Saturday, August 25, 2007

2007 Preview: USC Trojans

On December 1st, the annual battle for Los Angeles will play out before a sold-out crowd at the Coliseum. The victory bell will be back up for grabs and this game could carry conference and national championship implications as well. It will definitely be a huge game and both teams likely have the date circled on the calendars here at the start of the season.

Any UCLA fan with half a pulse knows that the Bruins knocked off USC last year in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the rivalry. The Trojans didn't play their best game of the season and John David Booty and the SC offense were stifled by an aggresive, blitzing defense. On the other side of the ball, the Trojan line backing corps couldn't contain Patrick Cowan in the first half and his quick scrambling, timely completions, and all around grit was just enough to propel the Bruin to victory.

This year both teams return a lot of experience, with the Trojans bringing back one of the best defenses in the country. Like usual, Pete Carroll has amassed a host of young talent that is unequaled in the conference or in the nation. With the game in unfriendly territory, the Bruins will likely be big underdogs once again this year. Don't expect the Trojans to be caught napping this time around as payback and revenge are on the minds of Pete Carroll and company.

Offense

While USC is everybody's pre-season favorite to make it to New Orleans for the National Championship game, there are some question marks on offense. Steve Sarkistian will be taking over the offensive coordinator spot from Lane Kiffin, but the two worked closely on the play calling last year so the change shouldn't be huge. A true star has not emerged at tailback or receiver, but that issue will likely be resolved come December as well. No matter who steps into those starting position, the Trojans will have one of the best offenses in the conference and the country.

The key cog in the Trojan offense machine this season will be senior quarterback John David Booty. Booty had a great 2006 campaign earning all PAC-10 honors. With his near perfect blend of mobility, arm strength, and experience, he is the odds on favorite to win the Heisman this season . Of course, Booty's worst performance in 2006 came against the Bruins as DeWayne Walker pressured him from every conceivable angle. Reacting to outside pressure was noted as a weakness during the USC training camp this fall, so expect Walker to try and bring as much heat as possible.

The amount of talent that Southern California has at tailback is ridiculous. Going into their training camp they listed 10 players at the tailback position. Those numbers have thinned a bit with transfers and injuries but the Trojans still have a lot of guys looking for playing time. At this point it looks like C.J. Gable and Chauncey Washington are the likely starters. Staffon Johnson is finally out of Pete Carroll's dog house and he impressed this fall. Allen Bradford could also see some minutes and true freshman Joe McKnight is so talented he'll get some carries and some passes as well. Blocking for them will be standout freshman Stanley Havili at full back. The Bruins front seven were very good against the run last year but whoever carries the rock for SC will be difficult to contain.

With the departures of Jarrett and Smith to the NFL, the Trojans lose their two leading receivers from last season. Stepping into the spotlight this season is Patrick Turner who had some big games and tight end Fred Davis. The rest of the receiving corp is undecided at this point and there is bound to be some drop-off at the position. The talent waiting in the wings is impressive and by December they will have almost a full season under their belt as well. There is no doubt that the Bruin secondary will have their hands full again. They did a great job last season slowing down the Trojan passing attack and it will take another inspired effort this time around as well.

The Trojan's otherwise stellar offensive line looked shaky against the Bruin defense last year in Pasadena but they stepped back up in their Rose Bowl win against Michigan. This time around they'll have to absorb the loss of their leader, and all PAC-10 center, Ryan Kalil. This squad does return All-American tackle Sam Baker and starters Chilo Rachal and Drew Radovich. If UCLA is going to win this game then they are going to have to start by winning the battle in the trenches. If Dragovic or Blake can't bring much pressure this season at the end spot then Bruce Davis may see some double teams to slow him down. That could give Harwell and Kevin Brown some opportunities in the middle against Matt Spanos or Nick Howell at center. There is no doubt that this offensive line is very good and they will likely be working well as a unit after 11 games. Not to sound like a broken record but the Bruin front-four are going to have to bring their A-game in this contest.

Defense

While the Trojan offense still has some question marks around a few key positions, there are absolutely no question marks on defense. This is a very scary unit and it will undoubtedly be the most difficult defense Jay Norvell and company face all season long. The Trojans are switching back to a true 4-3 this year and they are absolutely stacked at all three levels of the defense.

