2014 Article Compilation
Nailed it regarding Jordan Cameron and we have another in Bryce Dixon: During Jordan Cameron’s tenure at USC, I felt he was under-utilized based on his athleticism and playmaking in practice. Once his under-the-radar career ended he has since become a Pro Bowl tight end for the Cleveland Browns. I have only seen Bryce Dixon a few times, but his athleticism is along the same lines of Cameron. What is really striking however, is his tremendous wing span that will make him an even bigger target for quarterbacks in the coming years. The key for now is understanding blocking schemes and being a reliable receiver. . .
Embarrassment of Riches at Wide Receiver: It is nice to have a great playmaker in pre-season All-America candidate Junior Nelson Agholor leading the wide receivers. The crazy thing is the All-America type talent doesn’t end there. True Freshman JuJu Smith, who won’t turn 18 until November, looks like a man-child and reminds many of the impact Mike Williams/Marqise Lee had when they first arrived. Junior George Farmer is the most explosive and focused he has been since he arrived at SC as a five-star recruit. If he can stay healthy, he will remind people why so much hype surrounded him coming out of high school. If you ask Cody Kessler which newcomer has impressed him the most, he will tell you true freshman Ajene Harris. He runs precise routes, has good hands and has the ability to sense when a QB might be in trouble. Fellow freshman Adoree’ Jackson is a playmaker and expected to contribute despite mainly being a defensive player. Sophomore Darreus Rogers looks strong and would be a top level receiver at most Pac-12 schools. In fact, he might get the initial start over Farmer due to playing experience. Junior Victor Blackwell and redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell have made several big plays in scrimmages, but may have a hard time seeing the field.
Jalen Greene better than Max Browne?- Two years ago Max Browne could pick any school he wanted as the Gatorade National Player of the year. In fact, many pegged him to be the heir apparent to Matt Barkley. Despite throwing a beautiful deep ball, he struggles quite a bit with his decision-making and is not playing with the confidence you would expect. Sark’s offense doesn’t really seem to fit his strengths, and true freshman QB Jalen Greene appears to possibly have more upside in this offense. Jalen could end up being the type of under-the-radar recruit that ends up beating out the higher rated prep QB in the future. He was a gamer at Serra, and he has athleticism the coaches like. Browne must develop better pocket awareness and learn to check down to non-primary receivers, otherwise he’s on track to have an underwhelming career.
Wilcox simplifies things and it is well-received: I have spoken to a few defensive starters and they like the simplified approach of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. Wilcox is all about the end result and doesn’t get too technical. Players feel they can fly around more and play instinctual football. The defensive coaching staff is also more accessible to the players.
Su’a Cravens not happy: Now that Scott Wolf of the Daily News has released the story, I can discuss what I have heard. Last week, All-America sophomore safety Su’a Cravens stormed out of practice as he didn’t appreciate being called soft by some coaches and players for missing workouts due to a pulled groin. It was a combination of things that led him to meet with his mentor Chris Claiborne and Coach Sark. He is not that enthusiastic about sporadically playing linebacker. He knows it will put him in a better position to make more plays and he is a gamer, but his pro future is at safety and he does not want that compromised. The switch in defensive styles has been a bit frustrating, and he is a sensitive person. The issues were addressed and everyone is moving on, but it will be interesting to monitor if this pops up again when he or the defense struggles.
Offensive line is deeper but still is the team’s major concern: In the scrimmage that was closed to the public last week, the offensive line struggled against a banged-up defensive line (no Leonard Williams and Antuan Woods). The line seemed to be a step behind the rest of the fast paced offense. For SC to be a factor on the national stage, the offensive line must make some big strides in the next few weeks. A trio of freshmen are in line to provide much needed depth in Toa Lobendahn , Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao…and Lobendahn and Mama may even start as they have had great fall camps.
Off the mark last year regarding coaching search: My hopes for SC to hire a big-name coach skewed the reality of the situation. SC did have preliminary talks with representatives of some of the NFL names we talked about, but Pat Haden never intended to go in that direction. Sark was the lead horse from day one. Haden wanted an up-tempo/exciting offensive coach who was familiar with SC. Sark also had strong support from allies within the athletic department. Pete Carroll championed the hire, and originally wanted Sark to take over for him after he left SC for Seattle. Admittedly, I was not a big fan of the hire, but I hope it works and so far he has done a great job with recruiting. The key is going to be his in-game management and how he handles a potentially fractured locker room if they have a few early losses.
Quick hitters: RB Justin Davis looks fantastic and is in line for a breakout year if he can stay healthy…Depth along the defensive line is concerning, especially with all of the up-tempo offenses in the Pac-12…Speaking of the Pac-12, the conference is loaded with talent and good coaches, meaning an 8/9 win season could be a successful one.
Back next week with more info and prep for the season opener vs. Fresno State!
Fresno State Preview
Possible reason for Brown’s outburst: Unfortunately Senior cornerback turned running back Anthony Brown’s decision to leave the football program became national news due to the racism allegations he leveled against Coach Sark. Brown didn’t have a great work ethic, and in the final meeting Coach Sark called him out for missing rehabilitation assignments for his injured elbow. According to Brown, Coach Sark used harsh words about how his actions are letting the family and called him a coward.
Another factor may have been that walk-on redshirt freshman cornerback/safety Matt Lopes may have passed him up on the depth chart before his move to running back. FYI- Lopes is not your typical walk-on. He was a Division II all-state football player out of Palos Verdes High. He is a solid athlete with strong football instincts that at the very least will play a valuable special team’s role during his tenure as a Trojan.
True freshman Jackson will be all over the field: Look for true freshman phenom Adoree’ Jackson to start at cornerback, especially in the nickel package. Also expect to see Jackson occupy the slot position on offense, and return kicks and punts. He is a rare talent that SC is lucky to have.
Cornerbacks are young but talented: Besides Jackson, look for fellow true freshman Jonathan Lockett to be in the regular defensive rotation. The coaches have been impressed with his abilities to and he has outperformed expectations in camp. A pro scout stated he has All-Pac 12 potential. Redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins also opened some eyes and really has a knack for being in the right place at the right time for interception opportunities. They will undoubtedly make mistakes due to inexperience but this is an extremely talented defensive backfield when you throw in Safeties Su’a Cravens and Gerald Bowman.
What to expect defensively: With a new quarterback, expect Fresno State to run the ball more than they are known for. RB Josh Quezada (#20) will be the guy to stop. Also expect whoever the quarterback is to take off and run as they are both described as athletic and quick. SC will play a fairly vanilla 3-4 base defense keying on the run.
What to expect offensively: SC will operate at a fast pace. Don’t look away when the Trojans have the ball. You will see very few huddles and lots of read option fakes. Look for Kessler to spread the ball around to a bevy of receivers. When Kessler is in trouble and Nelson Agholor is unavailable, he will look for true freshman Ajene Harris whom he has raved about for his ability to get open when he is in scramble situations. Sark will try to keep things basic against Fresno State to keep his bag of tricks full for next week’s Stanford game. SC should have no problem running the ball provided the inexperienced line can keep penalties and holding to a minimum. Although, I can see Sark being determined to make a splash with some strong offensive numbers in the passing game as Kessler has a more accurate arm than Keith Price did at Washington.
