Notre Dame football: Are Trojans better or just happier?

ANALYSIS

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- On a weekend when I got a chance see reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel from start to finish in a game for the first time ever, my mind kept drifting back to idle Notre Dame. Same thing when I watched Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner again look very little like the guy who had Twitter hyperventilating over his Heisman chances a month ago, and while observing Oregon’s offense and its helmets, and while discovering just how bad Pac-12 officiating could be beyond the ASU-Wisconsin controversy of a few weeks ago. So what was the biggest takeaway? Here are two of them, as they pertain to the bye week-rested Irish (4-2), who restart their season Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium against arch-rival USC (4-2). And it all starts with cookies. Specifically, that USC is 3-2 without cookies at its training table and 1-0 with them. 1. The Trojans are different with Ed Orgeron at the joystick. But are they better? More to the point, are they better than Notre Dame? Vegas installed the Irish as an early three-point favorite. Statistically, the Trojans have better rankings nationally in all four major defensive categories (rush defense, pass-efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense) and all but passing offense in the four major offensive categories, yet their first-year starting quarterback, Cody Kessler, has a higher efficiency rating (145.0) than ND’s senior starter Tommy Rees (128.8). Three obvious weaknesses are special teams (the Trojans are dead last in kickoff returns, for example), turnover margin (79th) and sacks allowed (81st). A not-so-obvious weakness is pass defense. After Arizona State standout quarterback Taylor Kelly shredded the Trojans in a 62-41 rout, Arizona’s not-so-standout QB B.J. Denker did the same in a 38-31 Wildcat loss Thursday night, the first game with Orgeron as the USC interim head coach. Denker was 28-of-44 for 363 yards with no interceptions and four touchdowns. The Wildcats came into the game 118th out of 123 FBS teams in passing offense and 121st in passing-efficiency. And Denker had surpassed his career high in passing yards by halftime. The matchups and strategy seem to beg for a career game from Rees Saturday night against a team he has historically struggled against. Which brings us back to the cookies. It’s probably the most publicized of the many sweeping changes Orgeron has made, that is reinstating cookies to the Trojans’ training table, since Lane Kiffin was fired on the way home from a road trip to Arizona State roughly two weeks ago. Orgeron also reportedly catered in Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles after one practice. Predictably athletic director Pat Haden and the Trojan players can’t be effusive enough in their praise of the changes. But is all this euphoria sustainable? And will it translate into more wins? Those close to the program say Orgeron is changing things that, under different circumstances, he might not be inclined to make, just to be as much opposite of Kiffin as possible. Probably the most significant alterations are giving Kessler a little more rope to run the offense in a less predictable fashion and getting more bodies on the field at certain positions, especially running back. Which brings us to the most elusive number regarding USC, its depth. If you read and listen enough, you might believe that NCAA sanctions have the Trojans playing with a team of mostly walk-ons with the number of scholarship players dwindling each week. Here’s the reality. The NCAA has limited USC’s roster to 75 players, 10 fewer than everyone else not on probation. The team began the season with 74 and subtracted five players who are out for the season and one who is sitting out the season as a transfer. When you remove four long-time walk-ons who were awarded scholarships, you have 64. Using the same math on the Notre Dame roster, the Irish are at 72. But those 64 are purportedly at least happier because of Orgeron and his changes. One change he won’t be able to make, though, is the weather. The forecast for Saturday is a high of 52 degrees, low of 38 with widespread frost Saturday night. 2. Notre Dame’s postseason might not be bowl-licious. ND’s biggest perceptual hurdle in convincing voters it’s a top 25 team is Michigan. Purdue getting routed again and Oklahoma getting waxed by Texas didn’t help either. Even the computers are confused. Sagarin, for instance, has Notre Dame 33rd this week, five spots ahead of USC and one spot ahead of a Michigan team it lost to last month. Two teams the Irish beat are ranked ahead of them by Sagarin, significantly — Arizona State 19th and Michigan State 23rd. Keep in mind that Notre Dame must finish in the top 14 in the final BCS standing to be considered for the one of the BCS bowls, and the scenarios that would get them there with anything less than a 10-2 record appear to have evaporated. So what happens if the Irish do lose a game, or more? “I've got to tell you, I don't know that we even really have that in our mind set as much as the guys want to win football games on Saturday,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “And we just don't get too far ahead of ourselves, because we are staying in the present. And if we think about anything else but the next day of practice, we just — we just would be putting ourselves in peril. So they have done a great job since I've been here of just really trying to stay focused day to day.” Perhaps here’s why. ND’s exams end Dec. 20, so you can throw out the six pre-Christmas bowls — New Mexico, Idaho Potato, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, Hawaii — some of which didn’t have scenarios to land the Irish anyway. Here then are the five most likely bowl scenarios for a 9-3 or worse Irish team. Yankee Pinstripe, Dec. 28 at New York Matchup: Big 12 No. 7 vs. AAC No. 4: Five Big 12 teams seem well on their way to bowl eligibility. West Virginia (3-3) and TCU (3-3) both have some hurdles and they play each other as well. Poinsettia, Dec. 26 at San Diego Mountain West No. 2 vs. Army: The Cadets are 3-4, and the path of least resistance would be to sweep Temple, Air Force and Hawaii on the road to get to six wins. They also have Western Kentucky at home and the grudge match with Navy in the regular-season finale. Little Caesars, Dec. 26 at Detroit Mid-American vs. Big Ten No. 8: Penn State’s ineligibility makes it harder for the Big Ten to get to eight bowl-eligible teams, but it’s not mathematically impossible. Nine schools, including the Nittany Lions already are at four wins. Military, Dec. 27 at Annapolis, Md. ACC No. 8 vs. CUSA No. 6: Conference USA may struggle to get to six bowl-eligible teams. Independence, Dec. 31 at Shreveport, La. SEC No. 10 vs. ACC No. 7: Ole Miss figures to join the eight SEC teams that already have four or more wins as the league’s ninth bowl-eligible SEC team. Vanderbilt (3-3) or Tennessee (3-3) would need a strong finish to push it to 10.

Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly agues a call with officials during the Shamrock Series game between Notre Dame and Arizona State on Saturday, October 5, 2013, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN