For just about anyone, it would seem like a daunting challenge, but what Wittek lacks in experience, he’s making up in confidence, guaranteeing a USC win against the Irish.
“I’m going to go out there, I’m going to play within myself, within the system, and we’re going to win this ballgame,” Wittek said.
The talented but untested quarterback is filling in for Barkley, who will miss the final home game of his career with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder, suffered at the end of last Saturday’s loss to UCLA.
Wittek was 3-for-3 in relief of Barkley in that game, and he’s 8-of-9 on the year, with 95 yards and one touchdown in six games.
Wittek, who narrowly won the backup role over fellow redshirt freshman Cody Kessler in fall camp, is listed at 6’4″ and 245 lbs.
Head coach Lane Kiffin said before the season that there would be an open competition for the starting role next season, with Wittek, Kessler, and incoming freshman Max Browne all in the mix, but Wittek has a big opportunity to make a case for himself in one of the biggest games of the year.
Like Barkley and former USC quarterback Matt Leinart, Wittek played quarterback for the Santa Ana Mater Dei Monarchs in high school. In his senior season, he threw for 2,252 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, with 175 yards and six touchdowns rushing.
Wittek, who grew up in Connecticut, transferred to Mater Dei after working with private quarterbacks coach Steve Clarkson, who is based in Southern California and who also coached Leinart, Barkley, former USC backup Matt Cassel, current Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and others.
Wittek reportedly has a stronger arm than Barkley; when he and Kessler were jockeying for the first backup spot, Wittek was seen as the high-risk, high-reward player, while Kessler was more consistent and more conservative with his throws.
Clarkson said his former student’s mobility sets him apart.
“What he brings to the table that some other USC quarterbacks have not is a real sense of athleticism,” Clarkson told The Los Angeles Times.
Wittek’s Mater Dei coach, Bruce Rollinson, offered a similar assessment of the quarterback’s skills.
“You have a boy who weighs 240 that can run. That’s the one thing that’s different – if he has to get out of the pocket he can probably keep it alive a little longer than Barkley,” he said.
The odds of Wittek having to get out of the pocket this weekend against the sixth-ranked Notre Dame defense are pretty high. The left tackle spot has been a liability all year, as evidenced by the blind side hit on Barkley last week.
During the course of the season, Barkley sometimes looked rattled under pressure – and he was pressured much too often. A quarterback who hasn’t already taken a season’s worth of hits, and who is confident in his ability to make plays on the run, could even give the Trojans’ offense a boost.
Trying to end your greatest rival’s undefeated season and knock them out of BCS title game contention is a tall order, but if he’s dealing with any nerves, don’t expect Wittek show it.
Back in August, he told ESPNLosAngeles.com: “Out there, I don’t feel nervous at all, ever, anymore.”
That might change a bit in the Coliseum on Saturday, but right now, Wittek is looking forward to getting his big shot, especially if it includes taking some big shots into the end zone.
“We haven’t got the full game plan yet, but from what I can tell, we’re going to play our offense, whatever coach Kiffin feels comfortable giving me. If he wants to air it out, let’s air it out. If he wants to pound it on the ground, let’s do that,” Wittek said on the radio.
If Wittek leads USC to an improbable win over the Irish, it’ll be the third time the Trojans have beaten a No.1 Notre Dame team, and the second time they beat the undefeated Irish with a backup quarterback (1980 behind Scott Tinsley).