USC quarterback Max Wittek will make his first start on Saturday against… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
Max Wittek and Matt Barkley huddled briefly Tuesday after practice, the USC quarterbacks sharing a laugh and perhaps strategy before facing a phalanx of reporters and camera operators in separate interviews.
Wittek wore a grin on his bearded face, Barkley a black sling on his injured right arm.
For Wittek, a redshirt freshman who will start in place of Barkley on Saturday against Notre Dame, it was a first turn in the spotlight.
While Barkley met with reporters, Wittek did a radio interview.
"I'm going to go out there," Wittek said in the interview, "I'm going to play within myself, within the system, and we're going to win this ballgame."
Some media outlets construed that as Wittek's guaranteeing a victory.
It really didn't sound as if that's what he was doing, though. Rather, he sounded poised and confident as he prepared for a game that has huge ramifications for the top-ranked Fighting Irish, the Bowl Championship Series standings and a once-No. 1 Trojans team trying to salvage a disappointing season.
"You really can't ask for a better opportunity to show what you've got," Wittek said.
Wittek's opportunity is at hand because Barkley suffered a sprained shoulder when sacked late in the fourth quarter of Saturday's loss to UCLA. The injury interrupted a season that has not gone as planned for the Trojans or Barkley, the preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
Barkley intends to return for USC's bowl game next month. But as in 2010, when he was sidelined because of an ankle injury, he will sit out against Notre Dame at the Coliseum.
This time, however, it's the senior's final home game.
His answers to questions Tuesday were sometimes frank — "It sucks that this game, it's ending this way, not being able to suit up" —- and sometimes philosophical. "Nothing is always as it's supposed to be in life," he said. "Often things go to plan, but a lot of times things don't go according to plan. So it's something you have to deal with, and I'll handle it and stay positive."
Barkley reiterated that he did not regret forgoing the 2012 NFL draft to stay at USC for a final season.
"I took a chance," he said. "I don't think enough guys really go for it enough these days. And I did. And it didn't turn out the way I planned.
"But I think over these last four years, and especially this year, I've learned so much and grown and matured a lot. . . . And that will prepare me for the next level and later in life. And so, I don't regret it one bit."
Coach Lane Kiffin said that Barkley, while also mentoring Wittek and backup quarterback Cody Kessler this week, would also sit in on coaches' meetings to gain added perspective for NFL draft preparation.
Meanwhile, the 19-year-old Wittek appeared eager to take on the Irish.
"Obviously, it's not an ideal situation," Wittek said of Barkley's injury. "But it is what happened, so we're going to deal with that and we're going to try and go win this ballgame."
Wittek has played in six games, completing eight of nine passes for 95 yards and a touchdown.
At 6 feet 4 and 245 pounds, he is taller and heavier than the 6-2 Barkley and has more zip on his passes.
"You feel it in your hands when he hits you," receiver Robert Woods said.
"Max throws too hard," receiver Marqise Lee said, laughing. "But, I mean, that's perfect. He gets the ball there in time for you to turn around and make some moves and do what you've got to do."
Two years ago, Mitch Mustain started in place of Barkley and passed 38 times in a 20-16 loss to Notre Dame.
Wittek said he would be prepared for whatever game plan Kiffin installs.
"I'm looking forward to airing it out a little bit," he said. "Hand it, roll out, whatever they need me to do, I'm ready to make those plays."
Wittek faces a tough challenge.
Notre Dame's defense, led by middle linebacker Manti Te'o, has given up only nine touchdowns, fewer than any major-college team.
"They're a great defense," Wittek said, "but every defense does have their soft spots."
Kiffin and Wittek's teammates said that they do not expect the quarterback to shy from the challenge of playing on such a grand stage. "Sometimes," Kiffin said, "what's good is to be so young that you don't know. . . . So I think he's just going to go out and play."
That's what Wittek did last week in the closing minutes against UCLA. As Barkley lay motionless on the field, Wittek warmed up on the sideline. When the senior left the game, Wittek went in for his first meaningful playing time. After a fumble on the first snap, he completed all three of his passes and managed the situation with poise.
"Overall," he said, "I was ready for the opportunity."
Another awaits Saturday.
Linebacker Hayes Pullard did not practice in pads and left the workout early. . . . Center Khaled Holmes was selected to the Pac-12 Conference's All-Academic team. Barkley was selected to the second team. . . . Thirteen players are scheduled to go to the Los Angeles Mission on Wednesday to serve meals to the homeless, the school announced.