Offensive players to watch: RB Justin Davis- The starter is the accomplished junior Buck Allen, but when sophomore tailback Davis has been healthy this summer he has looked tremendous and we should see some big plays from him on Saturday.
Offensive line- Can the offensive line, with two true freshman and two sophomores, keep up with the rest of the offense and play a clean game? They have struggled quite a bit in the scrimmages. If they can show improvement and play a disciplined game, it will be a great sign going forward.
JuJu Smith, Adoree’ Jackson and Ajene Harris- All three of these freshman wide receivers seem to have special qualities with the ball in their hands. Can they do it under the bright lights?
Cody Kessler- His best game was against the Bulldogs last year…
Must Watch: How does Kessler play in the 3rd quarter? His execution and stats fell off quite a bit in the second half last year. This must change for SC to have a successful 2014 campaign.
Quick Takes: Since camp started freshman OL Damien Mama has lost 20 pounds, down to 370 pounds and getting in better shape, but look for him to rotate out after 4 or 5 plays in a row… SC's defense in 2013 was first nationally in red zone defense and 12th in third down conversion defense… SC blocked a kick or punt in 6 of the last 9 games of 2013, including a stretch of 4 consecutive games…SC is 16-8-1 when playing its first game under a new HC. The last five coaches have won their debut and this should be the sixth...the Linemakers web-site calls for SC to win by four plus touchdowns.
Off to a good start: Outside of a few fumbles, the game against Fresno St. was excellent. The energy in the coliseum was great with the team receiving a standing ovation after the first quarter. SC accomplished three main goals. 1- The offense was quick and diverse, spreading the ball around while playing a fairly basic scheme. This created positive energy with the skill position groups and satisfied the egos of some very talented players. The offensive line handled a variety of blitzes and twists from Fresno State and Kessler was hardly touched. 2- A bevy of talented true freshman gained valuable and productive experience before facing a tough road game. 3- The defense had a solid day playing vanilla schemes and not showing their cards to Stanford. SC rarely rushed more than four players.
A look at the offensive line heading into Stanford: Overall, the line didn’t give up a sack against an average Fresno St team. The run blocking looks concerning but to be fair, the running backs didn’t have great vision at times and missed out on some great opportunities. Zach Banner was a stud, and showed why the coaches raved about him in fall camp. He will anchor the line with Max Tuerk, who also had a solid performance though the concern with him is his ability to stay in front of a quick nose guard and Stanford has one of the best in the nation in Harry Anderson. The rotation of Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao, was effective and better than expected, though they struggled in the run game. Mama went down in practice earlier this week with a knee injury and will be a game time decision. Wheeler was solid, but look for Stanford to speed rush him a few times as he looks a little slow. Left guard Toa Lobendahn had a solid performance but he was the weakest link and Stanford will key on that.
The line is going to struggle some on Saturday as Stanford has one of the best defensive lines in the country. The key to SC’s success will be the ability of the young line to stick together. Stanford is going to test their mental resolve and do all they can to bait the Trojans into penalties and frustration plays. The Stanford coaches feel they have a huge advantage in this area, and that will help play a role in slowing down the Trojan offense.
Even if the line lays an egg on Saturday, keep in mind how young and talented this group is. A pro scout stated SC will be scary good on offense in the future, especially with another solid class of lineman expected next season.
When SC has the ball: Expect SC to continue to implement more read-option elements. Sark is comfortable with Kessler’s decision making and appreciates his ability to look down field before taking off running. Expect Kessler to throw the ball more to the running backs. Buck Allen has great hands and SC wants get him the ball down field especially if the running game struggles behind the young offensive line. WR Nelson Agholor will be a featured target that Stanford must contain. Agholor is a legit NFL 1st round prospect and will be tough for the Cardinal to contain.
Stanford will pressure the SC offensive line early and try to create a hectic environment. If the SC offensive line keeps mental mistakes to a minimum, Stanford will have a difficult time keeping SC under 30 points.
Potential under the radar star: Junior FB Soma Vainuku will prove to be a valuable check down receiver after he has released from his blocking responsibilities. He might be used to stretch the field in unconventional ways as well…stay tuned…
Williams ankle is concerning: All-American defensive end Leonard Williams rolled his ankle in practice earlier this week and has missed practice time. He will be ready to go against Stanford and it is imperative he can play close to full strength. He makes the defensive line go and without him, the defensive line is no longer a strength as the drop off in talent at the defensive end position is significant.
When Stanford has the ball: Stanford has quite a few new faces on the offensive side of the ball, and they don’t appear to be as good as last year. RB Barry Sanders Jr. is solid back but doesn’t possess the instincts of his hall of fame father. He will get early opportunities however, as Stanford feels the middle of the SC defensive line can be exploited in the power run game. Stanford wants to put themselves in 3rd and short situations. They will want to prove to SC they can win the line of scrimmage battle early. If successful, this will set up the play-action fake and veteran QB Kevin Hogan will look for Stanford’s explosive playmaking 6'2 WR Ty Montgomery. Montgomery, who was the second best kick returner in the country last year, amassed 2,200 all-purpose yards. SC held to him only 4 receptions and 23 yards last year when they upset the Cardinal. The problem is suspended CB Josh Shaw was the one who held Montgomery in check. We will know pretty early if CB Kevon Seymour is up to the challenge and can handle Montgomery's lethal combination of size and strength. Another receiver to keep an eye for the Cardinal is Devon Cajuste who is 6'4. He will be difficult to defend in red zone due to his size advantage against the smallish SC corners.
Hogan is a very efficient QB and is 10-1 against ranked opponents. Expect Stanford to attack the young SC secondary, especially if Leonard Williams is not operating at full strength, allowing more time in the pocket. Important stat: Since last season, Hogan has thrown twice as many TD’s for more than 25 yards than any other Pac-12 QB.
The Trojans will counter with an array of blitz packages and often times stacking eight in the box. Defensive Coordinator Chris Wilcox had success against Stanford with this type of strategy when he was the defensive coordinator at Washington where he did not have the athletes he has at SC.
Quick Hitters…or things to consider before betting: Stanford has the nation’s longest home winning streak at 17 games…SC has lost its last three straight Pac-12 road openers…The Gold Sheet predicts a USC cover but a close 23-22 Stanford victory…The Linemakers likes the Cardinal to cover the -3 point spread and the over…Stanford’s Shaw is 20-1 straight up at home since taking over for Jim Harbaugh…Will Stanford have players fake injuries if SC gets on an offensive roll? The tactic was used last season in Stanford’s narrow victory over Washington, and it created hostility between the two coaches…True freshman playmaker Adoree’ Jackson will play even more on both sides of the ball than he did last week…Special teams play will most likely decide the outcome.
