LOS ANGELES -- When USC senior tailback Marc Tyler left the game against California with a dislocated shoulder, it opened up the possibility that the Trojans would be without their leading rusher for this Saturday's game at Notre Dame.
Officially, the Trojans are noncommittal about Tyler's status and have yet to confirm that another back will take his place. Unofficially, the signs point to junior Curtis McNeal starting when the game kicks off in South Bend, Ind.
"Marc is still our starter until he's called out," USC running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu said. "Our other guys are always preparing to be 'the guy.' They're all ready to go."
As much as the Trojans would miss the veteran presence of Tyler, there is plenty of optimism that McNeal is ready for this opportunity. McNeal offers a change-of-pace style from the standard USC tailback. He's not a big guy (5-foot-7, 180 pounds) but he is a strong runner with shifty moves who has shown good production in limited time this season. He led the way against Cal with 86 yards on 17 carries.
"The kid runs with violence," Polamalu said. "He's just a tough kid. He ran hard against California. He knew the angles, he knew who was unblocked. His football IQ is really good. That, to me, is where we as running backs are getting better and better. "
McNeal is toeing the company line right now, but it's clear the experience he got last week gives him some momentum as the team prepares for the Fighting Irish.
"I was able to get my feet wet a little bit more against Cal," McNeal said. "In other games I would go in and get a few carries, but in this game I got multiple touches, and it gets you more pumped as a football player, because you see things you wouldn't normally see from the sidelines. I saw a lot last game, and I'm ready for this game.
"It would be a huge confidence booster. When you're a backup you're always hungry, so this would be a great opportunity on a national stage to show everybody what I've got."
There aren't many better ways to make a mark at USC than by having a good game against Notre Dame. This is the kind of rivalry in which heroes are remembered by what they did, from Craig Fertig hitting Rod Sherman with a touchdown pass in 1964 to Mark Cusano batting down a Ron Powlus throw to end the 13-year winless streak against the Irish in 1996. Not to mention Anthony Davis being crowned the "Notre Dame Killer" for his six-touchdown performance in 1972.
McNeal is well aware of how big the rivalry is and he also knows the Irish defense, led by linebacker Manti Te'o, will be a tough test for the Trojans offense.
"This is a big rivalry game, everybody will be watching," McNeal said. "It's their first night game in forever so we get to show everybody how we play Trojan football.
"They really don't pressure a lot, but they can fill the holes real quick. They like to plug holes, and they like to limit the big plays. They play hard, especially Manti. He's a great player; he's smart; nothing gets by him. He sees things before they happen, so we just need to focus on our assignments."
It would be the culmination of a long journey for McNeal if he is named the starting tailback for USC in this game. He was forced to miss part of last season due to academic suspension and wasn't cleared officially for this season until the early days of fall camp. Teammates and coaches alike appreciate him for the work he puts in and the obstacles he has overcome, so it would be fitting if he can take advantage of this opportunity in the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football.
McNeal might not be the only Trojans player getting his first chance to start for USC in this rivalry game. Cornerback Isiah Wiley is the leading candidate to start opposite Nickell Robey at corner after Anthony Brown went down against Cal with an ankle injury. Brown had surgery on the ankle Friday and is out for the season.
"Isiah may have to be the starter; he's going to have to be ready," USC head coach Lane Kiffin said.
Torin Harris, who started several games early in the season, also has been on the sideline lately with an injured shoulder, so the coaches turned to Wiley against Cal after Brown got hurt, and Wiley responded with a solid effort, registering five tackles and a pass breakup.
"I thought things went well, it being my first Division I football game and all," Wiley said. "I could have done a couple things better, but overall I thought I capitalized on the opportunity."
Wiley hadn't seen much action to that point, having primarily been limited to special teams duties. Wiley was originally expected to be at USC in the spring after spending the last two seasons at Arizona Western College, but his arrival was delayed until fall camp, slowing his adjustment to the new level of football.
During the recent bye week, however, Wiley started making more plays in practice and Kiffin noted that he seemed to be ready to play a bigger role. With the injuries to other players at corner, the Trojans could need him to play an even bigger role Saturday than previously expected.
"I'm definitely ready to accept the challenge," Wiley said. "I've been focusing on the game plan and stuff. It's going to be a huge game, probably the biggest game I've ever played in my life.
"Once you get into the flow of things you start reacting faster to what's going on. Just the mental aspects of knowing what you have to do, knowing what to do when the ball is in the air, it's going good right now."
Wiley credits his fellow defensive backs, such as T.J. McDonald and Robey, with helping him learn the USC defense as quickly as possible.
"They definitely help me with this whole process," Wiley said. "Coming from junior college, they helped me get up to speed. Things started a little slow for me when I first got here. It was kind of a shock to my system. In junior college, the athletes weren't as good, but when I got here, all of the athletes are good. I'm starting to catch on now."
Kiffin talks Irish
There aren't too many ways to add more drama when the Trojans and Irish get together, but there will be a new twist this season. This will be the first time USC has played a night game at Notre Dame Stadium. In fact, it will be the first time Notre Dame has played a night game at home since 1990. Kiffin thinks that only adds to the rivalry.
"This game will be exciting," Kiffin said. "An energetic crowd, great venue, the first night game in more than 20 years, it's fun to be a part of that kind of history."
Kiffin and the Trojans will be looking to start a new history when it comes to streaks. Last season's loss to the Irish broke an eight-game win streak by USC over Notre Dame, but Kiffin knows the outcome of last season's game will not carry over to this season.
"This year's game has nothing to do with last year," Kiffin said. "It was heartbreaking at the time to lose that game and to lose the streak of wins over them when you know how hard the players and coaches in the past had worked to get to that point."
Kiffin said one of the most important things to do when looking to contain the Irish is to slow down the passing game, something that not many teams have been able to do. Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees has completed 66 percent of his passes, while wide receiver Michael Floyd is Notre Dame's career leader in receptions, touchdown catches and receiving yards.
"They spend so much time in the shotgun formation and they get rid of the ball fast," Kiffin said. "Even if you get pressure, it's hard to get to them. We're going to need to do a good job there."
Being Manti Te'o
Trojans freshman Soma Vainuku has spent his time at fullback since arriving on campus last spring. He'll change roles this week, as he'll be at linebacker on the service team, wearing No. 5 to mimic star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.
Playing linebacker is nothing new for Vainuku. He played both linebacker and running back at Eureka (Calif.) HS, leading his team to a CIF title in 2009. His family history has a little tradition at the spot, too -- his cousin is former USC All-American linebacker Rey Maualuga.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.