Notre Dame knows what’s coming, whether it’s open or not.
Regardless of what defensive scheme Bob Diaco crafts for Saturday night, the Irish secondary expects the Trojans to push the ball vertically more than any opponent has all season. Not only does USC have the best receiver tandem in college football in Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, those athletes have a head coach bent on getting them the football.
Understanding how two receivers could combine for 173 catches, 2,326 yards and 24 receiving touchdowns means understanding USC’s willingness to gamble with its NFL talent.
“Half the time they’re not really open,” said cornerback Bennett Jackson. “They’re going to throw it up and they’re going to let their guys make plays. It’s going to be down to the guys back there to win the battle for the ball.”
Woods’ 12 catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns against Notre Dame last year still register with the Irish. And that makes Lee’s ascension to USC’s No. 1 target all the more remarkable.
The sophomore posted the fifth-most single-game receiving yards in NCAA history last month with 345 at Arizona. With 469 all-purpose yards in that game, Lee’s performance ranks second all-time in college football. His 408 all-purpose yards against Oregon three week ago ranks No. 16 all-time.
Lee’s 14 receiving touchdowns average 36.6 yards in distance, which is where he’ll butt heads with Notre Dame. The Irish have allowed just one 40-yard completion to a receiver all season, against Navy in the opener.
Notre Dame’s big play pass defense has improved every year under Diaco. The Irish allowed 36 explosive pass plays in his first year in South Bend, those plays defined as completions of at least 20 yards. That number dropped to 27 explosives last season. It’s at 20 this year with two games remaining.
Completions of at least 30 yards have dropped from 11 to eight to five during that span.
“From what I’ve seen it’s going to come down to not waiting, but going to them,” said safety Zeke Motta said. “Not letting them make their move, but attacking them.”
The senior expects USC’s gambling approach to be amplified with freshman quarterback Max Wittek starting in place of senior Matt Barkley, sidelined by a shoulder sprain. Wittek has attempted just nine career passes.
“That’s going to give us more opportunities,” Motta said. “If we’re on our business, that’s good for us. If we’re not, then it’s not.”
Motta said the numbers of Lee and Woods have been enhanced by how defenses defend them. Lane Kiffin has taken criticism for a reliance on bubble screens and short passes, but Motta has seen those throws turn into big plays as opponents watch those receivers run.
“There’s maybe a screen play and (Lee) will take it all the way across the field or he’ll take it halfway across the field and make a cut straight up the middle,” Motta said. “Because people are waiting, that sets up more blocks. If you just run straight at him, nobody’s going to be able to block you.
“They have great athletic ability, but everybody on our defense is always flying to the ball. If all 11 people are going at the ball, then you can’t really have big plays on you unless you get the ball behind you. As a defensive back that’s what we’re told not to do. If the ball’s in front of you there’s always a chance to get him down. If he’s down and he didn’t score, there’s always a chance to hold him again. That’s how it is.”
That’s how Notre Dame expects it to be on Saturday.