Max Wittek is set to make his first start against the No. 1 Irish. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Max Wittek is a redshirt freshman without a college start on his resume.
But USC's 19-year-old quarterback said his inexperience gave him at least one advantage going into Saturday's game at the Coliseum against top-ranked Notre Dame.
"Not being able to have seen me before," Wittek said of the Fighting Irish, "they don't know that to expect."
Talk about unexpected: It's been a season of surprises.
In August, USC was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press media poll, Coach Lane Kiffin was hailed as the savvy architect of a program unbroken by severe NCAA sanctions, Matt Barkley was a Heisman Trophy front-runner and the Trojans envisioned a trip to South Florida for the Bowl Championship Series title game.
Three months later, USC is 7-4 and unranked, fans are calling for Kiffin's head, Barkley is sidelined because of a sprained shoulder and an unenviable bowl trip to El Paso could be in the Trojans' future.
Meanwhile, a Notre Dame team absent from the preseason top 25 is 11-0. After consecutive 8-5 seasons, Brian Kelly a is coach-of-the-year candidate. Linebacker Manti Te'o is in the Heisman mix and, perhaps most important, the Irish are two victories from their first national title since 1988.
The scenario has made Kiffin and the Trojans unlikely favored sons in Southeastern Conference country, where fans are rooting for an upset that would eliminate 51/2-point favorite Notre Dame from the BCS title equation.
Not that Kiffin is worried about repairing his image in the South. There's plenty of heat here at home.
After last week's 38-28 loss to UCLA, Athletic Director Pat Haden told Bill Plaschke of The Times, "Lane is my head coach, 150%, now and hopefully for a long time."
That did little to soothe a Trojans fan base that has watched USC lose three of its last four games.
Kiffin, citing the Trojans' Oct. 27 loss at Arizona and November defeats against Oregon and UCLA, said this week, "We've had a disaster month."
Spoiling Notre Dame's title hopes would end USC's regular season on a higher note. "It's a great opportunity," Kiffin said, "for our fans and our players to feel good."
USC's coaching staff is feeling relieved that Notre Dame — "an old-school football team," Kiffin said — does not run a spread-option offense.
Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson is mobile in the pocket and runs option plays. But the Irish present a far more traditional scheme than the Pac-12 opponents that have sliced and diced the Trojans' defense.
"They line up and say, 'This is what we're doing. Let's see who can do it better,'" USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said.
The big question mark for USC is Wittek.
At 6 feet 4 and 245 pounds, he is bigger and more mobile than Barkley and probably has a stronger arm.
What he lacks is the experience Barkley gained in 47 USC starts — including victories over the Irish at South Bend in 2009 and 2011.
Kelly said this week that Notre Dame would not change its game plan.
"For us to go into one game and say, 'All right, we're going to do different things to confuse Max,' that's really crazy," Kelly said, adding, "We're going to do what we do, because that's gotten us to this point."
Two years ago, fifth-year senior Mitch Mustain started against Notre Dame at the Coliseum in place of an injured Barkley. The Irish won, 20-16, ending an eight-game losing streak against the Trojans.
The stakes are far greater for Notre Dame this time around.
Barkley said Wittek was ready for the challenge.
"I don't think Max is going to be nervous or afraid of anything," he said, "I think he'll let it rip."
Wittek hopes he gets the chance.
"I'm looking forward to having fun out there," he said.