Boston College Preview
Life is all about timing…Thank you Stanford: SC’s 13-10 victory in Palo Alto bolted them into the AP top 10, and more importantly established new coach Steve Sarkisian as the bona fide leader of the program (more on that later). However, we could just as easily be questioning the offensive game plan in a 28-10 loss. Stanford outplayed the Trojans and dominated the stat sheet.
Fortunately, SC made the key plays and uncharacteristically, Stanford, imploded mentally with key penalties, turnovers and inept playcalling. Stanford had the ball inside the SC 30 yard line six times and only came away with 10 points.
The final play…DC Justin Wilcox deserves game ball and shows lots of faith in Adoree’ Jackson: On the final defensive play, Wilcox overloaded one side of the defensive line and blitzed, leaving true freshman Adoree’ Jackson in single press man coverage against Stanford All-American Ty Montgomery. The blitz from LB J.R. Tavai was on the opposite side of this match-up. Stanford QB Hogan, zeroed in on Montgomery and never saw the blitz, leading to the key fumble recovery for the Trojans. A phenomenal play that shows how much respect the coaches have for Jackson. . .FYI- Jackson batted the ball away twice when Stanford tried to get deep on him earlier in the game.
Kessler missing practice impacted prep for Stanford: The difference in SC’s offensive efficiency in practice this week is night and day compared to last week’s prep for Stanford, when Kessler missed multiple days. The offense seemed to stumble grasping the game plan concepts and some frustration was noticeable. One source told me Max Browne needs to improve at a far greater pace if he ever intends to start at SC. On the flip side, things have been efficient and smooth this week with Kessler back in the saddle and we should expect a solid offensive performance this week.
Sark and Wilcox win over team: The biggest positive to come out of the Stanford victory was a unified team that trusts its leaders. Some players were openly skeptical about Sark’s hiring and many defensive players have not been happy with Wilcox’s demeaning and abrasive coaching style. This victory washes that skepticism away and the defensive players see that Wilcox is going to put them in a position to be successful. They prevailed in a hostile environment facing lots of adversity and you cannot ask for a better experience to unify a team.
Huge victory…but not top 10 worthy yet: We realistically won’t find out how good SC truly is until the games against Oregon State and Arizona State. Thus far, Fresno State has proved to be terrible (last week, Utah was up 41-7 en route to a 59-27 victory) and Stanford did everything they could to put SC in a position to win. The offensive line is going to have to continually improve to be a bona fide top 10 team.
Agholor and Williams proving top tier status: On a day when the passing game struggled, WR Nelson Agholor stepped up and made the big plays when needed. He showed why many pro scouts believe he will be a 1st round NFL pick and why WR’s coach Tee Martin calls him “irreplaceable” despite the Trojans wealth of young talent at the position. Agholor has proven to be a great leader and mentor both on and off the field which is another impressive trait pro scouts love.
DE Leonard Williams could legitimately be the #1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. His 11 tackle performance against Stanford with a badly sprained ankle defines his toughness and willingness to compete. Many players in his position would not have played nor performed at that level. SC would not have won the game had Williams been unavailable. He has All-Pro intangibles.
Buck Allen- A star in the making?: RB Buck Allen is proving to be a great all-around back who has great hands out, runs with a bruising style and has a burst of speed to make big time plays. His 50 yard run in the second half set up the game-tying field goal. He finished the game with a career high 154 yards on only 23 carries, the second most yards allowed by a David Shaw-led Stanford team. He is currently 10th in the nation in rushing yards and Coach Sark’s up-tempo offense allows for big-time rushing numbers. Bishop Sankey gained 3,319 yards as the starting running back at Washington over a two-year period. If Allen stays healthy, a 1,500 yard campaign, even with sharing carries with Davis and Madden is definitely possible. Not bad for a guy who was listed 5th string heading into last season’s fall camp…
Boston College Prep: This appears to set up as a trap game for the Trojans. Coming off a huge victory over a rival, they travel to the east coast where they are heavy favorites. Typically, this would lead to concern the Trojans could get knocked off without a focused performance. However, Boston College “BC” has appeared to take a step back from last season while the Trojans have improved. BC only returns three offensive starters from last year and lost All-American Running Back Andre Williams.
The key for SC defensively is to still stop the run and not allow dual threat QB Tyler Murphy to make big plays with his feet. Running QB’s have been a thorn in the Trojans side for a long time. The good news is that Murphy is a horribly inconsistent passer and SC can get away with loading players in the box. BC will also try to utilize a lot of screens and short passes out in the flat which should be well defended by the speedy SC defense.
Offensively, SC will look to establish the run early since BC has a weak run defense (give up 179 yards per game). SC will employ a lot of read option looks and will also test the BC secondary early with some deep passes as the coaches feel they have a decided speed advantage at the skill positions.
Quick Hitters: The Gold Sheet predicts a 27-13 victory…the spread started at 20.5 points and has since dropped to 17 as the wise guys don’t like a west coast favorite traveling to the east coast after playing a road game the previous week…SC tight end Randall Telfer has 0 receptions...Adoree’ Jackson and Justin Davis might return kick-offs. . .LB Lamar Dawson and RB Tre Madden will be back for the Oregon State game.
Fun Fact of the week: According to an ESPN article, UCLA Head Football Coach Jim Mora’s daughter is a freshman at USC…I guess if you live in Manhattan Beach it is a pre-requisite for your child to attend USC, even if you are the head coach at UCLA…
We will back in two weeks in time for Oregon State…FIGHT ON!
Oregon State Preview
What Kessler will tell you off the record- QB Cody Kessler is a gamer and wants the ball in his hands. He also understands a balanced offense is a must If SC is going to contend in the Pac-12 South. However, with a young offensive line struggling in the run game and creating a pocket for deeper passes, Kessler is very confident in his ability to get the ball down the field in the short to intermediate passing game. Short passes on first down for five to seven yards is effectively a successful running play. He feels SC can keep defenses guessing even if he has to throw it a ton.
The superior talent of SC at the pass catching positions needs to be exploited, especially if a team loads eight in the box or heavily blitzes. Kessler loves to spread the ball around and SC is quite successful when that has happened, Against BC, five different players touched the ball during the Trojans' six-play touchdown drive in the first quarter. On the final touchdown drive, five players touched the ball on a nine play, 65 yard scoring drive that took two minutes.
Success in the short to intermediate passing game will set up an explosive running game with Buck Allen and allow Kessler more time to develop a deeper passing attack.
On the season, Kessler has completed 71 percent of his passes -- best among all Pac-12 quarterbacks -- for 846 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
Freshman WR Ajene Harris should see the field Saturday- Expect to see true freshman WR Ajene Harris utilized in third and intermediate/long situations. Kessler has a great connection with him in practice and WR coach Tee Martin feels he will make a positive impact.
