- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

Touchdown Jesus might want to consider playing some snaps at safety.

When Notre Dame’s 12th man gazes down upon the game’s most sacred sod this afternoon, he will see a Southern Cal offense immune to any defense short of divine intervention.

Today’s matchup between the top-ranked Trojans (5-0) and No. 9 Notre Dame (4-1) has been anxiously awaited all season as the ultimate hairpin turn in USC’s road to the Rose Bowl for a shot at an unprecedented three-peat. But in order to author the upset stunner of the season, the Irish will have to stop the most daunting offensive juggernaut in the history of the college game.

Moments after USC demolished Arkansas 70-17, Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt marveled: “[Quarterback] Matt Leinart is like a coach out there, and they have all the weapons you need or could hope for. They can score so fast it messes you up. As long as Matt Leinart is healthy and [flanker] Reggie Bush is healthy, there isn’t a way [to stop them]. That’s the best offensive team I’ve ever seen.”

Nutt shouldn’t feel bad. It’s the best offensive team anyone has ever seen.

Through the first five games of the season, the Trojans have put up the kind of offensive numbers for which Steve Spurrier would sell his soul. USC has crushed its opponents by an average score of 52-19 while threatening to rewrite the NCAA record books.

The Trojans are averaging 640.4 yards a game in total offense, more than 70 yards more than the nation’s next most productive team (Michigan State at 566.4) and comfortably ahead of the NCAA-record output of Houston’s 1989 squad (624.9).

Behind the thunder and lightning running back combo of LenDale White (123.2 yards a game) and Bush (8.5 yards a carry), the Trojans lead the nation in rushing (291.2 yards). And with defending Heisman Trophy winner Leinart (108-for-166 for 1,646 yards, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions) directing an aerial assault that includes targets like Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett and tight end Dominique Byrd, the Trojans rank fourth in the nation in passing offense (349.2 yards).

Behind an offensive line that features no less than six likely NFL Draft picks, that unparalleled combination of balance and talent has made USC the most efficient offensive machine in history. The Trojans average an astounding 8.1 yards a play, better than the NCAA mark set by Army in 1945 (7.9). Of their 67 possessions this season, 34 have resulted in touchdowns, 36 in scores and only 13 in punts.

“Their firepower is evident,” said Notre Dame first-year coach Charlie Weis, who appreciates such efficiency as the mastermind behind the New England offense that won three of the last four Super Bowls. “The most impressive thing is that USC is on pace to be the first group with a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard rushers [Bush and White] and two 1,000-yard receivers [Smith and Jarrett]. That’s kind of scary.”

So how do you stop such a squad?

Not even the Leprechaun himself would say an Irish defense ranked 114th (out of 117 Division I-A teams) could handle the feat without some help.

Nutt suggested injury was the best defense. Interestingly, Leinart is still less than 100 percent after suffering a concussion two weeks ago against Arizona State. And Bush, this season’s Heisman favorite with his dazzling combination of speed and power, tweaked his right knee last week against Arizona. An MRI on Monday revealed no damage, but perhaps Bush will be reduced to semi-immortal today against the Irish.

But most have suggested the only forces capable of slowing USC come from within the dynasty — penalties, turnovers, complacency, internal sniping. All of the above have made significant appearances for the Trojans this season. Feeling underappreciated after getting just one carry in the first half of USC’s opening blowout of Hawaii, White barked a bit.

“I have no clue at all what’s going on,” he said. “You have Bush on the team, and that’s what happens.”

And a combination of penalties, turnovers and questionable focus has resulted in three consecutive lackluster USC performances heading into today’s showdown. The Trojans fell behind Oregon 13-0 before reeling off 45 unanswered points, trailed Arizona State 21-3 at the half before rallying for a 38-28 victory and led lowly Arizona (1-4) just 28-21 after three quarters before piling on a pair of late touchdowns last week.

But it’s likely a different USC team will show up today, a Trojan horse that has been waiting in the gates all season for today’s national spotlight sprint.

“We understand that we still haven’t played our best game. We were close against Arkansas, but perfection is still out there,” White said earlier this week. “We’ve been waiting for this one. We know what’s at stake, and we know everyone will be watching. Focus won’t be a problem.”

If that mind-set is universal among the uber-talented Trojans, it could prove to be an insurmountable problem for the Irish.

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