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No change of plans for Wittek

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said the absence of USC quarterback Matt Barkley won’t do anything to change his team’s approach to its season finale.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly says his team won't change to put pressure on USC's rookie quarterback, Max Wittek.

Barkley, the most prolific thrower of touchdowns in Trojans history, will miss Saturday’s game in Los Angeles with a shoulder sprain, according to head coach Lane Kiffin. In his place, USC will hand the keys to its supercharged offensive engine to redshirt freshman Max Wittek. The Irish game plan will be business as usual against the first-time starter.

“We’re going to do what we do. At this point, for us to go into one game and say, ‘All right we’re going to do different things to confuse Max is really crazy,” Kelly said Tuesday afternoon. “This guy has watched football all year. He’s going to be watching film. He knows our defense. We’re gonna do what we do because that’s gotten us to this point.”

By Saturday, Wittek will have watched far more tape on the Irish than they have of him. He has three mop-up duty appearances so far this season in which he completed eight of his nine pass attempts (just 1,553 shy of Barkley) for 95 yards and one touchdown.

On paper, the Connecticut native is as close to a quarterback prototype as one will find. He checks in at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds with a strong right arm and a spotless pedigree. He played high school football at Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), following in the footsteps of Barkley, Matt Leinart, Colt Brennan and John Huarte. He played at Mater Dei at the suggestion of his tutor, Steve Clarkson, who breeds quarterbacks like Secretariat bred horses.

There was a time when a freshman quarterback was a debit mark in football accounting. That has not been the case among a talented pack of first-year starters this season. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel is a Heisman favorite as a redshirt freshman. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota wasn’t far behind him before his team was knocked off by Stanford’s late-surging rookie Kevin Hogan last week. And, of course, Everett Golson has continued to improve each week while helping the Irish to the top of the national polls.

“I think it starts with you have to have a football IQ to play the position as a freshman,” Kelly said. “You have to know the game you have to have some skill set there that allows you to play the game while you’re learning.”

Golson’s skill that kept him in the lineup as he improved was his ability to escape and improvise. Wittek can move as well for a big quarterback, but his strength is in his powerful arm.

“He’s got a live arm. He’ll certainly fit into their offensive scheme. He’s a perfect fit for what they do,” Kelly said.

Wittek has the arm strength to reach any of his receivers — whom Kelly called the best collective unit in the country — anywhere on the field. The biggest deep threat for the Trojans this year is sophomore Marqise Lee. Lee leads the nation in receiving yards and in big plays. He has made seven catches of more than 50 yards so far this season and will be a challenge for Notre Dame’s sure-tackling secondary.

“Oh boy, incredible just acceleration after the catch,” Kelly said. “If you look at what he does after the catch, that’s where it gets really scary.”

Three of Notre Dame’s top five tacklers this season are defensive backs. Senior Zeke Motta (56 tackles) is a distant second behind linebacker Manti Te’o. Cornerbacks Bennett Jackson (55) and KeiVarae Russell (47) are third and fifth, respectively. Their ability to keep USC’s speedy receivers wrapped up and force Wittek to nickel and dime his way down the field will be a deciding factor in how well USC is able to move the ball Saturday.

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