Offensive line finally should have Walker- Senior lineman Audrey Walker should play for the first time this season and this is a huge positive. Walker has had trouble recovering from ankle surgery after injuring it in the UCLA game last year. Walker has started 18 games at tackle, second most among the offensive line. His experience and has been sorely missed this season.
Why the Boston College loss may have been inevitable - The wise guys who bet college football will tell you one of the easiest bets to make is when a team travels cross-country after playing a road game the week before. It was the ultimate trap game. SC not only played a road game the week before, it was a ranked league rival and they were heavily favored against a well-coached Boston College “BC” team. SC is a young team that is going to have focus issues and these are not professional athletes that don’t have to worry about class work, etc. The extra day of travel and the change in routine is a huge deal. BC also had an advantage in the trenches that was overlooked by analysts and the media. At the same time...
Why the Boston College loss was embarrassing- Defensively, SC was +1 in turnovers and held BC to an 18% 3rd/4th down conversion rate. Yet SC gave up 453 yards on the ground and 37 points to a team that will struggle to be bowl eligible. The key to the game was forcing BC to pass and take away the quarterbacks ability to run and they failed miserably. BC QB Tyler Murphy only completed 5-13 passes for 54 yards, yet they averaged more than 7 yards on first down. Offensively, the play calling was predictable and the offensive line looked lost and unprepared against the various BC blitz packages. SC lacked the focus of a top-20 caliber program and was outcoached in every phase of the game.
From hero to goat- Justin Wilcox- The SC defense over-pursued, was constantly out of position and made BC look like the Nebraska teams of the 1980’s. The inability to contain a running quarterback who is an inaccurate thrower is extremely concerning when the Pac-12 is loaded with better multi-threat QB’s. Wilcox made some great defensive calls against Stanford, but SC did give up over 450 yards of offense and Stanford had the ball inside the red zone eight times…very concerning.
Linebackers are struggling…Not having Dawson and Ruffin really hurts- It is evident losing Jabari Ruffin and Lamar Dawson to injuries is having a dramatically negative impact as their athleticism and size is sorely missed.
J.R. Tavai is a solid high motor guy but gets a little out of control and out of position. He has real difficulty against the read option. Scott Felix is another guy who is struggling and both Felix and Tavai are having a hard time getting away from downfield blocks from tight ends and tackles.
Look for safety Su’a Cravens to replace Felix more in the SAM position. With defensive line depth an issue, it is imperative the linebackers play at a higher lever for SC to compete for a Pac-12 south title.
Quick look at a solid Oregon State team - Led by one of nation’s most underrated coaches in Mike Riley, they are 3-0 and are led by senior QB Sean Mannion. He is a strong-armed NFL prospect that has passed for 11,339 yards and 76 touchdowns in his career. He will most likely eclipse Matt Barkley’s Pac-12 career passing yards record. They have a pair of strong running backs in Terron Ward and Storm Woods and have an experienced defense with 9 returning starters. The defensive line will cause issues for the young SC offensive front. OSU currently ranks 1st nationally in pass efficiency defense and third down conversion defense against a weak schedule. The senior-laden linebacking group plays smart and disciplined. The secondary is considered the weakness of the defense.
A favorable match-up for SC- OSU will run a pro set offense and Mannion is a pure pocket passer so the defense doesn’t have to worry about a running QB. The OSU offensive line is banged up which should allow SC to pressure Mannion without having to blitz. OSU’s top WR Victor Bolden is out with an injury and Riley has stated it is “a huge blow to the offense”.
Last year SC defeated Oregon State 31-14 and held Mannion to 26-45 passing for 277 yards and 3 interceptions, even though OSU entered the game with nation’s leading passing offense. While at Washington last year, Sarkisian and Wilcox dominated Oregon State with a 69-27 victory.
Keys to an SC victory- Defensively, the Trojans must limit Oregon State on the ground and keep them from 2nd /3rd down and short situation where Mannion is great at picking teams apart. If SC is successful against the run and able to put Mannion in obvious passing situations, the defense will have big play opportunities. Tackling well and sticking to assignments is a must.
Offensively, the line needs to show improvement and Sark needs to get Kessler in a rhythm early. Make Oregon State attempt to take away the short/intermediate passing game and the running game should experience success. SC must spread the ball around offensively and block well downfield to allow short passes to go for big gains. Oh, and involving two NFL caliber tight ends into the offense (Telfer and Dixon) will assuredly help.
SC Hall of Fame- Del Rio and Carroll- Jack Del Rio and Pete Carroll will be honored during the game as future inductees into the Trojan Hall of Fame. Ironically, Del Rio's son is the back-up QB for Oregon State. Pete Carroll will not attend as his appearance would create a standing ovation situation that would overshadow the game, especially if SC is struggling…
Quick Hitters- The Gold Sheet predicts a 26-20 SC victory. SC is currently a 9 point favorite after opening up a 12 point favorite...The up-tempo SC offense that was so touted produced 59 plays against Stanford and 70vs. BC. Stanford and BC both ran 68 and they are not considered up-tempo…Sark needs to shed his reputation in the coaching world as a conservative play caller when his teams jump out to a lead…3rd string freshman QB Jalen Greene looked great in practice and seems very comfortable and talented with the read option …True freshman Adoree’ Jackson is getting all the reps with the first team at corner. He will still occasionally participate on offense and special teams… SC has not surrendered a touchdown pass this season. FG kicker Andre Heidari has rediscovered his confidence this season and now has three of the seven longest field goals in SC history.
Fun Fact- SC is ranked fourth nationally in the amount of graduated billionaires…behind Penn, Harvard and Yale…Pretty good company.
Arizona State Preview
Offense struggles early but SC spread the ball around and made in-game adjustments: It was a brutal first quarter with an undisciplined showing from the offense leading to four punts on the first five possessions. It didn’t get much better in the second quarter and if it wasn’t for the Hail Mary and a defensive TD, SC would have only had 3 points heading into halftime. The offensive coaches made some adjustments in the second quarter, helping lead SC to a more effective second half. One of the keys to a victory was spreading the ball around and nine players caught passes with four receptions going to the tight ends, which have largely been ignored this season. They also did a great job of pulling Center Max Tuerk out on sweeps providing better blocking on the outside for the running game.
Running game better but still needs improvement: Buck Allen rushed for 115 yards on 20 carries and Justin Davis followed that up with 82 yards along with a great touchdown reception. Allen currently ranks 20th in the nation with an average of 149.3 all-purpose yards per game. Fortunately the Trojans were able to wear down the Oregon State defense, thanks in part to OSU’s inept offense. The coaches have made several comments over the past two weeks that both Allen and Davis need to gain more yards after initial contact and make better plays in 1-1 situations when they are beyond the line of scrimmage. RB coach Johnny Nansen felt they should have had 100 more yards in the game. FB Soma Vainuku had a much bigger role in the second half and made some great blocks and expect to see more of that this week vs. ASU. In fact, he might get a few passes thrown his way.
