Irish wary of USC’s dynamic duo
By Mark Lazerus Sun-Times Media November 21, 2012 4:08PM
Southern California wide receiver Marqise Lee (9) makes a catch and runs for an 80-yard touchdown past Arizona State cornerback Deveron Carr (1) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Bret Hartman)
Updated: November 21, 2012 5:42PM
In the one-week engagement of Notre Dame’s off-off-off-Broadway production of the smash-hit USC offense, the part of wide receiver Marqise Lee — the lightning-quick Heisman Trophy candidate with 107 catches and 14 touchdowns on the season — is being played by freshman safety C.J. Prosise. The role of fellow wideout Robert Woods — likely the best No. 2 option in the country and a guy who had 12 catches for 119 yards and two TDs against the Irish last season — is being played by sophomore walk-on Andre Smith.
And while Notre Dame’s scout team has been drawing rave reviews for its effort, there’s a certain, inevitable lack of authenticity in the portrayals.
“You’re just not going to be able to simulate them,” cornerback Bennett Jackson said.
Only USC stands between top-ranked Notre Dame and the BCS championship game. And with a four-loss Trojans team staggering to the finish line with a rookie quarterback taking over for injured star Matt Barkley, the dynamite duo of Lee and Woods are perhaps the only threats to ruin Notre Dame’s final audition for the national stage.
“Certainly, the receiving corps is as good as we will see,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “It’s the best in the country, in our opinion.”
Woods was expected to be the headliner this season, but Lee has been the breakout star. The 6-1 sophomore has an NCAA-best 1,605 yards this season, averaging nearly 10 catches and 146 yards per game. In a loss to Arizona last month, Lee had a mind-boggling 16 catches for 345 yards and two touchdowns. The Trojans like to find Lee in open space on the perimeter — often with hitches and bubble screens — and let him do the work. Relatively simple plays like that also will limit the burden on redshirt freshman quarterback Max Wittek.
“Incredible acceleration after the catch,” Kelly said of Lee. “If you look at what he does after the catch, that’s where it gets really scary.”
Woods is a threat to turn every 3-yard pass into a big gain, too. The trick for the Irish is to make open-field tackles — something few teams have been able to do against USC’s hyper-athletic wideouts.
“You can have the little gains,” Jackson said. “If you want to catch a 3-yard pass, that’s not going to win you the game. We’ve just got to come up and make the tackles. It’s about limiting big plays, and hitches and short routes aren’t going to win the game for you unless we miss tackles. We have to keep them in front of us and make our tackles.”
Jackson only played special teams in last season’s 31-17 loss to USC in the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium in 21 years. Safety Zeke Motta was out there, though, and he remembers all too well how the Irish struggled to contain Woods. But watching the game on film, it looked like a different Irish defense out there — a passive one, a tentative one, a beatable one. Nothing like the aggressive, dominant, unbeaten defense of 2012 — the one that has allowed a scant nine offensive touchdowns all year, five fewer than anyone else in the country.
“I just recall (Woods) being in space and us kind of waiting for him to make a move, instead of us going and attacking and making our move,” Motta said. “Obviously, our defense now, we are full-throttle all the time, and we all go to the ball with 100 percent effort. That’s how we need to play against those guys.”
And if Notre Dame’s defense can steal another show and render Lee and Woods mere bit players on Saturday, the curtain will fall on a stunning 12-0 regular season, and the Irish can turn their attention to six weeks of rehearsal for the biggest performance of their careers.