Junior tailback Curtis McNeal remembers growing up, watching some of USC’s biggest players — Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Mike Williams — play in what was arguably college football’s greatest rivalry.
One day, he dreamed of doing the same.
“You always want to play on the biggest stage,” McNeal said. “And this is one of the biggest stages that college football has to offer. I’m excited and looking forward to it.”
The USC-Notre Dame rivalry stretches back to 1926 and the teams will square off for 83rd time Saturday night in South Bend, Ind. For just the 10th time in the history, however, neither the Trojans nor the Fighting Irish are ranked in the Associated Press top-25.
The buildup to the meeting might not have the same flair as it did four years ago, but the matchup has not deterred the players one bit from focusing on the task at hand.
“Because it’s Notre Dame, there will be a lot of hype surrounding it,” sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey said. “[But] we’re ready, we’re prepared and we’re focused.”
And USC will need to be focused.
Notre Dame enters on a four-game winning streak after dropping its first two contests of the season to South Florida and Michigan. In their four wins, the Fighting Irish have averaged almost 36 points per contest, limiting opponents to just 17 points per game.
Defensively, Notre Dame features junior linebacker Manti Te’o, one of the top linebackers in the country. Te’o, who USC heavily recruited in 2009, leads the Fighting Irish defense with 59 tackles and four sacks. Along with Te’o, cornerbacks Robert Blanton and Gary Gray anchor a secondary that has six interceptions on the season.
“Notre Dame is a very good team,” junior quarterback Matt Barkley said. “They’re very talented on defense. They have an experienced group of seniors who know what they’re doing.”
Though Notre Dame’s defense boasts a veteran group, USC’s offense, led by Barkley and sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods, average 30 points per game and almost 431 yards per contest. The play of freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee has given the Trojans another weapon on the perimeter besides Woods.
Lee did suffer a shoulder injury last Thursday at California and was forced to leave the game in the second quarter. Nonetheless, the Inglewood, Calif., native plans to play. Lee’s injury isn’t the only USC health concern, as senior tailback Marc Tyler dislocated his left shoulder against Cal. Tyler, however, practiced this week and stated earlier he is willing to play even if he reinjures his shoulder. The coaching staff, however, has its hesitations.
“It says a lot about Marc to make that statement,” Kiffin said. “It says a lot about his dedication to this program with all that he’s been through. But it’s our job as coaches to make sure that we’re doing it in the best interest for the whole season.”
Should Tyler not be able to go, McNeal would likely get the starting nod with freshman tailback George Farmer getting more carries than usual as well.
“I was a little nervous in my first game, but I feel I’m a little bit more comfortable now,” said Farmer, who ran the ball four times for four yards against Cal. “Coming into Notre Dame, I’m ready to do a little bit more than last week.”
On the other side of the ball, the Trojans’ defense is also hurting. Redshirt freshman cornerback Anthony Brown broke his ankle last week against Cal and was ruled out for the season and sophomore cornerback Torin Harris is still recovering from a shoulder injury. With the secondary in shambles, junior cornerback Isiah Wiley, a junior college transfer, could get the start opposite Robey.
Wiley played significant snaps for the first time last week against the Golden Bears, but despite his inexperience, Robey believes he’s ready.
“I’m excited to see what’s going to happen,” Robey said. “He’s been working hard and doing all the right things to go out on Saturday to [do well].”
The defense, which forced five turnovers against Cal, will have its hands full trying to slow down Notre Dame’s quarterback-wide receiver combination of Tommy Rees and Michael Floyd. Rees has thrown for more than 1500 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Floyd has notched 639 yards receiving and four touchdowns this season.
“They have great chemistry between each other,” Robey said. “Floyd is a great athlete — an NFL receiver. I’m expecting to see a little bit of everything from him. Rees is a great player and you got to give respect to him. I know they’re ready.”
With the hype that surrounds two of the most storied programs in college football history, the coaching staff understands it cannot let such a young, inexperienced team get distracted.
“I think because of our age and because we’re so young, the last thing you want to do is build it up too much,” Kiffin said. “It comes down to playing well and not adding too much pressure.”
Even the players understand it comes down to the game and not the speculation and media attention off the field.
“We need to match Notre Dame’s intensity, outplay them and outhustle them,” Robey said. “They’re a good team. They’re fundamentally sound. But at the end of the day, it’ll come down to who wants it more.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and the game will be televised on NBC.