BY SHANNON O'KEEFE
NOTRE DAME INSIDER
USC, the most successful college football team in the country since 2002, is struggling this season following a wave of injuries among its roster. Add to that a tumultuous plane ride to South Bend this week, after which Dennis Slutak, USC’s director of football operations told The Los Angeles Times, "There was a moment there when I was thinking, 'This is it.'" -- you have a team ripe for being upset. Unfortunately for the Irish, Stanford got to them first.
It’s true that the Trojans look somewhat vulnerable going into Saturday’s game against the Irish, but let’s not forget that the Irish aren’t exactly invincible themselves this season. If “invincible” is even to be used in the same sentence as the present Notre Dame team, it might only be to invite comparisons with that Mark Wahlberg movie, in which football didn’t look sexy and the hometown team didn’t win games.
Favored by 17 points, a win at South Bend would give the Trojans their sixth straight win against the Irish. Heisman hopeful John David Booty will likely miss another start with a broken finger on his throwing hand, leaving third-year sophomore Mark Sanchez to make his second start. This injury, not to mention the many others that will leave starters on the bench, will certainly be a boon to the Irish defense, which has provided the highlight reel to date this season, and continues to be the difference maker in each game.
Still, the Trojans are down but not out. Coach Pete Carroll thinks many of his injured players will see action against the Irish, including leading rusher Stafon Johnson, linebackers Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga, cornerbacks Terrell Thomas and Shareece Wright and offensive lineman Chilo Rachal.
For the Irish, junior Evan Sharpley will replace Jimmy Clausen at quarterback, marking Sharpley’s first official start for the Irish. He will be the third quarterback to start this year, as the Irish continue to struggle mightily on offense. The Irish are only averaging 32.1 yards rushing per game, the worst in the nation, and leading rusher James Aldridge will likely be out of Saturday’s game with an injury. Look for freshman Armando Allen to get more carries, but he still doesn’t have the heft to get very far. Sophomore Robby Parris should connect with Sharpley on a few long balls, with John Carlson carrying some offensive weight and showing his young teammates how to play up for the big game.
The Irish have been making strides as of late, and are fashioning themselves into a team that won’t lose forever. Once they can start making steady gains on offense, capitalizing on penalty freebies, and giving the defense a little more time to rest between downs, they may actually win another game. Or at least come very close. Go Irish!
PHOTO CREDIT: COLLEGIATE IMAGES