The Notre Dame/University of Southern California game on Saturday, under the lights and going off the rails at Notre Dame, will be the twelve thousandth meeting between the two schools, who have been playing college football since the reign of Ximodines LVI. It is also a match between two schools which started the season with highly-ranked defenses and aspirations to much higher poll rankings than either one brings into the game. In fact, that could be story enough, given the histories the programs carry with them, some years as jaunty walking-sticks and some years as albatrosses. To underline the importance, Notre Dame’s head coach Brian Kelly noted that “[his players] recognize it as our rivalry game.” Take that, Skunkbear.
The Trojans of 2013 are a team of enormous potential and problems, now dealing with the mid-season firing of their former head coach, Lane Kiffin. Hesiman hopefuls Marquise Lee and Silas Redd have battled injuries, with Redd, notably, missing the first five games completely. Heading into Saturday, Lee is likely to play.
This is a game of huge importance to the Irish, who cannot afford anymore losses if they hope to play in a BCS bowl. And, on the outside of the Top 25, Notre Dame desperately needs a win to claw its way back in, to set up a meaningful game in November against the Cardinal of Stanford. Aside from its rivalry status, this year’s USC game is a test of two coaches, one ensconced, but constantly questioned, the other new, with a questioned past.
USC is just starting to begin its walk of shame from Lane Kiffin’s house, a house, incidentally, which it could reclaim under the terms of its contract with the disgraced former coach. Having broken it off with Kiffin after a disastrous trip to Tempe, USC
has gone all in are happy to have Ed Orgeron as their interim head coach.
Orgeron is a cajun. He’s from Galliano, in Lafourche Parish, and has deep ties to the bayou, playing his high school ball at South Lafourche High with The Cajun Cannon, Bobby Hebert. He’s been coaching since 1984, first at Northwestern State, then at McNeese, both here in Louisiana. Then, he did two years at Arkansas before falling in with Jimmy Johnson and the Miami Hurricanes. But, like many a coonass surrounded by hurricanes, Orgeron’s life was thrown into disarray, as he flew from self-induced crises to self-induced crises, ultimately leaving the game altogether in October of 1992.
To his credit, Orgeron paid his dues and returned to football, first as a volunteer coach, then as a D-line coach at Syracuse. From there, in 1998, he joined USC, which he left in 2004 after being recognized as the National Recruiter of the Year. Taking the reigns at Mississippi, he either drove the program into the groundor just couldn’t pull the nose up on a program that was crashing and burning around him. You tell me. Regardless, he was fired from Ole Miss in 2007, did a season with the New Orleans Saints in 2008, and then landed at the University of Tennessee under Lane Kiffin, who smuggled him out under his burkha while disguised as a woman in the back of a Toyota pickup when the two fled to Los Angeles in January of 2010.
Before being named the interim head coach this season, Orgeron continued his former role as recruiting coordinator and also coached the D-line. Since he had a strong hand in recruiting his players, the passionate and familial manner in which some of them addressed the media after the Arizona game is readily understandable. In short, if you’re expecting SC’s players to quit on their coach, you’ve got another thing coming. They might quit on themselves, but they won’t quit on Ed.
Notre Dame’s head coach was asked specifically about coaching against Orgeron in yesterday’s press conference. Kelly was complimentary, noting that Orgeron is “a veteran” who has the Trojans “playing with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.” And Kelly seems focused on playing the USC of 2013, not the ghosts of Orgerons past. When asked if he and his staff looked back to Orgeron’s Ole Miss days, Kelly said they had not.
While I’m not saying they should have, Orgeron displayed the boldness of the bayou in noteworthy fashion when he coached the Rebels. In his final game, a 17-14 loss to Mississippi State, Orgeron went for it on fourth and one in the fourth quarter, at mid-field, and up by fourteen. The Rebels failed to convert and went on to give up seventeen straight points. That sealed Orgeron’s fate, after seasons of failing to amass a number of wins that had any sort of correlation to the talent he was recruiting. It’s a little ironic, then, that those same recruits ran all over Orgeron’s Tennessee defensive line when the schools met in 2009 in Oxford, beating the Volunteers 42-17.
Whatever Orgeron did or didn’t do at Ole Miss, it’s the players he recruited we need to contend with on Saturday. Their D-line was a preseason favorite of the pundits. Speaking of preseason punditry, I’m a bit enamoured with this one from August. Especially the bit about the Trojans falling to the Sun Devils, having their “mediocre O-line” “decimated” by the Irish defense, and their season sprialling “out of control” after losing in South Bend. From your mouth to God’s ears.
So, expect Orgeron to play to his team’s strengths, which will be to put a likely healthy Lee against Notre Dame’s questionable secondary whenever possible and use a five- to six-deep stable of backs to keep the Irish guessing. Expect Orgeron’s players to match his intensity in what is a make or break game for Notre Dame’s BCS hopes and perhaps the only game standing betwen Troy and the abyss.