's receivers be worried about in the secondary?

The defense is exactly where the scoring defense numbers say it is - right at the top of the country (tied with Alabama for No. 1). With six defensive linemen (including 2-3 future NFL players) rotating through the 3-4 defense and a linebacking corps that is more than Manti Te'o, the front seven is absolutely dominant. If there was a weakness early in the year, it was a young secondary. But freshman KeiVarae Russell and converted running back Bennett Jackson have been revelations at cornerback, senior Zeke Motta has been a force at safety, and freshmen Matthias Farley, Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti have stepped up at safety as well. Motta's the leader of the secondary and will be looking to hit Lee and Woods hard, but they'll have a tougher time than you might think getting open.

6. What makes Manti Te'o so special and such a force in the middle? Do you believe he has a legitimate shot at winning the Heisman?

Te'o's a totally special player. I don't know that I can capture what makes him a special person better than this feature on him can, but I can tell you he's also the leader of the defense on the field. He makes all the calls, has perhaps better vision and understanding than any linebacker in the country and is an absolutely rock-solid tackler. He doesn't often rush the passer, but when he does, he's scary - ask Landry Jones. He just has an amazing ability to read the play and find where he needs to be - and when he gets there, he never misses his assignment.

7. Prediction on this game? Does Notre Dame ride its defense to another victory and a trip to the BCS title game?

I'll probably just direct you to what I wrote in our weekly prediction article this week...

I don't think even Brian Kelly could have seen this coming in his wildest dreams. But here we are - the Irish are No. 1, and they have one game left. Vanquish USC, and the dream ride continues right on to a final destination of Miami. But don't expect the 7-4 Trojans to roll over. USC is athletic everywhere, especially with receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. With Lane Kiffin's job hanging in the balance, the Trojans will play their most inspired football of the season. But the Irish defense will give first-time starting quarterback Max Wittek fits and the running game will grind out a victory in the second half. It's not a dream anymore. It's reality - the Irish will be playing for the national championship.

FINAL SCORE: Notre Dame 23, USC 17

You can follow Allan Joseph on Twitter: @allanmjoseph. He is currently the editor-in-chief of The Observer and serves as a beat writer for the football team.

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