The No.1-ranked Notre Dame football team heads to Southern California for the second straight time knowing Trojans senior quarterback Matt Barkley, one of the Pac-12 Conference’s all-time best, can’t hurt it.
USC receiver Marqise Lee is tearing up school and league records in 2012
Barkley suffered a sprained shoulder last week in a loss to rival UCLA that dropped Southern Cal’s record to 7-4. He didn’t play in a 20-16 Irish victory in 2010 due to an ankle injury, which forced Mitch Mustain into action and his first career start.
What Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly already knows, and what USC boss Lane Kiffin reiterated during Tuesday’s league teleconference, is the Trojans still have an arsenal of offensive weapons; backup Max Wittek just has to wield them efficiently to possibly gun down the Irish and their hopes of reaching the national championship.
Wittek, a redshirt freshman, has attempted just nine passes this season, yet, prior to the first start of his career, is already predicting a USC victory.
“We're going to win this ballgame," Wittek said in interview with an ESPN Radio affiliate in Los Angeles.
“First off, Max is a very confident kid; he’s always been since he’s gotten here,” Kiffin said.
That’s already obvious, and probably, at least in part, a product of the caliber of players that will line up with the rookie Saturday.
Sophomore receiver Marqise Lee, who was recently named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which honors the top receiver in the nation, leads the country in receptions (107) and receiving yards (1,605). Lee, currently fourth in ESPN’s Heisman Experts’ Poll, is third nationally in touchdown catches (14) and even reached the end zone once this season on a kickoff return. Kiffin’s used Lee in a variety of ways this season, explaining that’s nothing new at USC.
“I think we’ve done that over the years a number of times,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to break a lot of records here at that position. The only way you can do that is if you do move them around. It becomes too easy to take them away if you just leave them at X or Z. This goes all the way back to Mike Williams coming here as a true freshman and [making] 81 catches for 1,265 yards and shattered every freshman record there was out here in the conference.
“We’re looking at over a one-year span in the history of the conference … Robert Woods is a true sophomore [in 2011] breaking the all-time receptions record (finished with 111 for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns) without bowl games, and now Marqise potentially Saturday breaking that record as a true sophomore. They’re obviously great players, but our system builds for those guys to move around. That’s the only way you can get those types of numbers.”
The young man responsible for delivering all those passes has watched Heisman and national title hopes circle the drain. Barkley should be available for whatever bowl invitation is accepted by USC, but his legacy has taken a drastic hit despite owning 20 school passing records and 10 Pac-12 records, including career passing yards (12,327), completions (1,001), touchdown passes (116). He’s the only player in league history to throw for at least 2,500 yards over four consecutive seasons.
“Part of that is going to be because of the injury and missing this game, and part of it is going to be some things out of his control,” Kiffin said. “If we were playing defense here like we were with Carson [Palmer in 2002] or with Matt [Leinart in 2004] when they were winning Heismans, I think Matt would be on his way to New York. He can’t control that.
“… It’s not easy. This is twice in a row now. Luck of the Irish, I guess, for Brian Kelly. Twice in row he’ll be coming into the Coliseum with Matt not playing in the game. That’s not easy to handle.”