LOS ANGELES — Notre Dame is on track for the national championship. USC would be happy to derail them.
Rich Hammond, a USC beat writer with The Orange County Register, provides insight on the Trojans new, outspoken quarterback, the problems plaguing the program this season and USC’s chances Saturday night.
Q: With Matt Barkley out, all eyes are on a redshirt freshman who has thrown nine total passes in college games. What do you know of Max Wittek and how do you see him handling USC’s high-powered offense on Saturday?
Rich Hammond: Wittek is a very different quarterback than Barkely. For those familiar with recent USC-Notre Dame games, Wittek is much closer to Carson Palmer in terms of style and build. He’s a big quarterback — 6-foot-4, 235 pounds — with a “gunslinger” kind of an attitude.
The question is, how many bullets will USC let him shoot? USC certainly has the weapons on offense, and if Lane Kiffin feels the Trojans have nothing to lose, he might just open things up and let Wittek throw the ball around.
On the other hand, Wittek has a high risk-reward factor. Barkley was safer with the ball, sometimes too safe. If Wittek tries to force throws, Notre Dame’s secondary might have a chance to make some plays on him.
Q: USC starts the season ranked No. 1 in the AP poll but is now 7-4 following a loss to a UCLA team they beat 50-0 last year. What’s gone wrong this year for the Trojans?
RH: It’s no one thing, or even two or three things. USC can’t really blame health or depth. The Trojans have been relatively lucky in terms of injuries, particularly in the second half of the season until Barkley’s injury.
Penalties and turnovers have killed this team. Right now, USC is the second-most-penalized team in the NCAA. Pete Carroll’s teams thrived on creating turnovers and taking care of the ball. This season, the Trojans have forced 29 turnovers and allowed 29 turnovers. Barkley threw 15 interceptions, more than he threw as a freshman. That’s shocking.
On the other side, the defensive line has been relatively strong but the defense, in general, has been strangely passive. USC has been trying, all year, to find a reliable No. 2 corner to play opposite Nickell Robey, and nobody has been able to fill the role with much success. Right now it’s Josh Shaw, a converted safety.
USC has been dreadful against quarterbacks who are run-pass threats. That hurt them against Arizona, Oregon and UCLA, and it doesn’t speak well to their chances against Notre Dame.
Q: Robert Woods was known throughout the nation as Barkley’s go-to guy after last year, but receiver Marqise Lee has blown past Woods statistically this season. Who do you see as a bigger, consistent threat and who will Wittek most likely turn to for his first career start?
RH: This goes back to the first question. How aggressive and wide-open are the Trojans going to be in throwing the ball?
Robert Woods is more of the safe, possession receiver (although he has great speed) and Lee is the home-run threat. Barkley’s preferred play this season was to find Lee cutting across the middle of the field and allow Lee to use his fantastic skills to outrun defenders.
If USC wants to attempt to build Wittek’s confidence early with a short-passing game, then perhaps Woods will be more involved. Nelson Agholor, a freshman, is also developing nicely as a deep threat, and the Trojans probably don’t throw to their solid tight ends (Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer) as much as they should.
Q: Defensively, USC is just about in the middle of the pack in every category. But the Trojans rank No. 4 in sacks and No. 5 in tackles for loss. What causes the discrepancy there? Who should the Irish be looking out for among the Trojan defense?
RH: The one area of the defense that has been pretty consistently strong for USC is the defensive line. JC transfer Morgan Breslin and freshman Leonard Williams, in particular, have made big impacts, and senior Wes Horton has come on strong in the last couple games.
USC’s run defense has been relatively solid, other than the game in which they got absolutely torched by Oregon’s Kenjon Barner. And, again, running quarterbacks have exposed USC’s defense at times. Coverage has been the issue for USC.
Monte Kiffin, for the most part, runs a variation of the Tampa 2 defense he ran in the NFL. It’s a soft zone defense, but yet at times this season the Trojans have been beaten by deep passes. USC has told Lane Kiffin that he will return in 2013. Monte Kiffin hasn’t been given the same assurance.
Q: USC has to be relishing the fact that it’s the only team standing in the way of Notre Dame’s undefeated season and road to the national championship game. It seems almost scripted that it’s come down to this. What will the Trojans have to do to beat the Irish and can you see USC pulling off the upset?
RH: Starting the game strong is massively important to the Trojans.
Look at the first quarters of their last three losses. Against Arizona, they trailed 10-0. Against Oregon, they trailed 14-3. Against UCLA, they trailed 17-0. It’s baffling that a team with solid senior leadership could be so flat at the start of games.
USC will need to do two things: One, make Wittek feel comfortable early, both by protecting him and by establishing a solid running game behind Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd; and two, get after Everett Golson and make him feel some heat.
If the Trojans let Golson have time and space, he will pick them apart with his legs and arms, just like UCLA’s Brett Hundley did. I think it will be low-scoring and close, with Notre Dame winning 21-17.