The Notre Dame football team has a golden opportunity for a full-circle moment this Saturday night in Los Angles when it takes on USC in the regular season finale for both teams. The Trojans have owned the series between the two long-time rivals for the last decade and came into the season with a No. 1 national ranking.
However, Notre Dame comes into this weekend’s clash at the Coliseum with an 11-0 record and has a chance to end the season with the nation’s No. 1 rank and a chance to play for the BCS National Championship if it can beat USC.
“Great moments are born from great opportunity,” Herb Brooks (as played by Kurt Russell) told his 1980 USA Hockey Team in the movie Miracle. “And that’s what you have here tonight boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight.”
USC not only brought that preseason No. 1 ranking into 2012. They also had the Heisman Trophy favorite, Matt Barkley, at quarterback. Barkley fell off the Heisman radar with two-interception performance in USC’s 22-16 week three loss to Stanford.
Not only do the Irish now hold the coveted No. 1 BCS ranking, but they also have unlikely Heisman contender Manti Te’o, who once was destined to suit-up for USC, but spurned the Trojans for a shot at glory under the golden dome.
The Trojans come into this weekend’s matchup with literal and figurative limp after Saturday’s 38-28 loss to cross-town rival UCLA in the Rose Bowl. In addition to suffering a third loss in its last four games, USC also saw Barkley leave the game after being driven to the ground and landing on his right throwing shoulder in the fourth quarter.
USC head coach Lane Kiffin was less than complimentary of Barkley when asked about his quarterback’s mistakes in the loss to the Bruins.
“You wouldn’t think we would lose this game with a senior quarterback versus a freshman,” Kiffin said. “But then again, when you turn the ball over like we did and get a couple of kicks blocked, those are the things that take them out of the game.”
Barkley passed for 301 yards and three touchdowns before leaving the UCLA loss. He also threw two interceptions in the game. For the season, Barkley has an amazing 36 touchdown passes and has completed 64-percent of his passes for 3,273 yards, but those two interceptions on Saturday brought his season total to 15.
Max Wittek came in at quarterback when Barkley went down. He was 3-for-3 passing for 40 yards. In six games this season Wittek is 8-of-9 for 95 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. The redshirt freshman from Newport Beach, Calif. enrolled at USC in the spring of 2011 after graduating early from high school. He passed for 2,252 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior at Mater Dei High School, but he also had 15 interceptions that season.
Kiffin was asked on Saturday after his team’s fourth loss of the season if he could pinpoint why they have fallen well short of the lofty expectations that came with them into the season.
“I don’t know that exactly,” Kiffin replied. “I think the number one glaring thing in our losses has been turnovers. We haven’t gotten many and we’ve had way too many. Somehow in the last two games we’ve had a turnover on the first play and last week the first play of the second half was a turnover.”
“We’re killing momentum with those things and our defense going back out after one play – that would be the number one thing I would point to. I would point to in the season in general, in our losses penalties and turnovers.”
USC has been a turnover-committing machine in 2012. The Trojans have 15 interceptions and 14 fumbles for a total of 29 giveaways. Their takeaways (18 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries) make them dead even in turnover margin for the season.
Fourteen of USC’s 29 giveaways have come in their four losses to date. They committed three in their first loss of the season to Stanford, five in their upset loss to Arizona, three against Oregon, and three more in Saturday’s loss to UCLA.
Running back Curtis McNeal is coming off a 161-yard effort in the loss to UCLA. He has 658 yards on 104 carries (6.3) with two touchdowns this season. McNeal has shared carries fairly evenly with Silas Redd, who transferred to USC from Penn State after the NCAA’s ruling on the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Redd leads the Trojans with 764 yards on 138 carries (5.4) with nine touchdowns, but he had just three carries for eight yards against UCLA.
Redd missed USC’s game against Arizona State on Nov. 10 with an undisclosed injury after rushing for 92 yards on 18 carries a week before that in a 62-51 loss to Oregon. McNeal ran for 163 yards against the Sun Devils with Redd out. Redd has battled what is thought to be a shoulder injury since September.
Wide receiver Marqise Lee, considered by many to be the top receiver in the nation, had nine receptions for 158 yards and a touchdown against the Bruins. He has 107 catches for 1,605 yards and 14 touchdown grabs in 2012.
USC’s other top target, Robert Woods, has 66 receptions for 721 yards and 10 scores. Those two have accounted for nearly 69-percent of the Trojans’ receiving yards and 24 of 37 receiving touchdowns this fall.
Because of those weapons, Kelly says his team’s defensive approach does not change whether Barkley or Wittek plays this week.
“We’re going to have to defend all those players, not just one,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said on Sunday. “Certainly, if Barkley is playing, which we’ll prepare for him like he is playing, the offense is still going to be about getting the ball to their playmakers. It really won’t change much in terms of what we do.”
Kelly’s key to defending Lee and Wood specifically is simple.
“Tackle, tackle, tackle, tackle, and tackle,” Kelly stressed. “They’re incredibly skilled with the ball in their hand and if they have a lot of space they’re going to make you pay.”
Despite its penchant for turnovers, USC still puts points on the board thanks to those weapons. The Trojans rank 26th in scoring offense (36 ppg.), 20th in passing offense (307 ypg.), 65th in rushing offense (160 ypg.), and 27th in total offense (467 ypg) nationally.
That said, just as with Oregon, Stanford’s 18th ranked overall defense and 10th ranked scoring defense is the best defense USC has faced this season. Notre Dame ranks 6th and 1st, respectively, defensively.
USC’s defense has been solid this season and is particularly adept at getting in the opponent’s backfield. The Trojans rank fourth nationally with 42 sacks this season (3.8 per game) and they are also fifth in the FBS with 88 tackles for loss (8.0 per game).
Morgan Breslin is USC’s leader of the pack in both of those departments. The junior defensive end has 11.5 sacks and 17.5 TFLs this fall. He ranks 6th and 11th, respectively, in the nation in those categories. With he and Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt (12.0) the game features two of the top eight sack men in the FBS. Freshman defensive end Leonard Williams has 12.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks as well.
In addition to his skill as a receiver, Lee is one of the top kickoff return men in the nation. His 29.3 return average ranks 10th in the FBS, while USC ranks 8th as a team in kickoff return average at 26.5.
Notre Dame has had chances to close the season with a big statement against USC in Los Angeles. They fell flat in 2002, 2004 and 2006 (along with Brady Quinn’s Heisman hopes in the latter), but all that can be a distant memory this week with a win that would springboard the Irish into the BCS title game and possibly Te’o to an historic Heisman win.
Great moments are born from great opportunity.