Posted: Thursday November 22, 2012 10:53AM ; Updated: Thursday November 22, 2012 11:46AM
Ben Glicksman
Ben Glicksman>WEEKLY SPOTLIGHT

Headed for the BCS title? Sizing up Notre Dame's showdown with USC

Story Highlights

Notre Dame can secure a berth in the BCS title game by winning this week at USC

The Irish will look to cut down on distractions, win behind their vaunted front seven

USC's Max Wittek, set to make first career start, guaranteed a victory on the radio

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Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert
Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, a Mackey Award finalist last year, has caught a receiving touchdown in three of the Irish's past six games.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert acknowledges what's at stake in Saturday's game against USC, but he won't let it get into his head.

The three-year starter plans to approach this game just as he would any other, by going about his routine and focusing on the task at hand.

"We know, but we're just trying to have the mindset that we've had all season," Eifert said on the phone Wednesday. "Just worry about the next game and try to find a way to win."

Of course, nothing about this game is routine. This is the program's biggest contest in decades, a chance to write the next chapter in a dream season in South Bend. The Fighting Irish are 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time since 1993. Win against their hated rival, and they'll play for a national title.

This week, Notre Dame can do more than prove that it is "back," a term that's been used in conjunction with the school after each of its recent near-misses. Coming off years of mediocrity, the Irish finally can earn their spot on college football's biggest stage.

But to do that, Brian Kelly's team must beat an underachieving but immensely talented USC squad that features arguably the nation's most electrifying playmaker in Marqise Lee. The Trojans have won nine of the past 10 meetings in the rivalry, and they beat the Irish 31-17 on the road in 2011.

Here's a breakdown of this week's much-anticipated matchup.

Why it matters

The national title race hangs in the balance. Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's star senior linebacker, can make one final push for the Heisman Trophy. Despite USC AD Pat Haden's comments, coach Lane Kiffin's job could be on unstable ground, and Trojans quarterback Max Wittek, a former four-star recruit, is set to make his first career start.

In other words: Is there any reason this game doesn't matter?

Notre Dame has gotten to this point largely behind the strength of its defense. The Te'o-led unit ranks first nationally in scoring defense, fifth in rushing defense and 11th in pass efficiency defense, respectively. It has allowed just 14 plays of 25 yards or longer, and from Sept. 8-Oct. 20, a span of 17 consecutive quarters, it didn't allow a single offensive touchdown. That's astounding.

The team also benefited from some incredible good fortune -- it came out on the winning side of a controversial goal-line call against Stanford and needed a missed field goal and a major officiating blunder (the referees didn't flag the Irish for having two players with No. 2 jerseys on Kevin Harper's missed kick) to beat Pittsburgh -- but that doesn't diminish the program's accomplishments in any way. The Irish entered this season as a BCS afterthought, and now they are in prime position to earn a trip to Miami.

USC, on the other hand, has completely underwhelmed. The nation's preseason No. 1 team has lost four games to fall out of the Top 25 entirely. And last week's defeat against UCLA added injury to insult: Not only did the Trojans surrender Los Angeles and Pac-12 South supremacy to the Bruins, but they lost four-year starting quarterback Matt Barkley to a sprained right shoulder. Redshirt freshman Wittek, who had attempted six career passes before the UCLA game, will take his place in USC's regular-season finale.

But while all signs would point to a significant Irish edge, there's no sure thing at this point on the calendar. The top-ranked team in the nation has lost in each of the past two weeks. Wittek still will target the dangerous receiving tandem of Lee and Robert Woods, and underrated back Curtis McNeal quietly has amassed at least 160 rushing yards in each of the past two weeks. McNeal also gashed the Irish for 118 yards when the teams faced off in 2011.

Still, all of that might not compensate for the Trojans' pedestrian defense. Coordinator Monte Kiffin's unit has given up at least 38 points in three of its past four games, and it's allowing an average of more than 392 yards. That could spell big performances for Golson, Eifert and running backs Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick.

But the Irish don't need to be flashy. They simply need to win. In his press conference on Tuesday, Kelly summed it up best: "I don't remind [my players] about the obvious," he said. "I really try to talk to them about what the next step is for us."

Burning question

Can first-time starter Max Wittek challenge the Irish defense?

For being the least experienced player heading into Saturday's game, Wittek is certainly talking like someone with an accomplished résumé. USC's freshman quarterback was a relative unknown before UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr speared Matt Barkley to the ground in the waning moments of last week's all-L.A. showdown, forcing Barkley to leave the game and later the stadium with his arm in a sling.

On Sunday, Kiffin told reporters that Wittek would start in place of the injured Barkley. On Tuesday, Wittek guaranteed a victory on ESPN Radio, stating, "We're gonna win this ballgame."

Predictably, the comment spread in a matter of minutes. It was all so Joe Namath-esque: A young, overconfident quarterback announcing his plans to topple a heavy favorite.