UCLA had no answer for Sedrick Ellis last year and they likely won't this year either. Joining him back on the line is All-American candidate Lawrence Jackson at end. Kyle Moore and much-hyped, true-freshman Everson Griffen hold down the other end spot. If the two can stop fighting each other and channel their anger onto opposing tackles, they'll be a very good one-two punch. Chris Markey has managed to gain a total of 78 yards (on 33 carries) against USC over the course of three years. Unless our line really gets a push against this front-four, he may not add much to that number.

The Trojan line backing corp has received so much pre-season hype there is no need to repeat it here. They are fast, strong, aggressive, and a nightmare for opposing offenses. All Three will be competing with each other for the Lombardi award this season. With Ben Olson behind center, UCLA doesn't have the running threat that Pat Cowan brought to last year's contest, so this group can focus more on blitzing and pass rush. It is hard to envision UCLA gaining a lot of yards on the ground with this group backing the line, so Norvell may try and spread out the offense and keep the ball in the air.

Which brings us to the secondary. I think the Bruins have a pretty good safety tandem, but USC's might just be better. Taylor Mays had a fantastic campaign last year and earned some All-American attention as a true freshman. At Strong Safety, Kevin Ellison has been a consistent play maker as well. Senior Terrell Thomas shouldn't be feeling the effects of shoulder surgery this season as is another player looking at post-season conference honors. This group is tall, fast, and athletic, so the Bruins won't get any natural mismatches with their trio of 6'4" receivers. Their secondary also runs a legit 2-deep, so nickle and dime packages will be very good.

Special Teams

The one area where SC has struggled in recent years is on special teams. It won't be any easier this year as the Trojans have to overcome the tragic loss of kicker Mario Dannello. In his place is Junior David Buehler, who only had one attempt last season. Walk-on punter Greg Woidneck will pickup where he left off last season, though he doesn't have the biggest leg in the conference.

It sounds like C.J. Gable is back returning kickoffs and he could be a serious threat with the new kick-off rules. Desmond Reed wasn't nearly as good in punt returns and I'm sure Perez would love to boom another one over Reed's head this season.

The Verdict

It is hard to be too optimistic about this game as a Bruin fan. The Trojans have superior talent and a lot of experience. The game will also be played at the Coliseum where UCLA has lost the last 3 games this decade by an average of 33 points! That's not exactly a recipe for success this December. The Trojans also have the extra motivation of getting revenge for last year's stunning upset. Pete Carroll isn't exactly known for going easy on opponents and I'm sure his team will be pumped and well prepared for the Bruins.

There are a few things that could change by the time the game is played. Injuries are always a factor this late in the season and the Trojans always seem to have more than their fair share. They have a lot of depth all over the team but quarterback could be one position where Southern California could see a big drop-off in production. None of Booty's backups have much experience and with a tough schedule this season, they may not see significant minutes before UCLA comes to visit. Of course, that knife cuts both ways as UCLA has been dealing with its own depth issues in the backfield this pre-season.

Another factor is the development of Ben Olson and the UCLA passing attack. If the light-bulb clicks on for Olson then he absolutely has the raw talent to be a Heisman-worthy quarterback himself. If the offense is capable of taking it to the next level then that could produce enough points for Walker's defense to try and keep the game close. Those are two very big if's and not something I would count on.

When it is all said and done, I don't think the Bruins have enough firepower to pull out a win in this game. This Trojan defense is impressive and it will be very, very hard to score on them. Walker's defensive ain't too shabby either so it could be another low scoring affair. I think it will be much closer than prior years, but ultimately this contest will go to the bad guys. Then again, UCLA was a big underdog last year and we all know what happened. Here's hoping I'm wrong and the Bruins make it two-in-a-row... I'm not going to bet the house on it.

CalPoly's predicition: UCLA defeat. Record: 9-3 (6-3).

(photo credit: Getty Images)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very indepth and impartial review.

Thanks for taking the time.

FYI, regarding injuries effecting a team, I believe that ucla is much more at risk from being effected by the injury bug. SC has a lot of depth (as you mentioned) at most every position.

I believe that if there are injuries on the D-line, secondary or any more at RB, then ucla will be in a lot of trouble. If the bruins are unable to get their running game going, I don't care how much the game clicks for Olsen, he will be a man running for his life.

One of the biggest issues is that this will be game #12. It's a long season - nicks and dings are part of every team. Tracking performance over the year will allow for a more realistic assessment when 12/1 rolls around.

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