Freshman QB leads USC against No. 1 Notre Dame

Not many young quarterbacks would even have the audacity to

imagine making their first career starts under the circumstances

surrounding Max Wittek at the Coliseum on Saturday night.

The freshman is replacing Matt Barkley, an injured senior who

has claimed most of the career passing records at Southern

California. He’s facing Notre Dame (11-0), a storied football power

with a No. 1 ranking and the nation’s most feared defense.

The Irish need just one more win to book a spot in the national

title game, and the struggling Trojans (7-4) have lost three of

four. Yet Wittek also has arguably the best receiving duo in the

nation catching his passes and a sold-out stadium firmly at his

back.

If the enormity of this occasion is scaring Wittek, the

confident 19-year-old with a bigger arm than Barkley hasn’t shown

it a bit.

”You really can’t ask for a better opportunity to show what

you’ve got,” Wittek said. ”I just want to get that first snap,

maybe that first hit, out of the way, and I’ll be ready to

go.”

Although USC has dominated the past decade in this delicious

intersectional rivalry, winning nine of 10 and missing a clean

sweep by one dropped touchdown pass two years ago, Wittek and the

Trojans realize most of the pressure is on the other sideline this

time.

The Irish are just one win away from completing a remarkable run

to the BCS title game in coach Brian Kelly’s third season. With so

many pressure-packed wins already behind them this season, the

Irish will hit the field in downtown Los Angeles simply trying not

to get caught up in the matchup’s history – or the history they’ll

make with a victory.

”You think about it,” Notre Dame safety Zeke Motta said. ”In

the back of your mind, it’s there that if you win this game, you’re

going to play in the national championship. What more motivation do

you need? But I think we want to treat it like any other game.

Obviously it’s a rivalry game, so we’re going to be playing fierce

and tough. We’re just focused on who we’re playing against and

sticking it to them.”

Notre Dame has done its part to make the schools’ 84th meeting

appropriately memorable. The Irish headed to the Coliseum with the

No. 1 ranking for the sixth time in the schools’ shared history,

and they’re unbeaten when facing USC for the first time since

1993.

USC is headed to a lower-tier bowl game, but could halt its

late-season slide from the preseason No. 1 ranking by crushing the

Irish’s title dreams. USC has stumbled after a 6-1 start to a

season of enormous expectations, losing to Arizona, Oregon and UCLA

in the previous four weeks.

”This is a game where we can get our respect back and get a

good feeling about ourselves,” USC safety T.J. McDonald said.

Both teams are made up of teenagers and young adults who can’t

possibly have the same connection to this rivalry as thousands of

alumni, former players or football fans who simply enjoy the

college sport’s best traditions. The USC coaching staff attempted

to remedy some of those educational gaps this week, with coach Lane

Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron speaking up in team

meetings about the series’ meaning and lore.

Kiffin also played Notre Dame’s fight song during USC’s

practices this week, hoping to remind the Trojans of their 31-17

upset win in South Bend last year.

”My dad never beat them, so he definitely has a chip on his

shoulder when it comes to this rivalry,” said McDonald, whose

father, Tim, also was a defensive back at USC. ”All of the Trojan

family is watching. Everyone wants to see how the Trojans are going

to play, how they’re going to respond from last week. We’ve just

got to be able to go out there and make a statement.”

Everybody on the USC offense knows all about the imposing Irish

defense led by linebacker Manti Te’o, which has allowed just 10.1

points per game and eight touchdowns all season. Notre Dame’s

punishing run defense has been almost impenetrable, but its pass

defense has yet to be tested by an offense with USC’s talent – even

with a freshman quarterback at the controls.

Wittek has played only sparingly this season, but has known he

would be under the spotlight this week since the injured Barkley

texted him after last week’s loss: ”Let’s go beat the Irish.”

After two full years of practice in Kiffin’s offense, Wittek is

eager to show the Trojans won’t have to keep it simple as they did

two years ago, when backup Mitch Mustain filled in for the injured

Barkley in Notre Dame’s 20-16 win at the Coliseum.

”They’re a great defense, obviously one of the top defenses in

the NCAA, but every defense does have their soft spots,” Wittek

said. ”Theirs are obviously limited in being such a great defense,

but we are looking forward to taking advantage of some of those

soft spots.”

Wittek’s confidence doesn’t seem so outlandish given the talent

around him: receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods along with

tailbacks Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd. Wittek’s teammates are

completely familiar with the quarterback who got about 25 percent

of the first-team snaps in practice this year – and he’s superior

to the decorated Barkley in at least one area.

”Max throws much harder. It hurts,” Lee said with a laugh. ”I

have faith in Max. I know he can do it. It’s about waiting for your

time, and his time is here.”

If the Trojans can crack Notre Dame’s vaunted defense, the Irish

offense will be required to produce a big game against USC’s

struggling defense. USC’s last four opponents have combined for 156

points, and Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson is coming off a

346-yard passing performance against Wake Forest – the

seventh-biggest in school history, accomplished in just 2 1/2

quarters, no less.

But every number in Notre Dame’s favor won’t matter when the

Trojans go after a historic upset in a rivalry series full of

unexpected twists. The Irish understand the perils looming in those

60 minutes before they earn the right to play for another national

title.

”It’s very exciting,” Notre Dame center Braxston Cave said.

”This is what guys come to Notre Dame for. We’ve finally got the

program back to where it belongs, and I think guys are really

excited about that.”

Associated Press writer Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind.,

contributed to this report.