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November 21, 2012

Wittek + wideouts still a worry

Like two seasons ago when Matt Barkley was sidelined with an injury and USC was forced to play with a backup, the reeling Trojans (7-4) will come into Saturday night’s clash with No. 1-ranked Notre Dame (11-0) with the No. 2 man on the depth chart at the controls.

In 2010, Mitch Mustain replaced an ailing Barkley and fell short, 20-16, as Notre Dame marched down the field for the game-winning score with 2:23 remaining.

This time, it will be red-shirt freshman Max Wittek - a former Irish recruit - who will replace Barkley and try to spoil Notre Dame’s ride to the national championship.

Mustain had some playing experience under his belt. He was 8-0 as a starter at Arkansas before transferring to USC after one season. Wittek, a five-star signalcaller out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., has thrown just nine passes this season. He’s completed eight of those nine passes for 95 yards and a touchdown.

Big and strong at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, he has all the physical attributes to get the job done against the Irish, who don’t look at the trigger man as much as they do the guys on the receiving end of Wittek’s throws.

In Marqise Lee, a sophomore, and Robert Woods, a junior, the Trojans boast a one-two punch that is unparalleled in college football. They combined for 184 receptions for 2,435 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2011, and are now posting crazy numbers again in 2012, only this time with Lee in the lead role.

Lee has caught 107 passes for 1,605 yards (15.0-yard average per catch, 145.9 per game) and 14 touchdowns. Woods has 66 receptions for 721 yards (10.9 yards per catch, 65.5 per game) and 10 touchdowns. Last year, it was Woods who had 111 receptions for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns while Lee, just a freshman, had 73 catches for 1,143 yards and 11 scores.

“Their receiving corps is as good as we’ll see. It’s the best in the country in our opinion,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “It’s what you thought. It’s the USC offense with great weapons, great balance, and will be a great challenge.”

Without a veteran triggerman like Barkley - who suffered a right shoulder injury in last week’s 38-28 loss to UCLA - the Trojans won’t be in sync like they would be with the Pac 12’s career record-holder for total offense (12,213), passing yards (12,327), completions (1,001) and touchdown passes (116).

But Kelly knows that Wittek is a threat with the components to make life easier for the young signalcaller.

“We don’t know a lot about Max,” Kelly said. “We certainly saw him at the end of some games. He’s on scholarship at USC, and when you get a scholarship to USC, you’re one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Big, strong, physical kid. He’s got a live arm and will certainly fit into their offensive scheme. He’s a perfect fit for what they do.

“Great kid, comes from a great program, has the pedigree, just one of those guys that you draw up (as) the prototypical quarterback - 6-foot-4, has a strong arm, has escapability, student of the game, great character kid.”

What the Irish don’t know about Wittek can be ascertained by following the trail that leads to Lee and Woods. Woods caught 12 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s 31-17 victory in Notre Dame Stadium. Woods also caught eight passes for 81 yards as a freshman against Notre Dame in 2010.

Lee only caught two passes for 36 yards last season against the Irish, who represent one of the last teams to slow the dynamic 6-foot-0, 195-pounder.

Lee has double-digit catches in seven of 11 games, and at least 100 yards receiving in eight of 11 games. Against Arizona, he caught 16 passes for an incomparable 345 yards (21.5 yards per catch) and two scores. He’s had at least 100 yards receiving in six of the last seven games.

“Incredible acceleration after the catch,” said Kelly of Lee. “If you look at what he does after the catch, that’s where it gets really scary.

“Secondly, they do a great job of setting up formations to get him one-on-one match-ups. They’re always prodding your defense to get him matched up where they get some great one-on-one looks. They do a very good job of finding him and getting him the ball. He’s not catching a hitch route and having three guys hammer him. They’re putting him in great position to catch the football and get big chunk plays.”

While the roles of Lee and Woods have reversed this season, one thing that won’t be changing is Notre Dame’s defensive approach. The Irish will dance with the partner that got them to No. 1 in the nation both in the polls and in scoring defense.

“We’re going to do what we do,” Kelly said. “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.

“This guy watches football all year. He’s going to be watching film. He knows our defense. We’re going to do what we do because that’s gotten us to this point.”

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