NOTRE DAME — Troy Niklas doesn’t need much prompting to rattle off his history with USC quarterback Max Wittek.
The two attended rival high schools in southern California. Niklas, then a defensive end for Servite High School, picked off Wittek in their senior year meeting.
“Yes, I did,” Niklas said when asked about the interception, a grin forming. “I ran it for a touchdown. In front of 30,000 fans. And it was on TV. And it was a rival game. And, oh, by the way, we did win that game.”
Niklas won’t have the opportunity to pick off Wittek this year, since Niklas now plays tight end for Notre Dame and the latter lost his starting job to Cody Kessler.
But Niklas’s anecdote is just one of many ties Notre Dame and USC share. Inter-connecting storylines make this game personal for several of its players beyond the usual rivalry.
Niklas was heavily recruited by USC but selected Notre Dame in an 11th-hour decision. Receiver Nelson Agholor was pursued by the Irish, but ended up picking USC.
Irish safety Max Redfield committed to the Trojans last November, then flipped to Notre Dame days before the national championship game. Running back Amir Carlisle played for USC as a freshman before transferring to Notre Dame last year.
For two campuses that lie 2,000 miles apart, the connections between the two programs go on and on.
USC (4-2) travels to Notre Dame (4-2) for the 85th meeting between the two of the most decorated programs in college football. How do they match up?
USC’s offensive strongpoint lies in its running game, which plays directly into Notre Dame’s defensive strength.
The Trojans may again be without top back Tre Madden, who leads the team in rushing yards (611) and receiving touchdowns (four). Justin Davis — who has a team-high six touchdowns — Javouris Allen and Silas Redd are more than equipped to fill in for Madden, who was also out against Arizona.
If the Trojans can establish the run early, it’ll free up quarterback Cody Kessler for play-action connections with Agholor and possibly Marqise Lee. Lee, a future NFL first-round draft pick, sat out against Arizona after an ankle injury. His status for Saturday is questionable, but Irish head coach Brian Kelly knows the type of threat the Trojans have in Agholor.
Kelly, who once recruited the sophomore, praised Agholor earlier this week.
“He’s one of those guys that just runs all day, plays fast every snap,” Kelly said. “I don’t think, you know, he came off the field. The one thing, if it you watch that (Arizona) game closely, to close out the game, they needed to convert some third downs running the football late. He’s in there blocking safeties, physical.”
Kessler is a solid, accurate quarterback but relatively untested on the road. He threw two interceptions in USC’s loss to Arizona State and completed just 50 percent of his 30 attempts last week against Arizona.
USC’s offensive line has given up 13 sacks this year, which could mean big things for Prince Shembo and Stephon Tuitt this weekend.
It’s hard to peg a defense that ranks in the Top 20 in total defense but gave up 62 points to Arizona State.
This defense plays aggressive but at the cost of exposing itself to give up the big plays. It happened against Arizona, which picked apart the Trojan secondary for plays of 32-, 45- and 57-yards. The Wildcats put up 208 passing yards in the first half against the Trojans.
Still, USC’s defense has only given up one first-quarter touchdown all year, which could spell trouble for a Notre Dame team desperate for a quick start.
Linemen George Uko and Leonard Williams will disrupt Notre Dame’s running game, forcing Tommy Rees and his receivers to win through the air.
Watching USC’s meltdown this year has been schadenfreude for Irish supporters, but don’t expect a broken, shamed Trojan team to crawl into South Bend on Saturday.
If USC dictates the pace, the game will play out like a fast-moving Pac-12 shootout. If the Irish are in control, this will be a Big 10-esque boxing match.
USC’s offense will test the Irish defense like Arizona State did, but the time has come for Notre Dame to beat the Trojans at home.
NOTRE DAME 24, USC 17