USC Skill Position StartersWhile the Trojans are roughly on par with where they were statistically a year ago, averaging 430 yards and 30 points per game, the offense has taken a definite turn towards the pass. It's not a surprise, amassing 297 yards through the air with a third-year starting quarterback and a wealth of talented receivers available to head coach and playcaller Lane Kiffin. However, the inconsistency of almost every aspect of the offense in one facet or another – red zone, third down, rushing, passing – from game to game has left everyone involved less than thrilled.
Quarterback #7 Matt Barkley – Off to his best start yet, the junior has thrown 16 touchdowns against four interceptions in guiding USC to a 5-1 mark at the halfway point. However, he imploded with three damning turnovers at Arizona State and admitted his performance against California wouldn't have been adequate to beat the likes of Stanford, Oregon or Notre Dame. Still, with a win Saturday, he would become only the second Trojan signal-caller to win multiple starts in South Bend, joining Matt Leinart.
Running Back #22 Curtis McNeal – Generously listed at 5-foot-7, McNeal has provided a spark every time he has carried the ball this season, averaging 7.0 yards per rush with two touchdowns. Nearly kicked off the team last season for academic and attitude issues, the redshirt junior is expected to start against the Irish, after redshirt senior Marc Tyler dislocated his shoulder against the Golden Bears.
Wide Receiver #2 Robert Woods – Aside from All-Everything quarterback Andrew Luck of Stanford, Notre Dame won't face a better player on offense all season long. As a sophomore, Woods has matched his production from last year in less than half the time (60 receptions for 783 yards and six touchdowns this season; 65 receptions for 792 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games in 2010). Woods is well on his way to becoming one of the best wide receivers in the distinguished history of the Trojans.
Wide Receiver #9 Marqise Lee – A high school teammate of Woods at Gardena (Calif.) Serra, Lee proved himself to be one of the best athletes in Los Angeles as a high school standout in football, basketball and track. Projected by many as a safety in college, he is ahead of the prolific pace Woods set last year, with 25 receptions for 404 yards and touchdowns in four consecutive games. Lee sprained his shoulder at Cal, but should be ready to go for his first taste of this rivalry.
Tight End #82 Randall Telfer – Part of a gifted group of young tight ends, the redshirt freshman has the speed to capitalize if safety help is focused on Woods, as Telfer showed with a 44-yard catch and run for a touchdown against Syracuse.
Key ReservesInjuries to Tyler and Lee could push several talented players into larger roles this week.
Running Back #30 D.J. Morgan – Morgan started the opener with Tyler suspended, but was supplanted upon his reinstatement. Fumbles pushed him further down the pecking order, but now with Tyler banged up and Dillon Baxter in the doghouse, the redshirt freshman looks like he could be back in the mix.
Running Back #8 George Farmer – The third member of the remarkable Serra receiving corps to sign with USC – Paul Richardson ended up at Colorado – Farmer has been dabbling at running back for a few weeks in an attempt to get more explosive plays from the position. He will be a core contributor on special teams, but seems unlikely to see carries this week, even with the injury to Tyler.
Fullback #40 Rhett Ellison – A converted tight end, Ellison was supposed to create the kinds of mismatches Stanley Havili offered USC for years, but has largely been a non-factor on offense this year (1 carry for -5 yards, 11 receptions for 60 yards and a touchdown). Walk-on linebacker and special teams ace Ross Cumming has also seen time at fullback the last two games.
Wide Receiver #80 Brandon Carswell – A steady senior and reliable blocker, Carswell would see increased reps depending on the status of Lee's shoulder.
Offensive LineDespite major turnover from 2010, the front five has allowed just four sacks, tied for ninth nationally. Against Cal's 3-4 defense, they struggled in protection and now face a major step up in talent. Factor in issues with run blocking, and the game may well come down to how well the offensive line holds up against the gifted front seven.
Left Tackle #75 Matt Kalil – The younger brother of former USC standout and current Carolina Panthers All-Pro, Ryan Kalil, Matt is more physically gifted than the highest-paid center in the NFL and a future first-round selection.
Left Guard #66 Marcus Martin – Martin seemed like an obvious redshirt candidate making the short trip over from Los Angeles (Calif.) Crenshaw, where he was a teammate of sensational Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas, but has capitalized on his physical upside to claim a starting spot.
Center #78 Khaled Holmes – Moved from guard to center to capitalize on his high football IQ, Holmes seems to have settled in well at his new position and is definitely a leader for the inexperienced group.
Right Guard #59 John Martinez – Martinez is extremely versatile, also serving as backup center behind Holmes.
Right Tackle #75 Kevin Graf – A Trojan legacy, Graf has ideal size at 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds, but has been inconsistent at times in his first significant action. Coaches moved massive freshman Aundrey Walker from guard to tackle to light a fire under Graf and it seems to have worked.