USC-Notre Dame Preview

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE

How will Max Wittek play in his first start under center? Can the Trojans establish a run game against one of the nation's top rush defenses? We examine that and more in advance of Saturday's matchup between USC and No. 1 Notre Dame.

1. How will Max Wittek fare?

This weekend, fans, students and alumni will get a good glimpse of USC's future, albeit a couple games early than most would have thought. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound redshirt freshman steps into Matt Barkley's place under center, facing a Notre Dame team seeking to finish a perfect season. Does it get any better than that?

"You really can’t ask for a better opportunity to show what you’ve got," Wittek said.

The coaching staff believes he has displayed maturity beyond his years in practice this week.

"He does not seem like a freshman," Kiffin said. "He's had a great command of the huddle out there, and he's been working really well with the skilled guys."

His teammates echoed similar sentiments, backing their young signal caller.

"We have a lot of confidence in Max," senior safety T.J. McDonald said after Wednesday’s practice. "He’s a confident guy. He’s been waiting for his turn, for his opportunity. So we’ve got to support him 100 percent. We definitely got to bring our ‘A’ game."

Wittek doesn't need to be a superstar this weekend. The 19-year-old just needs to take care of the ball and manage the game, which also leads me to my next question.

2. Will Lane Kiffin give the kid a chance?

How does this sound?

Short pass complete to Marqise Lee for four yards. Short pass complete to Robert Woods for three yards. Curtis McNeal rushes to left for three yards.

Repeat over, and over and over. That probably sounds something like something Kiffin would dial up this weekend. He might not give Wittek an opportunity to test the defense, rather, play it safe and let his playmakers do the rest. But if USC is to have any chance at upending Notre Dame, the kid is going to have to make plays, whether that be with his legs or taking a shot down the field with his arm. Whether Kiffin opens up the playbook just a little to let Wittek do that remains to be seen.

3. Can the Trojans establish a run game?

In the last two games, McNeal has rushed for 324 yards and two scores. On the year, he has 658 rushing yards, so in the last two weeks, he's notched almost half of his season output. The absence of Silas Redd has played a role in McNeal getting more touches, but the offensive line has done a solid job of opening holes up for the senior tailback. The Fighting Irish, though, rank fifth in rushing defense, allowing 92 yards per contest. The Trojans cannot be one dimensional with the passing game, but their offensive line is also going against one of the nation's best linebackers in Manti Te'o and a very, very good front-seven. Should USC be able to effectively run the ball early, that will relieve a lot of pressure off Wittek to make plays with his arm.

4. Will USC be able to contain Notre Dame's ground game?

Generally speaking, the Trojans have fared much, much better against more traditional offenses, or teams that don't employ some sort of spread attack. The Fighting Irish boast two tailbacks - Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick - who split carries and lead a Notre Dame rushing attack that averages more than 200 yards per contest. If the Trojans can slow down the running game, that leaves much of the pressure on redshirt freshman Everett Golson to make plays. Though Golson has done a commendable job leading the Irish this year, he has struggled at times. In a game of this magnitude on the road, forcing the right-handed signal caller to continually make plays bodes much better for USC's defense.

5. Can USC embrace the underdog role?

There's not many people picking the Trojans to pull off an upset. But remember, this is pretty much the same USC team that went into South Bend and upended Notre Dame a year ago. Barkley is out, yes, but the Trojans just didn't get worse overnight. USC is still very, very talented despite what the record says. Generally speaking - whether that be in professional sports or the college game - other players step up in absence of their star. Will USC's cast of players do the same and ruin Notre Dame's chances at a berth in the BCS title game?

Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m. and the game will be televised on ABC.

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