Saturday’s rivalry game against Notre Dame featured an unfamiliar sight at the Coliseum.
The Trojan faithful saw a very casual-looking Matt Barkley on the gridiron: no pads, no cleats, no helmet and, most importantly, no footballs thrown by his record-setting right arm.
The senior signal caller, who missed the game because of an AC sprain, strode out onto the field for Senior Day wearing, more or less, gym clothes. He held USC’s victory ‘V’ high above his head with his left arm, saluting the fans and then embracing his coach.
After UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, who leads the Pac-12 in sacks, planted USC’s four-year starter on a blindside hit in the Trojans’ 38-28 defeat at the Rose Bowl, redshirt freshman Max Wittek was selected to step up to the plate.
It wasn’t a storybook start for Wittek, who completed 14 of 23 passes for 186 yards and one touchdown as the Trojans fell 22-13 to the Fighting Irish. Though the 19-year-old gunslinger gave up two interceptions and took two sacks on his debut, USC coach Lane Kiffin said the Mater Dei alumnus played with poise.
“Max did really well for the situation,” Kiffin said. “I thought that in his first start in a national stage game versus what some people would call the best defense in the country … he did a good job handling himself.”
After the game, Barkley also told Wittek he was proud of him.
“You played your heart out,” Barkley said, according to Wittek. “Mistakes will come.”
Wittek’s sole touchdown toss came at the beginning of the second quarter, when he found junior wide receiver Robert Woods for an 11-yard score that would put USC’s first points on the board.
But perhaps more important than his statistical output, Wittek steps away from his first start with a taste of what’s expected of him.
“I believe: Take it as it comes,” Wittek said. “I definitely got a lot of great experience out there today against a great defense. They’ve been stopping offenses all year. I think there’s a lot to learn from, and I look forward to watching the tape.”
Lee and Woods
Upon reeling in catch No. 112, sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee broke teammate Robert Woods’ Pac-12 single-season receptions record. Record aside, Lee finished the night with 75 yards and no touchdowns, connecting with Wittek for only five receptions.
On a 13-play, 80-yard drive, though, Wittek rifled Lee a crucial four-yard pass, which appeared to be caught in the end zone. But before the snap, Kiffin called a timeout, which nullified the potential six points.
“We’re pretty synced up together,” Wittek said of Lee. “Just a couple of balls, maybe I should have put them further to the outside to give him a better chance to make a play, but with a guy like Marqise, a lot of times you can just throw it up there and he can make the play for you.”
Though his single-season record was broken, Woods had a standout day at the Coliseum, finishing with seven catches for 92 yards and one touchdown. The junior looked like the Trojans’ most potent offensive weapon, despite what has felt like a season-long focus on Lee’s playmaking abilities.
Trojan fans will await Woods’ decision this offseason as to whether he will enter the 2013 NFL Draft. Woods did not confirm after the game whether he would seek an evaluation from NFL scouts.
The luck o’ the Irish
No. 1 Notre Dame finished Saturday’s game with a commanding nine-point lead, keeping the Trojans at bay and essentially advancing to the BCS national championship game.
The Irish defense consistently tightened up in the red zone, creating a couple frustrating goal-line possessions for the Trojans and pinning USC’s offense to finish 1 of 9 on third- and fourth-down conversions.
“It’s so hard to score touchdowns versus them — the ball’s on the 2-inch line, you think you could score touchdowns there,” Kiffin said. “You’d like to think that with that many snaps you could at least score a touchdown.”
Led by linebacker and Heisman Trophy candidate Manti Te’o, who finished the night with five tackles and one interception, Notre Dame’s defense has only allowed eight touchdowns in 33 red zone possessions — the lowest ratio for any Football Bowl Subdivision defense in the last eight seasons.
The undefeated Irish will likely play the SEC champion, Alabama or Georgia, in January’s national championship in Miami. Alabama and Georgia face off Saturday at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
Turning a new leaf
The Trojans cap the regular season at 7-5 after what was projected to be a triumphant bout of “unfinished business.” USC is the first preseason No. 1 squad to end its season unranked since Ole Miss in 1964.
Bedeviled by turnovers, penalties and slow starts, the Trojans lost four of their last five games, including upset losses to UCLA and Arizona. Much of the trouble also stemmed from USC’s defense, including a problematic secondary, but players are looking forward to one last chance at some gridiron redemption.
“We got to soak it in,” sophomore linebacker Hayes Pullard said of Saturday’s loss. “We have to prepare for the bowl game, we have to get ready for that.”
According to various projections, USC is expected to play in the Las Vegas Bowl, Sun Bowl or Holiday Bowl, although nothing has been confirmed.
Beyond their bowl game, the Trojans hope to make the necessary adjustments during the offseason to prepare for the 2013 season.
“We’re going to look at everything, just like we did last offseason,” Kiffin said. “We’re going to take our time and really go back and look at the whole season, and figure out where we can improve.”
– Attendance at the Coliseum was announced as a sellout crowd of 93,607.
– Saturday’s match up was the fifth-straight game that a USC starting quarterback threw at least two interceptions.
– In USC’s five losses in 2012, the offense turned the ball over 16 times.