SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame’s defense will be facing a quarterback it doesn’t know much about when the No. 1 Irish (11-0) play at USC (7-4) on Saturday.
But even though freshman quarterback Max Wittek, who will start in place of the injured Matt Barkley, is something of a mystery, the Irish know one part of the Trojans’ offense is the same: USC wants to get the ball to receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.
You can’t really prepare, in a way, for a quarterback that hasn’t had that much experience, safety Zeke Motta said of Wittek, who has thrown only nine career passes. They are going to try to create plays for their playmakers, get opportunities to Woods and Lee.
Woods and Lee have taken advantage of their opportunities this season.
Lee, a 6-foot, 195-pound sophomore, leads the nation in receptions (107) and receiving yards (1,605), with 14 touchdowns this season. He averages 145.9 yards and has gained 15 yards per catch.
Woods, a 6-1, 190-pound junior, has 66 receptions for 721 yards with 10 touchdowns. He averages 65.5 yards and has gained 10.9 yards per catch.
The receiving corps is as good as we will see, coach Brian Kelly said. It’s the best in the country in our opinion.
Notre Dame has seen how good Woods can be in two previous games.
Woods caught 12 passes for 119 yards with two touchdowns in USC’s 31-17 win last year at Notre Dame. He caught eight passes for 81 yards in the Irish’s 20-16 win at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 2010.
Woods is still Woods, cornerback Bennett Jackson said. They are both the same player.
The difference is the number of times USC is going to Lee this season.
Last year, Lee had two receptions for 36 yards against Notre Dame, and he finished the season with 73 receptions for 1,143 yards with 11 touchdowns. Woods had 111 receptions for 1,292 yards with 15 touchdowns last year.
I think both of them are capable of doing the job, Motta said.
They are both great players. The only difference is Lee has had more opportunities than Woods. All of that stuff doesn’t matter; it is going to come down to our focus and preparation like it has the last 11 weeks.
The Irish’s secondary has done a good job of staying focused and being prepared this season as three first-time starters (cornerbacks Jackson and KeiVarae Russell and safety Matthias Farley) have blended in well with the veteran Motta.
Notre Dame is limiting opponents to a nation-low 9.5 yards per reception and is tied for third in fewest passing touchdowns given up with six.
The 6-2, 215-pound Motta, 6-1, 200-pound Farley, 5-11, 182-pound Russell and 6-foot, 185-pound Jackson have combined to intercept six passes and break up eight more.
I love the opportunity, Jackson said of going up against Woods and Lee. It’s a chance for me to go up against a great receiver. It’s a chance for KeiVarae to go up against a great receiver, and the whole defense in general.
I feel like it will be up to their receivers and our defensive backs to win the game.