LOS ANGELES – Not many young quarterbacks would even have the audacity to imagine making their first career starts under the circumstances surrounding Max Wittek at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
The freshman is replacing Matt Barkley, an injured senior who has claimed most of the career passing records at Southern California. He's facing Notre Dame (11-0), a storied football power with a No. 1 ranking and the nation's most feared defense.
The Irish need just one more win to book a spot in the national title game, and the struggling Trojans (7-4) have lost three of four. Yet Wittek also has arguably the best receiving duo in the nation catching his passes and a sold-out stadium firmly at his back.
If the enormity of this occasion is scaring Wittek, the confident 19-year-old with a bigger arm than Barkley hasn't shown it a bit.
"You really can't ask for a better opportunity to show what you've got," Wittek said. "I just want to get that first snap, maybe that first hit, out of the way, and I'll be ready to go."
Although USC has dominated the past decade in this delicious intersectional rivalry, winning nine of 10 and missing a clean sweep by one dropped touchdown pass 2 years ago, Wittek and the Trojans realize most of the pressure is on the other sideline this time.
The Irish are just one win away from completing a remarkable run to the BCS title game in coach Brian Kelly's third season. With so many pressure-packed wins already behind them this season, the Irish will hit the field in downtown Los Angeles simply trying not to get caught up in the matchup's history – or the history they'll make with a victory.
"You think about it," Notre Dame safety Zeke Motta said. "In the back of your mind, it's there that if you win this game, you're going to play in the national championship. What more motivation do you need? But I think we want to treat it like any other game. Obviously it's a rivalry game, so we're going to be playing fierce and tough. We're just focused on who we're playing against and sticking it to them."
Notre Dame has done its part to make the schools' 84th meeting appropriately memorable. The Irish headed to the Coliseum with the No. 1 ranking for the sixth time in the schools' shared history, and they're unbeaten when facing USC for the first time since 1993.
USC is headed to a lower-tier bowl game, but could halt its late-season slide from the preseason No. 1 ranking by crushing the Irish's title dreams. USC has stumbled after a 6-1 start to a season of enormous expectations, losing to Arizona, Oregon and UCLA in the previous 4 weeks.
"This is a game where we can get our respect back and get a good feeling about ourselves," USC safety T.J. McDonald said.
Both teams are made up of teenagers and young adults who can't possibly have the same connection to this rivalry as thousands of alumni, former players or football fans who simply enjoy the college sport's best traditions. The USC coaching staff attempted to remedy some of those educational gaps this week, with coach Lane Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron speaking up in team meetings about the series' meaning and lore.
Kiffin also played Notre Dame's fight song during USC's practices this week, hoping to remind the Trojans of their 31-17 upset win in South Bend last year.
"My dad never beat them, so he definitely has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to this rivalry," said McDonald, whose father, Tim, also was a defensive back at USC. "All of the Trojan family is watching. Everyone wants to see how the Trojans are going to play, how they're going to respond from last week. We've just got to be able to go out there and make a statement."
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Coliseum, Los Angeles
Line: Notre Dame by 5 1/2