Make no mistake, Wittek has talent. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder attended Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., the same high school where Barkley developed and thrived. He threw for 2,252 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior, and he was named an Under Armour All-American. Though Wittek is untested, Kelly isn't taking his threat lightly.

"We don't know a lot about Max," Kelly said. "Certainly saw him at the end of some games. But he's on scholarship at USC. When you get a scholarship to USC, you're one the best quarterbacks in the country. He's a big, strong, physical kid. He's got a live arm, and will certainly fit into they're offensive scheme of things. He's a perfect fit for when they do."

Yet Wittek hasn't seen a defense that features standouts like Te'o, nose guard Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, among others. And in addition to a ferocious front seven, the Irish boast a stingy secondary led by junior Bennett Jackson (four interceptions) and sophomore Matthias Farley (one). Lee is a nightmare to cover, but it'll be difficult for him to succeed if Wittek is pressed for time.

As for Wittek's guarantee? The Irish are brushing it aside -- or at least that's what they're telling the media.

"People on the outside have made us aware that he said that, but that doesn't really register with us," said Eifert. "We've got plenty of other motivations and reasons to win this game than the things that he says."

Points of interest

Notre Dame's running game: Though the defense and Golson have received the lion's share of the credit, the Irish ground game -- led by Wood, Riddick and sophomore back George Atkinson III -- has been a pivotal cog behind the 11-0 start. Notre Dame is averaging more than 200 rushing yards per game. USC, which recently allowed monstrous outings to UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and Oregon's Kenjon Barner, has shown it's susceptible to being torched on the ground.

The second quarter: If there has been a time when the Trojans have lived up to their lofty billing, it's been during the second 15 minutes of each game, when they've outscored opponents 154-53. If USC can find a way to put the Irish in an early hole, it could allow Wittek to establish a comfort level and add an even greater sense of pressure to Golson and the Notre Dame attack.

Emotion: Last week, Notre Dame celebrated Senior Day in South Bend. This week, it hopes to capture the program's most important victory in years. Given what's on the line, the Irish will have to keep from succumbing to the situation -- particularly against a Trojan group that has nothing left to lose.

Q&A

SI.com caught up with Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert before this week's game against USC.

SI: What was your first thought last week when Kansas State and Oregon lost within a few minutes of each other?

TE: With all that, we kind of knew what was gonna happen. That we would control our own destiny this week with SC.

SI: Has it been difficult to stay focused amid all the hype for Saturday's game?

TE: It has been tough so far. It's been nice for Thanksgiving break, we're kind of the only ones on campus. We don't have class the rest of the week, so the distractions have actually been fewer than in any of the other weeks.

SI: What's it been like to be part of Notre Dame's return to prominence?

TE: You feel lucky just to be a part of this university and a Notre Dame team, but to be able to be the first that's ranked number one and kind of restoring Notre Dame back to where we belong, where we really expect to be, it's been pretty special. We just want to take advantage of that this week.

SI: Before the year, did you really think this team could start 11-0?

TE: Yes. We set goals at the beginning of the year, and we believed we could achieve all of it. So yes.

The takeaway

This week at USC, Notre Dame can clinch a trip to the BCS title game, the most important win in recent memory for a program that consistently has failed to get over the hump. The Irish will look to continue their defensive dominance while benefiting from the mistake-free play of Golson and the offense. But there's no minimizing what's at stake. Sixty strong minutes could lock up a long-awaited championship berth.

Heading into Saturday's game, however, Eifert would rather talk about another result. Looking back on the 2012 season, he prefers to emphasize the meaning of a game in early September, when the then 1-0 Irish hosted 1-0 Purdue.

At the time, it seemed like a matchup of little significance. Notre Dame had raced to a 10-point first-half lead before allowing Boilermakers to the even the score with just over two minutes remaining. Golson looked rattled after coughing up a costly fumble, and injuries -- including a concussion that forced Eifert to leave the action -- were starting to pile up.

If recent history was any indication, this was that moment for the Irish. It was the Michigan and Michigan State games in 2010, the Michigan and South Florida affairs in '11.

Only this time, it wasn't. Kelly plugged in veteran backup Tommy Rees, and the junior quarterback piloted a 55-yard drive to set up a game-winning field goal. It wasn't pretty, but the Irish survived.

"We had been there in those close games and lost them early in my career," said Eifert. "I think just having some experience with those close games and having to find a way to pull those games out this year has helped."

Two and a half months later, that script has held true. As other BCS contenders have fallen, Notre Dame has found a way to keep winning. Saturday at the Coliseum, it'll look to replicate that storyline one more time.

A few days after the Purdue game, I caught up with Kelly. When I asked him about the program's ascent back into the spotlight, he offered a telling response. "We've told our guys that the only way to climb Mount Everest is to go each level," said Kelly." There's a base camp one, base camp two. If you start thinking about the summit before you get there, you're not gonna make it."

Now, Notre Dame is just one rung below the summit. Win, and it has reached the peak.

Prediction: Notre Dame 23, USC 21

 
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