With a spot in the BCS National Championship Game on the line, the top-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish close out their regular season on the road, taking on the reeling, but always dangerous USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Thanks to losses by both Oregon and Kansas State last week, coupled with Notre Dame's shutout of Wake Forest, Brian Kelly's Irish moved to the top of the top-25 poll, as well as the BCS rankings. The 11-0 Irish sit atop the national polls for the first time since 1993.
Lane Kiffin's Trojans began the season as the top team in the land, but have not lived up to the lofty expectations and come into the regular-season finale at just 7-4 overall, including a rather mediocre 5-4 mark in the Pac-12. USC has struggled hard down the stretch, with losses in three of its last four games, including a 38-28 loss to crosstown rival UCLA last weekend that cost the team the Pac-12 South title.
One of the nation's most heated non-conference rivalries, Notre Dame holds a 43-35-5 series advantage against USC. The Trojans however, has won nine of the last 10 meetings.
Despite being a defensive team first and foremost, Notre Dame has made enough plays offensively to earn 11 victories. The ground game has been the preferred mode of travel for the Irish, who are averaging a hefty 200.7 yards per game (33rd nationally). The passing game plays second fiddle in South Bend, but is responsible for 219.0 yards per outing.
Freshman quarterback Everett Golson has shown flashes of strong play, completing 59 percent of his passes, for 1,918 yards and 11 TDs. Golson's athleticism makes him even more dangerous with his ability to get outside the pocket and extend plays.
The offense has been aided by a four-pronged ground assault, as tailbacks Theo Riddick (734 yards, four TDs), Cierre Wood (720 yards, four TDs), George Atkinson III (346 yards, five TDs) and Golson himself (258 yards, five TDs) have all made their share of big plays.
When the Irish do pass the ball, the likely targets are tight end Tyler Eifert (40 receptions, 555 yards, four TDs) and wideout TJ Jones (40 receptions, 519 yards, four TDs).
Still, the engine to the Irish program is a defense that is tied with Alabama for first nationally in scoring defense (10.1 ppg). Notre Dame has allowed just eight touchdowns this season, the fewest in the FBS ranks.
It all starts with two-time All-American Manti Te'o. In a season where there is no clear cut favorite for the Heisman, Notre Dame's middle linebacker has thrown his hat in the ring. Te'o has had a remarkable senior season, racking up 98 total tackles, with six interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Other playmakers of note on the Irish defense include junior cornerback Bennett Jackson (55 tackles, four INTs), sophomore linebacker Prince Shembo (43 tackles, 10.0 TFLs, 7.0 sacks) and sophomore end Stephon Tuitt (40 tackles, 13.0 TFLs, 12.0 sacks).
The USC offense has had very little trouble moving the football at 467.5 yards per game. However, that was under the guidance of senior quarterback Matt Barkley and the Pac-12's all-time leader in touchdown passes will not suit up for this game after suffering an injury against UCLA last week. In his place, the Trojans will look to freshman signal-caller Max Wittek, who has played sparingly this year, completing 8-of-9 passes, for 95 yards and one TD.
While that is the bad news for USC, the good news is that Wittek still has a pair of All-Americans to throw to in Biletnikoff finalist Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Just a sophomore, Lee has asserted himself as the nation's top wideout, amassing 107 receptions thus far, for 1,605 yards and 14 TDs. Woods ranks second on the team with 66 catches, for 721 yards and 10 TDs.
Coach Kelly explained Lee's success this season.
"Oh, boy. Incredible acceleration after the catch. If you look at what he does after the catch, that's where it gets really scary. Secondly, they do a great job and their offensive staff does a great job of setting up formations to get him one on one matchups. They're always prodding your defense to get him matched up where they get some great one on one looks. They do a very good job of finding him and getting him the ball in those kinds of situations that create big plays. He's not catching a hitch route and having three guys hammer him. They're putting him in great position to catch the football and get big chunk plays. So, one, his athletic ability and skill set after the catch; and, two, they've done a great job of putting him in a position to make those big plays."
The ground game could take some pressure off Wittek as well, with both Silas Redd (740 yards, nine TDs) and Curtis McNeal (658 yards, two TDs) showing themselves capable of handling the workload.
The USC defense has been plagued with inconsistency this season, as the Trojans come into this game allowing 24.8 ppg and 392.2 yards of total offense.
Despite the modest overall numbers, this is still a defense that gets upfield and creates havoc. USC has amassed 42 sacks this year and 88 TFLs.
All-American candidate T.J. McDonald headlines the play in the secondary (89 tackles, two INTs). Hayes Pullard (78 tackles, two sacks, one INT) and Dion Bailey (71 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, four INTs) spearhead the attack in the linebacking corps, while defensive end Morgan Breslin (49 tackles. 17.5 TFLs, 11.5 sacks) and defensive tackle Leonard Williams (42 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 7.5 sacks) must be accounted for up front.