Great effort defensively vs. OSU but keep this in mind: SC only allowed two drives to cross the 45 yard line and both occurred in the first half. One resulted in a field goal and the other an interception. The SC defense controlled the final two-and-a-half quarters and exposed OSU QB Sean Mannion as a below average pro prospect. Unfortunately, this great showing doesn’t necessarily mean the SC defense is a great unit. The OSU offensive line was banged up and they were missing their top wide receiver. OSU offensive coaches expressed serious concerns during game week about whether they could move the ball and that definitely played out.
A pro scouts take on the defense: Now that we have a decent sample size, a pro scout offered the following- Leonard Williams will be a top 5 draft pick but the defensive line and linebackers are average for the Pac-12 and they don’t have much depth. Linebacker Hayes Pullard is solid but the rest of the group is going to struggle against higher level Pac-12 offenses. The LB’s react a step or two late compared to elite players. Anthony Sarao could be a player but needs to be more consistent and read plays faster. The loss of Lamar Dawson and to a lesser extent Jabari Rufin has been huge. Dawson has the number 55 for a reason. The LB’s would have been a strength of the defense if they were not injured.
On the flip side, the SC secondary is top tier for the Pac-12. Even without Josh Shaw, not a lot of weaknesses here. Sua’ Cravens is a stud and Adoree Jackson is one of the best true freshman corners I have seen. He is a true physical corner with good instincts and pro level athleticism. Hawkins has serious pro level potential with the way he competes and has a nose for the ball. If Shaw was playing this would be one of the best position groups in the nation, and even without him it could be by the end of the season. The future is really bright for the SC secondary.
Speaking of Lamar Dawson and Josh Shaw: LB Lamar Dawson is participating in practice but on a limited basis. He is not making the progress that was hoped for. At this point, he is a serious redshirt candidate.
Josh Shaw has been getting treatment for his ankle injuries but is not participating in any team activities. The coaches and players would like him back for the second half of the season, but the athletic administration may not allow that as they don’t want to have the whole embarrassing situation revisited.
ASU better than UCLA game result: Don’t be fooled by UCLA’s 62-27 blow-out of ASU last week. If ASU HC Todd Graham didn’t gamble at the end of the half with an inexperienced QB (ends up throwing a INT for TD) and just kicked a field goal, it would have possibly been a tied game going into half instead of a 10 point Bruin lead that also gave UCLA major momentum. ASU still ran over 100 plays and back-up Mike Bercovici, passed for 488 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Not bad for your first college start against a top 15 team. Losing starting QB Taylor Kelly definitely makes them weaker since Kelly is more of a threat to run and has more experience. They are still a solid team however, with a lot of talent at the skill positions. They scored 63 on SC last year, the final act in the Kiffin era, and they know this is a must win game to stay alive in the Pac-12 South. ASU has a very young defense that SC should be able to exploit with regularity.
Why ASU is a tough match-up for SC: It is a blessing for SC that ASU QB Kelly is out this week. The Trojans odds of winning are stronger but it is by no means a lock. This is a game where stamina and discipline will play key roles. ASU prides itself on being one of the fastest tempo teams in the country and the ASU coaches feel SC doesn’t have the depth or defensive talent to keep up with them. They have a run option component that has caused the SC defense major issues and they are the most dynamic offense SC has played. RB D.J. Foster is one of the best all-around backs in the Pac-12 and WR Jaylen Strong is a top tier talent that destroyed the SC secondary last year.
Why SC should win: ASU HC Todd Graham and is currently 1-5-1 as an underdog and they are playing with a QB that has yet to start on the road. The young Trojans are a much better team at home and have revenge on their mind after last year’s debacle. The ASU defense is full of young starters and looks nothing like last year’s group. They will have a tough time defending SC’s playmakers. Finally, what is the psyche of this ASU team after being blow out at home by UCLA? If SC can grab an early lead, ASU might not have the mental fortitude to fight back.
Keys to the game:
Discipline- Both teams are fairly young and eliminating unnecessary penalties and sticking to assignments, especially on defense will be huge factors in the outcome.
Special Teams- Each team is struggling in this area and eliminating big returns or blocked kicks will play a key role.
Defensive front- The defensive front and LB’s are a weakness for both teams with SC having an advantage in the secondary. If SC can contain the read option early and DE Williams makes a big impact, allowing the secondary to make plays, SC should win going away. If not, ASU probably wins in a shoot-out as SC’s lack of depth will show late in a game where 175+ plays could be run with temperatures around 90 degrees.
Pac 12 South opponents have schedule advantage over SC before kick-off: SC’s Pac-12 south brethren have a significant prep and rest advantage. Arizona, ASU and Utah play on Thursday the week before, giving them 2 extra prep days. Colorado and UCLA have a bye meaning they have six extra days of prep. (Sunday’s were not included in this analysis).
UW coach Chris Peterson complains about program he inherited: Peterson has told friends in the coaching ranks that he was shocked at the lack of discipline and organizational structure when he arrived in Washington. Educating players on understanding what it takes to truly be a champion has been much more difficult than expected. He feels, and was told by administrators at UW, that Sark would have had a real tough time making it past this season had he not left for SC.
Though I am sure Peterson has some valid points, let’s see how he coaches and recruits with the big boys of the PAC-12. Sark did get UW back to a respectable level after inheriting a winless team. The Pac-12 is a different world compared to Boise State and the players he has at UW may not relate well to him.
At the same time, Peterson was very successful at Boise and his comments are something to file away in the back of your mind. If Peterson fares well at UW and the SC program struggles to get back to being a prominent fixture on the national stage in the next three years, then it might be time to move in a new direction. SC is well thought of nationally and with Sark being a great recruiter, SC will have a legit shot at top 5 classes over the next few years, so talent will not be an issue.
Gold Sheet prediction: The Gold Sheet expects SC to rout ASU 45-20.
Fun Fact: Palos Verdes High School had the most enrolled students in the current SC freshman class with 21. Loyola High School leads all private schools with 23 enrolled. Harvard Westlake was second among the private schools with 19 and Mater Dei had 16. Foshay High school, a distinguished inner city school, had 20 enroll making it the second highest number from public schools, and Arcadia High School was third with 16
Great coaches convert selfish players into talented teammates: The number of players out of position in the first five games, especially on defense, is alarming. Guys seem to be trying to make the hero play instead of the right play. What differentiates a mediocre coach from a great coach is the ability to get the 4 and 5 star recruits to realize you can only win as one unit and pro scouts care about the correct football play and not the highlight play. Having a limited scholarship situation makes the task of creating a team first attitude tougher but the coaching staff must overcome the selfish play exhibited or SC will be lucky finish .500.
