The top-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish are just one win away from a surefire berth in the 2013 BCS national championship, but they've got their work cut out for them as they travel to face the always dangerous USC Trojans.
Lane Kiffin's team might not be the national title contender that many pegged them to be at the start of the season, but they still have top talent and will be hungry to put an exclamation point at the end of a disappointing season by knocking off their bitter rivals at home.
Meanwhile, the Irish are the best team in the nation for the first time in decades and have a chance to shock the world by bringing a championship back to South Bend.
Let's take a look at what Brian Kelly's squad must do early on in this contest to make it a one-sided affair.
Pressure USC QB Max Wittek on Early Drives
As if the Irish didn't have enough of an edge already heading into Saturday's showdown, they received some fortunate news as Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley was ruled out of the game with a separated shoulder injury. However, that doesn't mean you can put a check mark next to a Notre Dame victory just yet.
Redshirt freshman backup Max Wittek came to town as one of the most highly-touted gunslingers in his recruiting class. Whether he's ready for the big stage or not, he has the raw talent and playmakers around him to put up points.
That's where the suffocating Notre Dame defense everybody's talking about comes in. They need to pin their ears back on USC's first-quarter drives and send multiple bodies toward the backfield to make certain that Wittek doesn't feel one ounce of comfort in the pocket.
The worst thing you can give a young quarterback in a big game is confidence, and that's just what he's capable of getting if he can complete some early passes to Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. If the Irish defense is as dominant as they've been pegged, they'll take this into their own hands.
Plus, they aren't exactly short on bulletin board material from the young quarterback, either.
Score Two First-Quarter Touchdowns
Before Notre Dame's 38-0 thrashing of Wake Forest last week, the Fighting Irish had only scored 54 first-quarter points the whole season, good for a little more than five points in each game's opening frame.
That changed Saturday when they hung up 21 points on the Demon Deacons early, and they'll need to ensure a similarly strong beginning to this one.
The Trojans are headed in a direction that makes this a big-time possibility for the Irish. The USC defense gave up 17 first-quarter points to UCLA last weekend, and it ended up being just a bit too much to overcome.
USC has finished games much better than they've started them this season, which could be a testament to their experience and talent or their coaching adjustments—we'll go with the former. The Notre Dame offense is by no means elite or explosive, but they have the tools necessary to wear down the Trojans and turn long drives into touchdowns early on.
Don't Give USC WRs Marqise Lee and Robert Woods Space
It's unfair to say the Notre Dame defense hasn't been tested this season as they've played the likes of Oklahoma, Stanford, Michigan State and Michigan, but they'll undoubtedly face the most explosive players they've lined up against all season on Saturday.
With 107 receptions for 1,605 yards and 14 touchdowns after just 11 games, Trojans wideout Marqise Lee is putting together a season that could rank among the all-time greats at his position. He's scored a touchdown in all but two of his games. He also notched 345 receiving yards in a loss—I didn't even know that was possible.
The go-to plan for a receiver of Lee's caliber is a double team, but the Irish may have to pick their poison on this one as a similarly-talented playmaker will be lining up on the other side. Woods may not be having as jaw-dropping of a season statistically (66 REC, 721 YDS, 10 TD), but he's a player of a similar talent level and can do many of the things Lee can do with space.
Notre Dame's top-rated defense isn't short on physical cornerbacks, and they'll have their hands full with these future-NFLers. It may take a couple of interference penalties, but if that translates to overly-physical play and gets these playmakers off their groove, it'll be worth it. All Notre Dame has to do is stop the big plays from these two guys and they'll wrap up an easy victory.
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