One more game. It's all that stands between Notre Dame and an undefeated regular season, something very few people predicted back in August. A victory over USC would also punch the Fighting Irish's ticket to the national title game.
Getting to face the Trojans without starting quarterback Matt Barkley is an obvious advantage for Notre Dame, but the Irish can't allow his absence to change their outlook. They are still going to need a complete team performance to win on Saturday.
While there's no way to put a regular-season finale against USC in the trap-game category, it definitely a matchup where they could overlook how dangerous the Trojans are even without him. If that happens, dreams will get crushed.
Notre Dame has already been pushed to the brink twice against teams it would have be easy to look past. The Irish needed a second-half rally to take down BYU and three overtimes to avoid getting shocked by Pittsburgh.
The Irish must remember those experiences. They can't afford to take the Trojans lightly, regardless of what injuries they are dealing with. Despite their lackluster record, they have enough talent to pull off the upset.
Actually, Barkley's freshman replacement Max Wittek expects it, based on a report from Pedro Moura of ESPN Los Angeles:
"If he wants to air it out, let's air it out," Wittek said of Kiffin. "If he wants to pound it on the ground, let's do that. I'm gonna go out there, I'm gonna play within myself, within the system, and we're gonna win this ballgame."
So it's clear the Trojans have their sights set on giving the BCS standings another shake-up. Notre Dame should be ready to battle for four quarters and any thoughts about what might happen beyond Saturday must be long gone by kickoff.
Keeping his players in the moment is one thing head coach Brian Kelly has done well since taking over the program. Even though the endless hype around the Irish can cause a lot of added pressure on the players, he has done well to keep them grounded.
It's shown in things like Everett Golson's development. Kelly let him work through his struggles and he's looked a lot more poised over the past month. It's the main reason for the offense's improvement.
That said, much of the onus will remain on the team's top-ranked defense. Most importantly, the Stephon Tuitt-led pass rush needs to get pressure on Wittek early and often so he doesn't get a chance to settle in.
Even without Barkley, the Trojans' offense has no shortage of star power. Curtis McNeal, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods are all extremely dangerous no matter who's under center, meaning Manti Te'o and Co. can't afford to have an off game.
The bottom line is Notre Dame should win. But if the Irish don't play up to their ability, Wittek has enough talent around him to lead the upset charge.
Fasten your seat belts, Irish fans.
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