Poor use of timeouts in the 4th quarter set-up Hail-Mary: If SC had a time out left at the end of the game and avoided the defensive confusion leading to the Hail-Mary completion, SC would be 4-1. SC practiced the Hail-Mary defense during the week and highlighted the importance of knocking the ball down. The major failure is that SC didn’t have a time out left to get organized. With 7 minutes left in the fourth quarter, SC still had all of its timeouts. Here is how they were used- Facing a fourth and eight at the ASU 35 with 6:34 left, SC used its first timeout of the half in an obvious punting situation. After ASU scored with 3:53 left to cut the game to a nine point lead and ASU lining up for an onside kick, SC used its second time out in an obvious onside kick situation. With ASU now down by only two with no timeouts, SC ran three straight running plays and called its last timeout with 27 seconds left before an obvious punting situation. SC did not have its regular snapper, but if you needed more time why not just take a 5 yard delay of game penalty since you were already in ASU territory?
Sark’s mind-set regarding punting and why the timeouts were used- SC is a young team that is getting used to a new staff. The wheels were in motion for the Hail-Mary loss when the long snapper Zach Smith suffered a concussion against Oregon State. The staff felt he would be ready to go for ASU but on Friday they found out he was not cleared. The coaching staff was concerned the second string snapper was not ready mentally and gave him a short lease. He double clutched his first snap of the game leading to a five yard penalty and didn’t seem to respond well on the sidelines to the special teams coach. The coaches were understandably concerned about playing him especially when an errant snap could lead to an ASU score. In terms of the time outs, they wanted to make sure they didn’t make any critical mistakes when it came to special teams plays late in the 4th quarter, especially when it came to the quick kicks by Kessler which they had only worked on in the Friday walk-thru. The coaches wanted to make sure the details were covered and didn’t give ASU a winning chance. The first timeout SC utilized in the fourth quarter, they did pin ASU down at the 2 yard line on a Kessler punt. Unfortunately ASU went 98 yards in under three minutes to change everything.
The conservative offense is evolving and the Carroll factor: It is apparent the SC offense gets awfully conservative and predictable for a program striving to bring the Lakers Showtime era to the football field. Unfortunately, It will take some time to get there. The good news is SC passed and rushed for over 200 yards in its last two games. SC also did open up the offense at times against ASU and a long touchdown pass was dropped by Rogers and Kessler mis-fired on a few other long passes. SC will be forced to open up the offense as the majority of the games are against high powered offenses that will score against SC, but three major factors are going to inhibit SC’s progress this season. 1- The offensive line is improving but still has a long way to go. Top tier programs prefer lineman to have two years of experience under their belt before starting. SC has three freshman playing the majority of the snaps. Playing on the O-line is the toughest and most complicated job in football. 2- Like Kiffin, Sark’s mentor is Pete Carroll and Carroll is all about winning the turnover battle. Carroll once said “if you don’t turn the ball over on offense you will be in a position to win the game”. Kiffin was constantly on Kessler about not forcing throws and that theme has continued under Sark. This has contributed to Kessler being a conservative QB that forgoes the potential big pass for the open receiver on the underneath route and when you combine that with an inexperienced offensive line it is understandable. 3- With a lack of depth on defense, the offense needs to have clock controlling drives that allow the defense to rest. The 4th quarter against ASU is a prime example of what can happen against a tired defense.
Speaking of conservative…check out this comparison: Cody Kessler had the same number of attempts, 45, as ASU QB Mike Bercovici but passed for 237 fewer yards. Kessler is on pace to set a record for completion percentage but his average per attempt is 7.80 yards ranking 45th in the nation. SC’s leading receiver Nelson Agholor is averaging 9.3 yards per catch, down from 16.4 last season.
Three and out % must improve: SC’s three-and-out percentage of 21.9% which ranks 10th worst in the Pac-12.
RB Madden and LB Dawson will most likely redshirt: SC’s best linebacker, senior Lamar Dawson and back-up running back redshirt junior Tre Madden will probably sit out the season so they are completely healthy next year. Dawson is still recovering from ACL surgery and Madden has a terrible case of turf toe. Since Madden will have suffered two season ending injuries during his career, he will have the opportunity to apply for a rare sixth-year medical redshirt that would allow him to stay through the 2016 season. **The media has missed the boat on how much the injuries to starting LB’s Jabari Ruffin and Dawson have hurt the defense. Their physical play would have a big impact on the outcome of games.
Why SC is favored and should win in Tucson: It has been a long time since Arizona has been ranked in the top 10 and it is a whole new ball game when you are the hunted. Arizona is below average on the defensive front and overall a young team with freshman leading the way at QB and RB. They were close to getting blown out by California at home earlier in the year (won with a hail-mary) and the victory against Oregon is a little over-played. Oregon is down three starting offensive lineman and currently playing a walk-on and they are beaten up. Arizona has been fortunate. They are a solid team and Rich Rodriguez has done a great job making Wildcat football relevant. The future looks good in Tucson but the top 10 ranking is not reality. Two things to remember- After Arizona beat Oregon last year they were blown out the following week 58-21 by ASU. Also, Arizona has only converted on 12 touchdowns in 23 tries in the red zone which can be a huge factor in a tight game.
On the flip side…why it could be a long night in the desert: This is a perfect barometer game for SC. Arizona features a solid dual threat-mobile QB in Anu Solomon. SC has historically had issues dealing with mobile QB’s and this is an opportunity for the defense to show they have improved in that department. Solomon is more skilled than the Boston College QB and a much bigger threat to throw. He is not as fast though. Arizona leads the conference in rushing behind Solomon and freshman Nick Wilson but Wilson was injured in the Oregon game and may not play. Wide Receiver Cayleb Jones leads a talented group that ranks as one of the best in the conference. The receivers are big and will look to post up the smaller SC corners who have been prone to holding calls. This is the best offense SC has faced and they have a veteran offensive line. Defensively, Arizona will employ an aggressive style with lots of blitz packages looking to rattle the young SC line. The crowd will be far more intense and crazy than what SC has faced on the road this year. SC must limit big plays in Arizona’s run game or it will be a long night.
Take a deep breathe…the future is extremely bright if the coaching catches up to the talent: SC won 10 games last year with 58 players on scholarship. In two years, SC will be back to 85 scholarship players and they are about to sign a top-5 class with 90% of the players coming from the Los Angeles area. SC has a dozen true freshman in its two deep with at least half of them projecting to be NFL players according to a few scouts. The offensive line, wide receiver and secondary units should be some of the best in the nation as early as next year.
The rest of the Pac-12 has benefited with SC not being able to offer more players and in turn talented players that wanted to attend SC are on opposing sidelines. This will no longer happen. At the same time, the PAC-12 is far more talented from a coaching standpoint when compared to the Carroll golden era. The Pac-12 network revenue has allowed schools to bring in great coaches and upgrade facilities, narrowing the gap that used to exist between SC and everyone else. SC will not be able to win on talent alone and coaching will matter more than ever.
What the Gold Sheet says: Arizona winning 40-28 since SC has problems defending non-traditional defenses. They also note SC is 4-11 against the spread in its last 15 road games.
