1. Notre Dame has historically struggled over the past 10 years against USC, finding its inspiration for a perfect regular-season clinching win at the Coliseum last season. Thanks in large part to some inspiring play from MLB and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o, the Irish defense was among the tops in the nation. Without Te'o and Jarrett Grace for this contest, what can the Trojans expect from this ND defense?
Well, similar to last season, Notre Dame's defense is a bend-but-don't-break outfit, reverting back after some dabbling earlier in the season with some more man coverage, high-pressure looks. The not-quite-seasoned secondary struggled in man coverage early, and gave up some big plays, and we've seen ND go back to making teams have long, sustained drives to beat them.
The defense is still built on the backs of the extremely strong front. Louis Nix is a monster, and he is flanked by Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt. The power up front allows us to only commit what is barely necessary to stop the run, and help out our pass defense.
Like you said, the biggest area of concern for most Irish fans is right in the middle of the field, especially with the loss of our promising LB Jarrett Grace. Bob Diaco made some adjustments that worked well against Arizona State to take away the quick passes over the middle, so we'll see what he has up his sleeve to shore up the ILB position heading into this weekend.
2. The dual-threat Everrett Golson is not playing with the team this season giving way to once passed over QB Tommy Rees. In your opinion, what has made Rees so successful in the passing game this season, after an injury-laden career to this point. And secondly, how will he look to attack USC's rather suspect secondary?
Successful is a very strong word. He has some very good stats, like his YPA, but he has been at or under 50% passing more than once this season. He has an extremely limited arm, and is at some points wildly inaccurate.
In spite of this, the team around him has given him a great opportunity to succeed and minimize his mistakes. The offensive line is second in the country in sacks allowed per pass attempt, and the corps of receivers and tight ends (especially TJ Jones and Troy Niklas) really make the most of what Tommy Rees has to offer.
I would expect to see what we have seen all season from Rees in the passing game. There will be a focus on getting the ball downfield in the passing game, with plenty of fade routes, hoping for pass interference or a great catch by our wideouts. I would expect next to no throws over the middle, limiting the possibility of an interception from a somewhat inaccurate pass. Rees will make sure he is checking to the easy throws, and will do his best to play within the offense.
3. Notre Dame came out firing in Jerry's World taking down the Arizona State Sun Devils in close fashion. After watching the Sun Devils torch USC for 62 points, using plenty of quick-hitting drives and spread looks, how much confidence does ND take heading knowing the transitive property sits heavily in their favor?
I'm sure ND's last game against ASU gave them some sorely needed confidence following the loss to Oklahoma. I would hope that they are hesitant to apply the transitive property to the game this Saturday, as USC-Notre Dame is rarely predictable, and certainly will break the transitive property rules.
I think there's plenty to see on tape for the Irish for them to feel they have the advantage in a lot of areas, and hopefully they can use and abuse those areas come Saturday.
4. The Irish and Trojans are obviously intense rivals dating back far beyond my or your lifetime, but given the lack of national championship implication and grand finale for MICH vs. ND along with momentous clashesfor city bragging rights between USC and UCLA, do you feel this matchup bears the same significance as it once did say 10 years ago in the infamous "Bush-Push" game in ND?
Nationally, no, it doesn't have the same significance. Within the ND fanbase, this is still the biggest rivalry we have on our schedule, and it has plenty of significance. Add in the fact it is a night game, potential revenge for the huge turd we laid in 2011, and a big time recruiting weekend for the Irish, and it is extremely significant for the Irish, both this season and moving forward.
5. George Atkinson has at times looked like on the most physically intimidating backs in the nation, but will face a rough test against USC's front-seven, most notably sophomore stalwart Leonard Williams. Will the Irish look to establish the run early on and to the point, does the play-action game figure to play a large role?
I think the answer all ND fans will tell you is "we hope so." Brian Kelly has not been afraid to use the pass to set up the run, and if USC comes out loading the box, he'll let Tommy Rees throw the bean all over the yard. There has been plenty of desire from the fans for CBK to just line up and pound it every once in a while, but that is not his style if it's not what the defense is giving him.
I think we see a balanced attack early in the game from the Irish, as I don't expect USC to crowd the box. If the ND run game gets going, I think playaction to Troy Niklas and our downfield receivers will become a large threat.
6. How do you feel the game will unfold, and what one-liner can you best come up with to describe the post-game conversation surrounding the losing team?
I've been using the "best/worst/most likely" format for most of my predictions this year, and I'll do the same here:
Best case for Notre Dame: The Irish are able to establish the run game, which opens up the whole playbook on offense, while still limiting the risks Rees needs to make. The defense performs extremely well, having their way with a seemingly overmatched offensive line, and generating a few turnovers. Notre Dame's depth and conditioning start showing in the second half and they pull away late. ND 38 - USC 17
Worst case for Notre Dame: This one's simple. USC comes out guns blazing, and hits on a few big plays very quickly. Notre Dame goes into throw-it mode and Tommy Rees turns the ball over a few times. ND's defense puts up a valiant effort, but short fields and little support from the offense mean they had no chance from the start. ND pulls back a bit at the end, but the damage has already been done. ND 21 - USC 31
Most likely scenario: The Irish come out in a balanced attack, with some modest success, but some stalled drives mixed in. Notre Dame's defense is able to shut down the USC run game, forcing the ball into Cody Kessler's hands. Bend but don't break is in full effect, and ND is able to limit USC to field goals. The first half is tight, but ends somewhere near ND 13 - USC 6. The second half begins, and ND is able to find some more success on offense, and their defense begins to generate more pressure on Kessler as the depth and conditioning start showing their effect. USC is able to put some more points on the board, but the game never seemed in doubt once ND got into half with the lead. USC puts a late TD + 2PT on the board, but ND takes the ensuing kickoff and kills the clock with a methodical drive, highlighted by Cam McDaniel. ND 27 - USC 17
Post game conversation surrounding the USC Trojans: "Even with cookies, it's still an uphill battle."