LOS ANGELES -- The Trojans were back at work on Tuesday morning in full pads, and as USC head coach Lane Kiffin explained, the team appears to have finally moved past the crushing defeat to UCLA this past weekend, with their focus now firmly honed in on preparing for the top-ranked team in the nation, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
“Great to get back out on the field,” Kiffin said. “We have moved on from Saturday, and it’s a good thing we have the No. 1 team in the country coming in here and an awesome opportunity for us to go out in front of our crowd and finish the regular season the way that we wanted to all along. I know our players are excited to get back out there. A great day of work today, and we’ll continue to plug along all week.”
Wittek in the spotlight
Of course, no one drew more attention from the media following practice than redshirt freshman quarterback Max Wittek, who will be making his first career start this weekend in place of the injured Matt Barkley, and Kiffin was encouraged by what he saw on Tuesday.
“I thought Max was awesome today, lit it up in team, 7-on-7 and one-on-ones, so it was great to see,” Kiffin said.
Showing the zeal and eagerness that you’d expect of a still-young player who has patiently waited his turn, Wittek said that he is more than looking forward to the chance to make his mark on center stage in one of college football’s greatest rivalries.
“I’m so excited for this opportunity, to get out there, play in front of the Coliseum, all our fans, No. 1 team in the country -- you really can’t ask for a better opportunity to show what you’ve got,” Wittek said. “I think I just want to get that first snap, maybe that first hit out of the way and I’ll be ready to go.”
The youthful enthusiasm that Wittek exudes is something that Kiffin believes will serve him well.
“I think sometimes what’s good is to be so young that you don’t know, and it’s almost good because it doesn’t apply the pressure,” Kiffin said. “So I think he’s just going to go out and play, and it doesn’t matter who you’re playing or the rivalry -- it will be about him executing really well.”
As far as the skills that Wittek will bring to the table against Notre Dame, Kiffin spoke extremely favorably of the Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei product, comparing him to a former Trojans Heisman Trophy winner.
“I think he is a prototype pro-style quarterback, probably most comparable to Carson [Palmer], you know with the big arm and the size -- he’s already 240 pounds just as a redshirt freshman,” Kiffin said. “So all of the tools are there. He’s very competitive, and so it will be a great opportunity to show the world Saturday.”
Barkley staying upbeat
With Barkley ruled out against Notre Dame due to a sprained AC joint that he suffered against UCLA, Kiffin has taken the step of including the senior signal-caller in a number of coaching meetings this week to better prepare him for what life is like in the NFL. For his part, Barkley is refusing to get down, and he doesn’t second-guess his decision to return for his fourth and final season at USC.
“I took a chance, and I don’t think enough guys go for it these days,” Barkley said. “I did, and it didn’t turn out the way I planned, but I think over these last four years I’ve learned so much, grown, matured a lot this last year, and it will prepare me for the next level and for later in life, so I don’t regret anything.”
Barkley has also taken an active role in supporting his replacement.
“Matt has been great,” Wittek said. “He’s such a supportive leader. He realized soon after that he wasn’t going to be able to play in this game, so he shot me a text and he said, ‘Get ready. Let’s go beat the Irish.’ So obviously I take that to heart.”
Te’o and the Notre Dame defense
Wittek and the USC offense have a tall order on their hands, as they’re set to go up against arguably the top defense in all of college football. With a dominant front seven setting the tone, Notre Dame currently ranks No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 5 against the run and No. 6 in total defense.
“Really hardly anybody’s done anything against them all year,” Kiffin said. “They’ve really played so well against the run, they’ve made teams be forced into really tough third-down situations. So whether it’s run or pass, you’ve got to make yards.”
The Trojans will have to be especially mindful of highly regarded inside linebacker Manti Te'o, the Irish's emotional leader who paces the team with 98 tackles and 6 interceptions.
“Well, I think first off he’s a great player, and very physical, has ball skills like a DB, but I think it’s more important what he does for his team,” Kiffin said. “You know, when you get that dominant MIKE linebacker that’s the best in the country like that, it sets the tempo not just for the defense, but the whole team.”