Quick Hitters: If it wasn’t for the defensive play making ability of Sua’ Cravens and Leonard Williams SC may only have one victory; Safety Gerald Bowman is probably out vs. Arizona and will be replaced by freshman John Plattenburg; WR Victor Blackwell has officially been released from the team after quitting a few weeks ago over lack of playing time; SC needs to throw it at least once in the pistol formation otherwise all 11 defenders key on the run; How does SC not have a back-up long snapper ready to go? Too bad former long snapper Joe Boskovich couldn’t pop out of the crowd and suit up for the game; Kessler is the only QB in the country with more than seven TD’s without an interception or fumble; Buck Allen has generated over 100 yards of offense from the line of scrimmage in eight straight games, the second longest streak in the nation.
Positive improvement with timeout use: Last week was critical of Sark’s management of timeouts in the 4th quarter and felt that if he had a timeout to set up the defense for the final play vs. ASU it would have ended in SC’s favor. It was nice to see Sark have a time out remaining to help ice the kicker from Arizona, allowing SC to escape with a victory.
Arizona coaches feared the SC defensive front: After the game Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez admitted they didn’t think they would be able to run the ball well against SC which led to them passing the ball over 70 times. SC only gave up 58 yards on the ground to Oregon State and 31 yards to ASU which probably played a factor in his thinking. The starting running back was out and they felt they couldn’t afford to put themselves in a hole with run plays that went for negative yardage. Arizona QB Solomon didn’t run very much which was surprising considering SC’s issues with running QB’s. What is a little puzzling about the game plan from Arizona is outside of Leonard Williams, some pro scouts feel the SC defensive front is mediocre and should be challenged.
Kudos to the offensive line and Coach Drevno: One of the keys to SC getting the victory at Arizona was the young offensive line performing well and handling the hostile environment without major mental breakdowns. They passed the test with flying colors beat up a below average Arizona defensive front. The line is improving on a weekly basis and will prove to be a strength of the team in the coming years.
RB Buck Allen on pace for a monster statistical year which is phenomenal considering three freshman are routinely blocking for him. Freshman Viane Talamaivao is the most improved player of the group and fellow freshman Toa Lobendahn will be special as he gets stronger. Lobendahn’s ability to pull and block on the outside has already caught the attention of pro scouts. It will be interesting if he eventually becomes the starting center as his overall skill set seems to fit that position better. Hats off to offensive line coach Tim Drevno who is proving to be one most valuable coaches on the staff.
Buck Allen finally getting some national attention: I felt Buck Allen had a chance to run for over 1,500 yards playing in Sark’s system and he is on pace for that. He is also on pace to have 500 yards of receiving and finish with 2,000 yards of total offense. Currently, Allen is the only player in the nation with 750 yards rushing and 250 yards receiving. He ranks third in the country in yards from scrimmage at 176.5 per game. This is being accomplished behind an inexperienced offensive line and college football analyst Phil Steel has taken note and named him to his Mid-Season 2nd Team All-American team. It is amazing to think that he was fourth on the depth chart under Kiffin at the start of last season and he credits Coach O for giving him his shot.
Carroll’s offensive influence will be tough to break but needs to be done until SC’s defense is elite: Once again, SC got ultra conservative in the 4th quarter with a double digit lead. This is an NFL tendency where you let an elite defense close out the game for you. During the early Carroll era, the SC defense was dominant and they leaned on them to close out games in 2003 and 2004. However, this line of thinking potentially cost SC the national title in 2005. Rewind to the SC vs. Texas BCS national title game where SC ran it up the middle on 4th and 2 instead of giving the best QB in college football history a chance to end the game. The safe play was the run with little chance of a turnover being returned for a touchdown. SC didn’t get the first down and ended up losing with an average defense not able to stop Vince Young and company.
Sark was mentored by Carroll and learned some amazing things, but he needs to shake this tendency for the time being. The SC offense must trust Kessler and stick to the normal game plan late in games until SC has an elite defense. Late in the game, on third-and-6 at the Arizona 46-yard line, Kessler threw a pass to the left flat to Buck Allen, who quickly was tackled for a 1-yard gain. Kessler said Allen wasn’t just the primary read on the play but the only read.
It is an intricate balance as you can’t just start trying to stretch the field late in games as that could be a disaster as well. We should see improvement in this area as Sark has openly addressed needing to do a better job offensively when they have the lead late in games.
Players from Florida having a huge impact: The ability to recruit elite talent from the state of Florida has kept SC relevant during the sanction years. Wouls SC be 1-5 right now without the likes of Leonard Williams, Claude Pelon, Nelson Agholor and Buck Allen? SC only has five players on the roster from Florida and four of them are currently playing huge roles. It is pretty impressive that SC was able to get them to come 3,000 miles west and out of national champion Florida State’s back-yard (Allen and Agholor are both from Tallahassee).
True freshman Safety John Plattenburg showing promise: Plattenburg is one of the most improved players on the team and the coaches love his instincts. He did a solid job against Arizona and has earned a longer look with the 1st team and I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually starts ahead of Leon McQuay III. Plattenburg took extensive reps with the 1st team defense all week.
SC has more success on offense with two backs in the game: It is noticeable that SC runs the ball better when two running backs are in the game. FB Soma Vainuku and TE Randall Telfer have done a great job of blocking in the two back formations. The Trojans have also had success throwing the ball with multiple backs in the game as it goes against play-calling tendencies and adds another layer to the passing game. Unfortunately Vainuku is out this week with an injured hamstring so it will be interesting to see if that impacts the success of the running game against a porous Colorado run defense.
Impact of Leonard Williams when it comes to the scoreboard…but concerned about the shoulder: Williams once again came up with some epic plays against Arizona. His hit that caused a fumble near the goal line likely saved SC 7 points. He stuffed the late 2-point conversion attempt and had two sacks. These type of plays are why he is considered the #1 pick on ESPN’s current NFL draft board.
Unfortunately, in practice early this week, Williams re-injured his shoulder and hopefully it is not a chronic problem. He is set to play against Colorado and participated in practice on Thursday. Definitely worth keeping an eye on how he looks Saturday.
Special teams must improve: SC is second-to-last in the Pac-12 in kickoff coverage and the return team is last in the conference. The explosive freshman JuJu Smith and Adoree Jackson are having a tough time finding the right lanes to attack on returns. The punt coverage also ranks 10th in the conference.
On the flip side, PK Andre Heidari has been a bright spot and the push up front on opposing field goals has led to two key blocks this year.
Do not sleep on Colorado: SC is definitely more talented but Colorado is vastly improved and could have easily beaten both Cal and Oregon State. Coach MacIntyre is well respected and may have the coaching edge. Offensively, they will be more of a test for the SC defense then Arizona. Colorado is averaging 476.7 yards of total offense per game and are led by sophomore QB Sefo Liufau who throws for 320 yards a game is also a solid threat to run. They employ a fast pace offense and know the only chance they have of escaping the Coliseum with a victory is by winning a shoot-out. They have a good group of young receivers led by Nelson Spruce.
