There's little question that junior linebacker Manti Te'o is the leader of the Notre Dame defense, a fact that adds yet another twist to the rivalry between the Trojans and the Irish.
"Te'o is playing fantastic. I wish he was here," USC coach Lane Kiffin said this week.
USC fans who follow recruiting need no reminder of how close Te'o came to wearing a Trojans uniform. He took his official recruiting visit to USC on the weekend before signing day in 2009. Te'o was hosted on that trip by Matt Barkley. The two had become friends during the recruiting process, and when Te'o left Los Angeles he was convinced he would end up at USC.
A few days later on signing day, however, he surprised the recruiting world by announcing that he would be attending Notre Dame. Te'o did this despite being on the phone with USC coach Pete Carroll for the entire hour-plus drive from his home to the signing day ceremony, while most certainly listening to pleas from Carroll about why he should sign with the Trojans.
"I was sold on USC, I grew up a USC fan," Te'o told ESPN.com's Matt Fortuna this week. "I was going to go to USC, then I prayed about it and I was directed here.
"My first two years I said, 'OK, this is USC. I almost went there.' But going into this year I don't have that feeling anymore. I'm happy to play with the guys I'm with so it's just another game for me."
Te'o has been one of the better linebackers in the country this season, notching 59 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. In a rivalry that prides itself on physical football, you have to figure Te'o is going to be in the middle of the action Saturday.
"Te'o is a great player," Trojans fullback Ross Cumming said. "He plays with a downhill mentality. He's a tough, physical guy, but so are we. We have tough, physical guys over here, too."
Te'o plays inside linebacker for the Irish in a traditional 3-4 alignment, not the kind of defense the Trojans are used to seeing in the Pac-12.
"We're preparing for the 3-4 and it's been an adjustment, but our coaches have done a great job of putting in a game plan," Cumming said. "The toughest thing about the 3-4 is identifying the linebackers. You have to make sure certain players are identified between the center and quarterback."
One of the keys to success against the 3-4 for USC will be getting the run game going, a situation that is uncertain because of the health status of tailback Marc Tyler. Tyler injured his shoulder against Cal but was cleared for contact this week and could play in the game. If Tyler doesn't start, Curtis McNeal is likely to take his place.
Cumming has seen more and more playing time in recent weeks after making the move from linebacker to fullback. He brings a pure blocking style at fullback and has excelled on special teams.
"I love that the coaches found a way for me to contribute and I love the physical nature of fullback," Cumming said. "There's a major mental part that goes into playing fullback, and that was a pleasant surprise. I wouldn't say I'm 100 percent immersed yet, because I don't know the total offense, but I love what I'm doing."
Cornerback Torin Harris has yet to practice this week, and Kiffin said if Harris cannot go the Trojans could use walk-on James Harbin in a reserve role. Isiah Wiley is expected to get the start opposite Nickell Robey after Anthony Brown had season-ending ankle surgery. Tony Burnett, the starter through spring ball, is also available but he has not seen much action in recent weeks ... Marqise Lee claims he could be at 80 percent for the game with his injured shoulder, and he expects to play ... The Fighting Irish have scored touchdowns on nine of their last 10 trips to the red zone, with a field goal for the 10th score ... USC athletic director Pat Haden, who spent the last 12 years as a color analyst on Notre Dame telecasts, will observe a tradition of lighting a candle for his mother at the on-campus grotto ... This is the 83rd meeting between the two schools (Notre Dame leads 43-34-5) but the Trojans have won the last four meetings in South Bend.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at email@example.com.