Preview: Notre Dame at USC
The greatest intersectional rivalry is extended, as USC and Notre will ink the 84th chapter on the final weekend of the regular season. The 2012 edition pits BCS No. 1 against the preseason No. 1. It pairs a program that has exceeded expectations, with another that has underachieved. It’s a meeting of third-year coaches, with one reeling the praises of success, and the other currently under fire. It’s a game with national championship implications, as it always should be. It’s the Trojans and Irish, deep in rivalry and legacy, and presenting another group of gridiron stars to etch their names in history.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (11-0)
National Rank: 1 (AP), 1 (Coaches), 1 (BCS)
Last week: Notre Dame 38, Wake Forest 0
Everett Golson is the biggest difference between the Irish offense today and the one from a year ago. He’s not the mistake prone quarterback that Tommy Rees (14 INT) was in 2011. The sophomore, in his first year under center, has thrown just 5 interceptions through 11 games. He is a game manager that is asked to do just enough to keep his team ahead. Golson has just 11 touchdown passes to date, but 7 have come in the last three weeks. What he can’t do through the air, he will achieve with his legs, with the dual-threat performer also adding 5 rushing touchdowns to his total.
Senior Theo Riddick and Southern California product, Cierre Wood, receive the bulk of the ball carrying duties. The pair has combined for 1,454 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns, with Wood averaging 7.1 yards per carry. Tight End Tyler Eifert and WR T.J. Jones tie for the team lead in receptions (40). The Irish offensive line has allowed just 15 sacks, while powering the rush to an average of 200 yards per game.
Notre Dame enters with one of the best defenses in the country. No program allows fewer points per game (10.1), or has surrendered fewer touchdowns to season opponents (8). It’s a unit spearheaded by linebacker Manti Te’O, who leads the team in both tackles and interceptions. The senior is on pace to become the first Irish player to lead the team in tackles in 3 consecutive years, since Bob Crable accomplished the feat from 1979-1981. His 6 interceptions lead all FBS linebackers in the category.
The Irish rank 5th nationally for rushing defense (92.18), 24th versus the pass (195.64), and 6th in total defense (287.82).
USC Trojans (7-4)
National rank: none
Last week: UCLA 38, USC 28
This is Brian Kelly’s second trip to Los Angeles, and the second time he will face a Trojan offense playing without its starting quarterback. Notre Dame snapped an 8-game losing streak to archrival USC, eking out a 20-16 victory in 2010. An injured Matt Barkley watched that game from the Trojans sideline, after suffering a leg injury the previous week against Oregon State . Barkley will repeat his role of spectator on Saturday, as he watches a freshman make his first start.
Lane Kiffin announced that Max Wittek will start this weekend in place of the injured Barkley. The freshman possesses a bigger arm than his predecessor, but has been utilized sparingly to close lopsided ballgames. His season stat line reads 8 completions on 9 attempts, throwing for 89 yards and a touchdown. He has been an efficient reliever, player error-free in his few snaps. And If there was a question about his confidence level, the answer was provided earlier this week.
“We haven’t got the full game plan yet, but from what I can tell, we’re going to play our offense, whatever coach (Lane) Kiffin feels comfortable giving me. If he wants to air it out, let’s air it out. If he wants to pound it on the ground, let’s do that. Like I said, I’m going to go out there, I’m going to play within myself, within the system, and we’re going to win this ballgame.”—Max Wittek
To win this ballgame, he’s going to need help, and lots of it. And he may get that help from Curtis McNeal, who has come on strong in the last two weeks. The senior back has run for 324 yards in the two games leading up to his home finale, which amounts to nearly half his season total in just eight quarters of play. Set to return is Silas Redd, who had become the primary ball carrier before being shelved the last two weeks with an undisclosed injury.
The Trojans are set to defend a spread offense for the fourth consecutive week, and to say it hasn’t fared well is an understatement. The unit has slid to 49th overall in rushing defense, after appearing as an immovable object through the season’s first half. With the struggle to defend the run, there is an increase in scores, with USC now allowing opponents 24.82 points per game. Southern California also allows 241.73 passing yards per game, for a total defense ranking of 58th nationally.
Analysis: USC will possess the more talented offensive unit on Saturday, but it is only as good as its quarterback. It was Robert Woods (12-119-2), and not Marqise Lee, that torched the Irish a year ago in South Bend. But a repeat performance with Wittek at the helm remains to be seen. Oklahoma (11) was the best statistical offense the Irish faced to date, and the Sooners were limited to just a single touchdown on their home field. USC enters with an offense currently ranked 27th overall, and is crippled at a key position.
X-Factor– Max Wittek– Matt Barkley has missed just two starts in his Trojan career, and in each instance, coaches played conservatively and replacements performed poorly. Aaron Corp went 13/22 for only 110 yards and no touchdowns in USC’s 2009 loss to Washington. And Mitch Mustain finished 20/37 for 177 yards and no TDs in the 2010 loss to Notre Dame. Southern California’s season goals are out of reach, so it may be better to let the freshman loose than to play for another day that isn’t coming.
All-Time Series: Notre Dame leads 43-35-5
Streak: USC has won 1
Last Meeting: USC 31, Notre Dame 17 (South Bend)
- Notre Dame is ranked No. 1 in the polls for the first time since 1993
- Notre Dame is the first team since 2007 Missouri to begin a season unranked and climb to No. 1
- Saturday’s battle in the Coliseum will feature BCS No. 1 vs Preseason No. 1
- Notre Dame is the first school to be ranked BCS No. 1 and No. 1 in graduation success rate
- Brian Kelly is making his second trip to the Coliseum as an Irish head coach, and for a second time will face an unranked USC team
- Notre Dame will face a USC replacement quarterback for the second time in 3 years, and each time in Los Angeles.
- The Irish are 27-7-2 all-time when playing on the road as the No. 1 ranked team
- Notre Dame is 5-2 versus USC when ranked No. 1 in the polls
- The Trojans are 21-18-4 versus the Irish in Los Angeles
- The Irish defense is allowing an FBS low 10.1 points per game
- The Notre Dame defense has allowed just 8 touchdowns through 11 games
- Matt Barkley will not start for only the third time in his Trojan career. USC lost the previous 2 games, and each by 4-points or less.
- Replacing an injured Matt Barkley, Aaron Corp (2009 Washington) and Mitch Mustain (2010 Notre Dame) combined for zero passing touchdowns on 59 attempts
- Marqise Lee needs only 5 receptions to break the Pac 12 single-season record, which was established by teammate Robert Woods (111).
- Curtis McNeal has rushed for a combined 324 yards in the last two games, which is nearly half his season total.
- Lane Kiffin is 0-3 in 2012 versus nationally ranked opponents, and holds a record of 3-9 overall as a head coach versus ranked teams.