Trojans running back Curtis McNeal scores on a 22-yard pass play against… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
USC has a chance to end a disappointing regular season on a high note by spoiling top-ranked and unbeaten Notre Dame's chance to play for the Bowl Championship Series title. Times staff writer Gary Klein examines the game's matchups and story lines:
No. 1 priority
USC has not fared well against opponents ranked No. 1.
The Trojans are 7-11 against top-ranked teams in the Associated Press media poll and have not won since 1984, when they defeated Washington, 16-7, at the Coliseum.
However, those seven wins against No. 1 teams are second only to the Irish's eight.
This is the eighth time USC will play a top-ranked Notre Dame team, the sixth time at the Coliseum.
The Trojans have not a defeated a No. 1-ranked Notre Dame team since 1964, when the unranked Trojans upset the Fighting Irish, 20-17.
New kid on the block
A week ago, Max Wittek probably was thinking about bowl-game preparation and the first-team practice reps that go to young players and backups. Now, the redshirt freshman quarterback is right in the middle of the biggest game of the college season.
Matt Barkley's sprained shoulder elevated Wittek to the Trojans' starter. Wittek's first test comes against one of the nation's best defenses, a unit that has given up only nine touchdowns.
The strong-armed redshirt freshman has completed eight of nine passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. Biletnikoff Award finalist Marqise Lee, fellow wide receiver Robert Woods and tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer provide Wittek with plenty of talented targets.
Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson has completed 59% of his passes. He has passed for 11 touchdowns, with five interceptions. The redshirt freshman from South Carolina also has rushed for 258 yards and five touchdowns and is adept at running the option.
Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert and receiver TJ Jones each have 40 receptions and four touchdowns.
USC's Curtis McNeal was slowed by injuries and the presence of transfer Silas Redd for most of the season. But the senior has rushed for more than 160 yards in each of the last two games and could play a pivotal role if USC Coach Lane Kiffin decides to play conservatively with Wittek starting for the first time.
Redd has been nursing a leg injury that forced him to sit out against Arizona State and limited him to three carries against UCLA.
Notre Dame's Cierre Wood, who played at Oxnard Santa Clara High, has averaged 80 yards per game and has rushed for four touchdowns in nine games. Wood and George Atkinson III have averaged 7.1 yards per carry.
Theo Riddick has a team-high 160 carries and has averaged 66.7 yards per game. Riddick, a converted receiver, also has 32 receptions, one for a touchdown.
Line 'em up
Notre Dame's offensive line is dominated by seniors who are expected to give USC's defensive line its biggest test.
USC's offensive line also faces a great challenge against a Notre Dame front seven regarded as one of the best.
Senior Manti Te'o, flanked by fellow linebackers Prince Shembo, Dan Fox and Danny Spond, is the heart and soul of a defense that is tied for first nationally with Alabama in scoring defense and has given up only 287.8 yards a game.
Sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt has 12 sacks for a line that includes end Kapron Lewis-Moore and nose guard Louis Nix III.
USC kicker Andre Heidari, who had knee surgery in September, has made eight of 13 field-goal attempts. Last week against UCLA, he missed a field-goal attempt, had another blocked and also missed an extra-point attempt.
Punter Kyle Negrete has averaged 42.2 yards per kick. Lee has averaged 29.3 yards per kickoff return.
Notre Dame's Kyle Brindza has made 18 of 25 field-goal attempts, the longest from 47 yards.
Punter Ben Turk has averaged 40.3 yards per kick. Atkinson has averaged 20.5 yards per kickoff return.
Notre Dame's defense is hailed as its strength, but the Trojans have caused 29 turnovers — eight more than the Irish — and rank sixth nationally among 120 major college teams.
However, Notre Dame's offense takes care of the ball. The Irish have committed only 14 turnovers.
USC has lost the ball 29 times.