And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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We’re a little over three days from the primetime affair with Lane Kiffin’s USC Trojans in Notre Dame Stadium. With subplots like the health of USC’s Marc Tyler and Notre Dame’s Ethan Johnson, recruiting battles being held on the Irish’s turf, and All-American wide receiver candidates like Michael Floyd and Robert Woods, this game doesn’t lack a compelling cast of characters, even if both teams are currently unranked in the national polls.

While we’ll do all the work getting you up to speed on the Irish heading into Saturday night’s game, we’ve got the Los Angeles Daily News’ Scott Wolf was kind enough to answer a few questions on Lane Kiffin and his Trojans. As someone that lives in the heart of Trojan territory, I can tell you there’s nobody that follows the team closer.

I asked, Scott answered. I might not be his favorite interviewer, but he obliged me anyway:

Inside the Irish: A quick state of the Trojans: This is the first 5-1 USC team that’s ever been unranked. But it isn’t just pollsters lukewarm on the Trojans. The Coliseum hasn’t been full and it’s clear that the buzz isn’t what it used to be. Is it the sanctions? Is it Kiffin? It is just Los Angeles? A year and a half into the Lane Kiffin era, where is the Trojan football program? 

Scott Wolf: USC is dealing with several issues right now. It no longer has Pete Carroll’s charisma to excite the fan base and it no longer has the talent to overwhelm opponents. People remain skeptical of Lane Kiffin. That may seem odd for a team with a 5-1 record but the schedule was not demanding the first half of the season. That said, a team with quarterback Matt Barkley, offensive tackle Matt Kalil and wide receiver Robert Woods (three likely first-round picks whenever they go pro) should be able to score points. And on top of all that, there is probation and no hope of a bowl game.

ITI: We’ve heard plenty about the injuries piling up on both sides of the ball for the Trojans. How limited will USC be on Saturday night? 

SW: Right now things look better than they did last week. Tailback Marc Tyler said he will try to play with a dislocated shoulder and perhaps more realisitically, wide receiver Marqise Lee’s sprained shoulder doesn’t appear as serious as originally feared.

Q: What do you make of the Trojans defensively? They’re 105th in the country against the pass. They’re a Top 20 statistical defense against the run, but haven’t played a team that’s close to ND on the ground. The Trojans did a nice job last year against an Irish offense far less productive than this one. How will USC try to stop Notre Dame’s balanced attack?

SW: USC’s struggled against teams with good quarterbacks and spread offenses the past two years. The defense usually tries to avoid giving up the big play. That is a safe approach but prevents sacks and plays that might change a game’s momentum. It is no accident USC allowed more than 40 points in back-to-back games for the first time in school history.

Q: You’ve seen a lot of both Matt Barkley and Robert Woods. How good are they? Do they match-up with the greats of the Carroll era? Are they top of the first round talent?

SW: It all depends on Barkley. He can make a great pass on one play and then deliver a stinker on the next. Woods is probably as good as any receiver in the Carroll except for perhaps Mike Williams. But he’s still got time to catch Williams. Barkley is not consistent enough to be compared to Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart or Mark Sanchez. He might not have the offensive lines those quarterbacks had but he needs to be more consistent. That said, he can still be a top of the first round pick simply because he is a quarterback. Woods should also be one.

Q: Kiffin called this game Notre Dame’s Super Bowl. That said, the Trojans are sitting out the postseason and still raw from last year’s defeat. Couldn’t you make the argument that this is USC’s Super Bowl? With Stanford, UW, Oregon and UCLA still on the Trojans’ schedule, where does this rivalry rank for the USC players and coaches?

SW: It’s a unique rivalry for the players because they usually know it is important without really understanding the rivalry. It is probably not as big to the players as UCLA because they see their players and fans on a daily basis. Oregon’s become a big rival because the programs joust atop the Pac-10 (now 12) and the Ducks have plenty of local players. But they realize this is at worst the second-biggest rival and one of the games the fans value. It is even bigger for Lane Kiffin because he does know how important this rivalry is and he felt the heat from losing last season, which snapped USC’s eight-game winning streak in the series.

Q: On the subject of Kiffin, he’s a polarizing guy. How do you grade the job he’s done at USC when you consider the hand that he was dealt? In the wake of the NCAA sanctions, what else could he do? Does his work on the sidelines live up to the work he does on the recruiting trail? 

SW: He definitely knows how to recruit with two top 5 classes already. The question is whether he can lead a program and inspire the team instead of just being a glorified offensive coordinator. I’d give him a C- right now. He does have to deal with NCAA sanctions but those penalties have not hurt the school’s recruiting so maybe he doesn’t have it so bad.

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You can find Scott’s work just about anywhere: At the Daily News, on his Inside USC blog, and on Twitter.