After bye week, Irish ready to go for USC

Notre Dame is well rested after a bye week, a break that came just at right time for the Irish with Southern California coming to town.

Star linebacker Manti Te'o was able to recover from an ankle injury that slowed him against Air Force, and defensive end Ethan Johnson has been cleared to play after an ankle injury against Purdue forced him to sit out the following week.

Both will be needed as the Irish (4-2) try to win their fifth straight by slowing down a potent offensive attack from USC (5-1) in a rare Saturday night game at Notre Dame Stadium. It's the first home game under the lights for the Irish since 1990.

"Our bye week was productive in that we got some work with some of our younger players, and I got an opportunity to rest up our guys that are banged up a little bit," coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. "We had a very aggressive, vigorous six weeks of competition, so it came at the right time for us."

Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley has passed for 1,782 yards through six games. Sophomore Robert Woods and freshman Marqise Lee have emerged as big-play threats from the wide receiver position.

"They're well-rounded," said Irish outside linebacker Darius Fleming said. "They're going to be a challenge, but I think we've been preparing really well this week and I think it will definitely show on Saturday."

Fleming's ability to drop into coverage or rush the passer will be critical in disrupting the USC passing game by pressuring Barkley, a task that's been hard to do this season. USC's offensive line has only surrendered four sacks this year while Notre Dame has 15 sacks through five games.

"If you let (Barkley) sit back there, he's going to make plays," Fleming said. "With Woods being the dynamic player that he is, you have to put pressure on (Barkley) because you can't let him just run around with our DBs out there."

Notre Dame will also need to run the ball effectively to keep the USC offense off the field.

The Irish rushing attack has developed into a formidable threat, a big change from the recent past. Notre Dame is averaging 190 yards on the ground this season, an important part in Kelly's spread offense.

"I've always felt that in running the spread, if you don't have the ability to run the football first, then you've got to take the tight end off the field," Kelly said. "You've got to play with four wide receivers, and that is not really the style we want to play."

A cohesive offensive line has been crucial in opening holes for running backs Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. The coaching staff's confidence in the running attack can be seen in short yardage situations when the Irish will hand the ball off instead of trying to complete a pass to one of their talented receivers.

"I think the balance is necessary," guard Trevor Robinson said. "I think any offensive lineman wants to run the ball on third and one and know that your play-caller has the confidence in you to get that done."

The Irish bring a little momentum to the rivalry after winning last year in Los Angeles after an eight-game losing streak in the series.

Still, the Trojans have won four consecutive games in South Bend and five out of the last seven. This weekend's game is guaranteed to be different in at least one way: it will be played at night.

"Clearly our players are looking forward to being that one game at night at Notre Dame Stadium," Kelly said. "They haven't experienced anything (like this), so this is a first-time experience. Like anybody else, they love those first-time experiences."


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