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It comes down to defense

Forget the Notre Dame-USC hype and offensive firepower mystique and get down to what really matters when the college football world focuses on the Los Angeles Coliseum tonight: defense.

Yes, we know all about the defensive theme preached for the Ohio State-Michigan epic, and look what happened. But this time, this time, with these teams, it really will come down to defense and not who has the ball last.

Defense really will decide this game, but not in the manner of a 10-7 score.

It comes down to two questions:

Can Notre Dame's defense contain USC?

Can USC's defense contain Notre Dame?

Here's the cold truth - no and yes.

The Irish's big-play-allowing defense hasn't shown the knack for dictating to opposing offenses. They've had their moments, but they should when going against the likes of Stanford, UCLA (without its starting quarterback) and Navy. And yet, despite a soft schedule, Notre Dame ranks 47th in scoring defense, allowing 20.45 points.

USC has balance. USC has skill. USC has small forward-sized receivers who run really, really fast. Yes, those receivers would lose to Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski in the ring, but nobody is going anywhere near a ring, unless you count the jeweled Super Bowl bling on Charlie Weis' finger.

Plus, the Trojans are playing on the short grass of the Los Angeles Coliseum, instead of the long grass of Notre Dame Stadium.

Notre Dame won't stop the Trojans unless these two things happen:

Defensive end Victor Abiamiri spends the game in quarterback John David Booty's face, followed by:

Defensive tackles Trevor Laws and Derek Landri spend the game in the Trojan backfield. And they haven't faced USC's offensive line (average size 299 pounds).

USC's offense might be down (31.1 points, 392.2 yards), but its defense ranks 11th nationally (14.2 points allowed).

USC has won 32 straight at home, has beaten Notre Dame four straight times and coach Pete Carroll is 19-0 in November.

"All I know is the guy, in the last 57 games the guy played, they won 54 of them," Weis said. "I mean, if you give me that record right now, I'll take the next four years off. Go ahead, give me that record right now, I'll take a little siesta."

Five things

1. The last USC quarterback to have started at least 10 games and not won a Pac-10 championship during his Trojan career? That would be Mike Van Raaphorst, above, who started 15 games for the Trojans from 1997-2000. USC's best finish during those years was 8-5 and third place in 1998.

2. Chris Miller wasn't just counting down the days until he left Iraq and returned home with his National Guard company this month. He also couldn't wait to go to the Clemson-South Carolina game today. But Miller, a 2003 Clemson graduate, didn't have tickets, even after spending time overseas looking for them. So he e-mailed Tigers coach Tommy Bowden and athletic director Terry Don Phillips to find out where he could buy a pair. Clemson's ticket office called him back. Phillips had two complimentary tickets for him. "This a nice welcome-home present." Miller said. "It ranks right up there with seeing my newborn son. It's not quite there, but it's close."

3. Georgia coach Mark Richt certainly knows the importance of beating today's opponent, Georgia Tech. His predecessor, Jim Donnan, had a solid record (40-19) but was fired after three straight losses to the Yellow Jackets. "It's just a huge game for Georgia, a huge game for Georgia Tech," Richt said. "It means an awful lot to everybody in this program, and I know that people who are decision-makers as far as who's the coach and who's not the coach, I think they like to beat Tech, too."

4. For the fourth time in a decade, Duke is staring down the possibility of a winless season. The Blue Devils (0-11) end the season today at home against North Carolina. Duke went winless in 1996, 2000 and 2001.

5. Arizona dropped its first three conference games by a combined score of 68-20, but since then has won four of five, including victories over then-No. 25 Washington State, then-No. 8 Cal and a rout of Oregon. Arizona's last bowl trip was in 1998, but a win today over Arizona State would end that drought.

Quotable

"We don't lobby our players on behalf of any national awards and we don't lobby as a program. Our team and program lets our performance speak for itself. If we got an invitation to the Rose Bowl, Michigan would be honored to play in it."

Bill Martin, Michigan athletic director, with a welcome thought amid major BCS whining and lobbying.

By the numbers

5 Straight bowl appearances by Wisconsin with this week's acceptance of a Capital One invitation, tying a school record.

8 Pages of accomplishments read by fired North Texas coach Darrell Dickey at his final news conference Tuesday. He gave a 40-minute summation/defense of his nine seasons.

10 Games with a 100-yard rusher by Oklahoma, behind an offensive line that has three sophomores and a freshman, and with injuries to Adrian Peterson and Allen Patrick.

22 Yards needed by Robert Meachem, above, to set a Tennessee record for receiving yards in a season, beating Marcus Nash's 1,170 in 1997.

48 Touchdown passes by Hawaii's Colt Brennan, who has three games left to challenge the single-season record for TDs, 54 by Houston's David Klingler.

82.6 Winning percentage (19-4 record) of Charlie Weis as his second season at Notre Dame winds down, better than Ara Parseghian's after two seasons (82.5) and Frank Leahy's (80) and not far behind Knute Rockne's (86.6).

Compiled by Times staff writer John Strickhouser using information from the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and the Fort Wayne ( Ind.) News-Sentinel.

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