Notre Dame Football enters the final week of their season ranked #1 in the AP since 1993, and the first time ever in the BCS era.
Against the University of Southern California this Saturday at the Coliseum, all that is on the line is a shot at the National Championship. No biggie, right?
I mean, this is a Trojans team who started the season at the very spot the Irish are trying to end at (#1), but are now unranked. They have managed an extremely disappointing 7-4 record; losing to every ranked team they’ve played this year, plus Arizona. And not to mention that their starting quarterback, Matt Barkley, is out after suffering a shoulder injury in the last minutes of the their loss to UCLA, so they will be starting red shirt freshman Max Wittek at the position. With the Irish’s #1 ranked scoring defense, that should be no problem at all right? Right?
As Lee Corso might say – “Not so fast my friend!” This could wind up being the ultimate trap game for Notre Dame. USC will still bring talent to the field on Saturday, wide receiver Marqise Lee not the least among them. Lee so far this season has amassed 1,605 yards on 107 receptions (1st in the nation in both) and hauling in 14 touchdowns (3rd in the nation). Barkley or no Barkley, with Lee on the field, he’s always a threat to make a huge play or to score.
Then there’s the series’ recent history. Overall, Notre Dame has a 43-34-5 edge, but USC has won 9 of the previous 10 match-ups (2010 being the lone exception, and 2005 being vacated by USC). In those 10 games, USC has averaged 36.5 points to Notre Dame’s 15.9. The only game in which the Trojans were held to fewer than 20 points was that 2010 game when they scored 16.
And finally, there’s this little beauty:
As if entering the final game of the season ranked #1 for the first time in forever on the road against one of your most bitter rivals with absolutely nothing to lose wasn’t enough, the Irish get the Sports Illustrated Cover curse thrown out at them. It all adds up to what could be a very bad omen.
So what do the Irish have going for them? Well, other than the obvious (#1 overall ranking, undefeated record, top scoring defense, Manti Te’o, etc), I offer this to you: Max Wettik. And it has absolutely nothing to do with this being the first start of his career against the Magnificent Seven:
“I’m gonna go out there, I’m gonna play within myself, within the system, and we’re gonna win this ballgame.”
So sayeth the freshman.
If there’s one thing that can undo the SI curse, it’s 100% pure unadulterated hubris. That’s not to say Wittek can’t or won’t put up numbers and points on the Irish. I think if any of Notre Dame’s opponents this year can score more than 20 points, its USC. Even with Wittek. But you don’t poke the bear first if you want to sneak up on him. The Irish’s game plan is going to be getting after the young quarterback and force him to into making mistakes. Now, you can count on the Irish defense coming out even more fired up than ever. Oh yeah, and there’s the whole National Championship berth on the line thing.
3 Things to Watch
Max Wittek – The Trojans freshman quarterback has inexorably been thrust into this match-up and is the single most important man on the field for either team. Not necessarily because of his talents, considering we don’t know what his talents really are at this juncture. It’s because of what he isn’t – Matt Barkley. Barkley, before his injury had totaled 3,273 yards and 36 touchdowns. No matter how good Wittek is at this point in his career, he’s not that. Can Wittek have success against the Irish defense? Absolutely. Just look at Robert Marve (Purdue), Riley Nelson (BYU), and Landry Jones (Oklahoma). All had some measure of success against Notre Dame. Will he? I don’t see the odds of him having a break out game being very high, but you never know.
Everett Golson – Golson struggled to find an offensive groove in his first season at the helm. In his first 8 games, Golson completed only 50% of his passes (80/160) for 1,145 yards, 4 touchdowns and 3 picks. Beginning with the Pitt game, he has since completed 61.4% of his attempts (59/96) for 773 yards, 7 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. His confidence has been steadily growing the last three weeks, and it’s been showing. This week will be the greatest test yet against the Trojan defense with all the marbles on the line.
Tyler Eifert – With Golson’s improvements have come greater opportunities – and better production – for the Irish’s All-American tight end. In the last three games, Eifert has caught 18 passes and a touchdown. That’s almost half of his production for the rest of the season. Golson-to-Eifert needs to be a huge part of Notre Dame’s game plan if they want to win.
My 5 Predictions
Wittek – In a valiant effort – with some help from Marqise Lee – Wittek will put up some decent numbers. I see him completing 60% of his passes for 270 yards and a couple of scores, but also 2 picks.
Theo Riddick – Riddick has had somewhat of a renaissance in the run game in recent weeks, but hit a speed bump against Wake Forest. In the Irish’s big win, he carried the ball just 6 times for 20 yards thanks in part to Cierre Wood’s big game and the Irish’s domination overall. Riddick will have more chances this week, and takes advantage going for 85 yards and a score.
Manti Te’o – The senior linebacker is playing in his final game for the Jeweled Shillelagh, and no previous match-up has been bigger than this year’s for him. He’s going to need to have a dominating game to keep the Trojan offense in check and his Heisman hopes alive. He registers 11 tackles and the 7th interception of the year.
Marqise Lee – No one has been able to stop the Trojan wide-out all year, and the Irish have talented but young and inexperienced corners. They’ve played decently against the 2nd tier competition they’ve been matched against, but Lee is a whole different animal. He catches 11 passes for 125 yards and the two Wittek touchdowns.
Final Score – I see this as being somewhat of a closer game than people might imagine, but ultimately the absence of Matt Barkley and the strength of Notre Dame’s defense will overcome. Notre Dame takes it 28-17, and goes to the BCS National Championship game.
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