Sunday, November 25, 2012
Postgame notes: Notre Dame at USC
By Pedro Moura
LOS ANGELES -- A couple of minutes after the final whistle in No. 1 Notre Dame's 22-13 win over the unranked USC Trojans at the Coliseum on Saturday night, Irish linebacker Manti Te'o stood on the field answering questions from reporters.
One inquiry: Was he happy with his team's defensive performance?
Te'o shook his head.
"We don't like being scored on," he said. "Although it happened, we came back and made sure that it wouldn't happen again."
About an hour later, USC safety T.J. McDonald was asked the same question as he left the Coliseum for the final time.
"I felt like it was one of our better efforts," he said. "I mean, they scored one time."
Is that, perhaps, one of the main reasons why this USC team went from preseason No. 1 to postseason No. 30-something, and the Irish did the opposite?
McDonald was relatively happy with allowing one touchdown (and five field goals). So were his USC teammates and coaches. Te'o wasn't.
Settling, clearly, was an issue for the Trojans this season.
What was their best performance of the year? They beat only one respectable team by more than 13 points; that was the Arizona State Sun Devils two weeks ago. Their other wins over teams with more than three victories this season came by 13, 10 and 10 points.
For all the expectations placed on them by the outside world, maybe their own expectations should've been higher.
Will Woods be back?
USC has a few draft-eligible players who could feasibly declare early over the next two months, but the most interesting case is that of receiver Robert Woods, who has seen his stock drop significantly this season.
At this time last year, Woods was thought of as a surefire first-round pick and potentially a top-15 guy upon being draft eligible following his junior year this season. Now he seems to be vacillating between the first and second rounds.
Will Woods leave? He says he doesn't know yet, although he said he will "probably" submit a pre-draft evaluation request to the NFL draft advisory board by the mid-December deadline.
"I gotta see what will benefit me more, staying or leaving," Woods said.
Woods said his decision will not be made solely by the draft-round grade he receives from the board. Asked if he expected his teammates to try to sway him in the coming weeks, Woods laughed.
"I'm not sure how that works," Woods said. "I guess I gotta talk to T.J. and Matt [Barkley]."
He said sophomore-to-be Max Wittek coming back as the Trojans' quarterback "definitely has an impact" on his decision.
"I believe in Max," Woods said. "I know he has a strong arm and he can get me the ball."
First-year USC receivers coach Tee Martin said he's been privately lobbying for Woods to come back since he took the job in the spring.
"Whichever way he goes, I'll support him," Martin said. "Robert Woods is one of the best receivers in college football."
If Wittek isn't the Trojans' starting quarterback next September, it'd be a sizable surprise, despite coach Lane Kiffin's efforts last week to portray the race as renewed between Wittek and Cody Kessler next spring. Throw in to that mix likely January enrollee Max Browne, who Kiffin didn't mention by name.
But Kessler's name wasn't uttered once in USC's coaches and players’ postgame interviews on Saturday night. Whenever next season was brought up, Wittek's name was mentioned along with it.
Receiver Marqise Lee said he's "going to make sure to get a lot of time together" with Wittek in the offseason.
"He's probably going to see me more than he sees his parents," Lee said.
USC center Khaled Holmes, a senior, said Wittek's performance stepping in for the injured Matt Barkley reminded him of Cyrus Hobbi replacing Holmes earlier in the year at Stanford.
"He did a great job," Holmes said of Wittek. "Much like the situation Cyrus was put in earlier this year, it was an unbelievably difficult situation."
McDonald gathered his defensive teammates for a brief pregame speech in the locker room before Kiffin addressed the greater team.
His message: "All that matters is the guys that are in this room right now. All the outsiders might try to pick at us, but all that matters is these guys right here."
He said his teammates responded admirably.
"Guys were pumped up," McDonald said. "I can't say enough about these guys.
"You could see the extra fight for the seniors. But we came up short."
USC linebacker Hayes Pullard said he felt more energy as a result of the captain's words.
"We just dug in deep and gave it our all," Pullard said.
Message to the fans?
Several players were asked after Saturday's game what they would tell fans who were disappointed with a five-loss season, considering the preseason expectations.
"Great teams lose," Lee said. "They're fans. It's harder than it looks."
Running back Curtis McNeal, who left the stadium with a sling on his left shoulder, said things just didn't go the Trojans' way. He couldn't elaborate any further when pressed.
"We had every opponent down to a T," he said. "I guess it just wasn't in the cards for us."
Kiffin was asked about the same topic in his postgame news conference.
"I'm disappointed, too,” he said. “I hear 'em. I feel 'em. Those aren't our standards here, regardless of the amount of scholarships or any of those things that we're under. We've gotta do better. And obviously that starts with me."
Final notes: Lee broke Woods' conference record for receptions in a season with 53-yard grab in the fourth quarter. He now has 112 catches for 1,680 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.
In the five games this season that USC turned the ball over as many or fewer times than its opponent, the Trojans were 5-0. In the seven games USC had more turnovers than the opposition? 2-5.
Notre Dame's Te'o on his pregame handshake with Barkley, who was out for the game with a sprained throwing shoulder: "I just told him to enjoy it. He's going to have a successful career in the NFL and in life itself."