W2W4: USC-Notre Dame

November, 23, 2012
11/23/12
8:44
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- The unranked USC Trojans will try to spoil the undefeated season of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (No. 1 BCS, No. 1 AP) on Saturday at the Coliseum (5 p.m. PT, ABC).

Of course, they'll attempt it without senior starting quarterback Matt Barkley, who's out for the game with a sprained throwing shoulder. Redshirt freshman Max Wittek will start in his place.

Here are 10 things to watch in a game that will be Wittek's debut as a starter:

1. Max Wittek. We know he's talented, we know he's young, we know he's not nervous -- the latter, according to his coach. So what can we actually expect from him? If the way Lane Kiffin called the USC-Notre Dame two years ago is any indication, Wittek won't get too many chances to throw the ball deep early. When Mitch Mustain replaced the injured Barkley two years ago, Kiffin called for short passes almost exclusively. Mustain ended up with 37 pass attempts and just 177 yards passing, meaning he averaged less than five yards per attempt. If Wittek's numbers look like that Saturday, it'll be a bad sign.

2. Pro-style O. If there's one thing that bodes really well for the Trojans this week, it's Notre Dame's style of offense. The Irish run a traditional scheme, and the offenses that have given USC so much trouble in recent weeks were spread-focused. Despite Monte Kiffin's best efforts to orient his defense to defend the spread, the Trojans are still far better against offenses similar to their own. "It's no secret," Kiffin said this week.

3. Marqise and Manti. It's unlikely that Marqise Lee or Manti Te'o will actually win the Heisman, but having two of the top 10 candidates for college football's top award in the same game is certainly intriguing. There's a good chance at least one of them will earn a trip to New York City for the trophy presentation, too, and this game will help decide which one gets to go. Lee's numbers are more impressive, but Te'o's team has obviously done a lot better. If the Irish win again Saturday, it's hard to argue that their best player doesn't deserve to be a finalist. Lee turns 21 on Sunday, but his last moment in the spotlight for another nine months will come Saturday. USC's high-profile string of games isn't likely to continue into bowl season.

4. The Stanford games. These teams have played such different schedules, it's hard to compare them against similar opponents. But there is one team they've both faced: the Stanford Cardinal. USC lost to Stanford 21-14 in Palo Alto, and Notre Dame beat Stanford 20-13 at home. All coaches caution against reading too much into same-opponent performances, but it's worth noting how similar the games were. Notre Dame needed a final-minute field goal to force overtime against Stanford and a miraculous goal-line stand in overtime to secure the win.

5. That D. Guess how many times this season Notre Dame has given up more than 14 points in a game? The answer is twice. The Irish haven't allowed more than 20 in regulation all season. They've held the four ranked teams they played to an average of less than nine points, so there's not exactly a precedent for good teams to do better, either.

6. Eifert. Kiffin pointed out this week that the Trojans have run into a string of good tight ends this season, and he's right. Mammoth UCLA target Joseph Fauria was just the latest last week, and his four catches for 61 yards wasn't an insane line, though every catch seemed to come at a key moment. Will Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert, the leading receiver for the Irish, be quarterback Everett Golson's safety valve on Saturday? The Trojans don't have anyone who matches up with his 6-foot-6, 251-pound frame. If they can shut him down, they might be able to shut down the rest of the ND offense.

7. A run game. The biggest carry-over from Notre Dame's biggest wins this season is this: run defense. The Irish don't let good teams run the ball against them. If Curtis McNeal doesn't get going Saturday, it'll be difficult for USC to pull off the upset. And that doesn't just require McNeal to be good -- it requires Kiffin to commit to running the ball, which he did not do against UCLA. A healthy Silas Redd would help a lot, too, but he has been nursing an ankle injury the past couple of weeks.

8. Heidari's issues. It might seem unimportant, but in a game likely to be low-scoring and close, Andre Heidari's health is something to monitor. The sophomore kicker has really struggled this season after doing so well a year ago. Of course, the torn meniscus he suffered in September is at least partially responsible, but Kiffin said this week that he hasn't lost any trust in Heidari, who has missed five field-goal attempts and two extra-point tries this season after missing just two total kicks a year ago.

9. Turnovers. With everything USC has done wrong in its three losses over the past month, the Trojans might have won every single one of those games if they had just matched their opponent's turnover total. They turned it over eight total times more than Arizona, Oregon and UCLA in those three losses, and those lost drives proved, over and over again, to be the difference. If USC doesn't give Notre Dame more possessions, it's conceivable the Trojans can put up as many points as the Irish.

10. A prediction. Wittek is not the type of teenager to get overwhelmed by a situation. He'll be able to hold his own against the Irish. But he is still is a teenager, so he's bound to make a couple of mistakes. Those could end up being the difference, especially since Notre Dame's defense hasn't exactly been giving up a ton of points. Red-zone turnovers will be killer for the Trojans on Saturday, and, unfortunately, they've been all too common the past few weeks. Notre Dame 24, USC 14.

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