Defensively, Colorado will have a tough time stopping the Trojan offense as long as SC continues to spread the ball around while getting Allen 20-5 carries. Colorado is the youngest defense in the country and gives up 35.7 points and 419 yards a game. A few early stops and scores by the Trojans should keep enough distance between the two teams. Expect a highly entertaining game with turnovers dictating whether it is a tight game or a blow-out victory for the Trojans.
The Gold Sheetpredicition and scary Pac-12 statistics about home team performance: The Gold Sheet (1-5 against the spread picking SC games) predicts a 33-20 Trojan victory with Colorado covering the 20 point spread. Home teams are 4-14 in conference play heading into this weekend. The average margin is 4.2 points, according to ESPN.com. Colorado has been competitive in its past two outings, losing by three points in double overtime at Cal and by five to Oregon State.
Quick-hitters: The conditioning of the team is improved over last year and the players rave about the new strength and conditioning coaches… Lynn Swann will be leading the Trojans onto the field, and the USC sand volleyball national title team will be honored during the game…Kicker Andre Heidari will return to kick field goals and extra points after missing the Arizona game with a groin injury…CB Adoree Jackson may not play.
Great showing versus Colorado: It was exciting to see the offense flow well and continue its diversified attack. We stated last week that SC’s margin of victory would depend on whether Colorado turned the ball over early and that is exactly what they did. SC converted two early Colorado turnovers into touchdowns and then it was off to the races. Colorado was out-manned but they are improving and have played other conference foes tough and it showed that SC is maturing. The offensive coaches also made some nice adjustments during the game allowing QB Cody Kessler to suck the defense in with a lot of play-action passes leading to Kessler’s career day with 7 touchdown passes.
Why you never quit…SC has limited depth at WR…Victor Blackwell misses an opportunity: One month ago, the wide receiver position was full of talent and depth which played into Victor Blackwell quitting the team since he felt he was not getting enough opportunities. If Blackwell stayed patient, like Buck Allen did last year when he was the 5th string RB, he would have been rewarded with a big opportunity on a national stage this week. George Farmer, Steven Mitchell and Ajene Harris are all hurt and will be limited if they get on the field Saturday.
If one of SC’s top three receivers (Agholor, Rogers, Smith) is injured, and you combine that with Adoree’ Jackson being banged up, what will the Trojans do? One idea would be to have true freshman stud TE Byce Dixon shift over and plays some WR. He has the necessary speed and ability.
Why Buck Allen does not get more carries: With Tre Madden out for the season, SC is down to two scholarship running backs in Buck Allen and Justin Davis. Unfortunately, Justin Davis has not been able to play to the level he did in fall camp and has struggled in some game situations. At the same time, an injury to Allen would be devastating to the offense, and they cannot overwork him. Plus, Davis does has the talent and explosiveness to be very good and it is important to the coaching staff that he continues to see the field to increase his confidence, especially if Allen ends up with an injury.
The ultimate barometer game- a repeat of Boston College or SC a legit top 15 team?: When SC played at Arizona I thought that would be a great barometer game to gauge SC’s improvement. SC pulled out the win but they were aided by three missed Arizona field goals and Arizona’s reluctance to test the SC defensive front. It showed improvement but this Utah game is going to be the ultimate test. Utah is a much stronger than Arizona defensively, and they are solid on both the offensive and defensive lines. Utah has a QB in Kendal Thompson who will look to run like the Boston College QB. Running back Devonte Booker is a stud and Utah averages over 200 yards a game on the ground. They have the best special teams unit in the country and are unlikely to beat themselves. SC will have to play a complete game for four quarters to pull it out.
SC players to watch this week:
RB Buck Allen- Expect Utah to be able to limit Allen’s ability to have success rushing the ball. However, Allen is a great receiver out of the back-field and will have a speed advantage against the Utes linebackers in passing situations. Don’t be surprised if Allen is one of the team’s leading receivers Saturday night. Allen currently leads the Pac-12 in rushing and is one of the top all-purpose players in the nation. A great performance will lead to Heisman trophy consideration.
WR Nelson Agholor- Can he put together two big games? He is coming off one of the best games of his career and with little depth at WR, he will continue to be the main target when SC goes to the air.
CB/KR/WR Adoree’ Jackson- He is having a tough time getting over his hip injury and played limited snaps against Colorado. With S Gerald Bowman and LB Hayes Pullard not operating at full strength and SC having recent limited depth at the WR position, Jackson’s ability to play well and contribute in all facets of the game will be important.
LB Sua’ Cravens and DL Leonard Williams- The defense is improving but how they do is dictated by these two All-Americans. Williams ability to make big plays early, especially in passing situations, and Cravens being able to limit the running of QB Thompson, will be integral in SC leaving Salt Lake City with a victory.
Utah players to watch:
RB Devonte Booker- The Juco transfer got the starting nod two games ago and he has not looked back. The 5’10 back is tough to bring down and characterized as an angry runner. Despite only starting two games, Booker has rushed for 742 yards with an average of 6.2 yards per carry. In his last three games in which he received full time carries, Booker has averaged 187.7 yards.
QB Kendal Thompson- Travis Wilson will start but this is more to keep the QB’s confidence up. Utah is hoping the speedy Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson will come in and give them another option in the running game, to keep SC’s defense off-balance. In the Utah victory over UCLA, Thompson threw and passed for a touchdown while rushing for 83 yards.
WR Dres Anderson- He has been struggling with drops the last few games. However, if he is able to get back on track, he rates as one of the best WR in the conference and averages 17 yards per catch with a team –leading four touchdown receptions.
DE Nate Orchard- On pace for an All-American season. He’s second in the nation with 10.5 sacks and has 13 total tackles for loss. He will also play linebacker and is the engine that makes the defense go.
DE Hunter Dimick- Another stellar defensive end with 5.5 sacks, 7 tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles.
KEYS TO THE GAME w/ a few game-plan notes:
Trojans must limit mental mistakes in the toughest road trip for the year- This is the biggest conference home game that Utah has played since joining the Pac-12. The intimate 48,000 seat stadium will be packed and absolutely rocking. Arizona was loud but this will be taken to a new level and rival the atmosphere at Oregon. WR Nelson Agholor has told people that he thinks Utah is the toughest place to play in the conference. The young team, especially the offensive line, will need to be extremely focused and stick to the game plan. Mental errors will be magnified in this environment.
Offensive line must protect Kessler and play one of its better games- This is the best defensive front SC has faced all season and Utah wants to grind out a win relying on its defense and a ball-control run centric offense. Utah’s defense is the 11th most efficient unit in the nation and ranks No. 1 nationally in sacks (33.0 – 10 against UCLA) and No. 3 in tackles for a loss (61.0). They have an attacking 4-3 set that includes interchangeable players at the defensive end and linebacker spots which can lead to confusion for a young SC line. Utah ranks second in the Pac-12 in rushing defense and they have forced 11 turnovers. They do a good job of getting teams into obvious passing situations allowing a mediocre secondary to be ranked fourth in pass efficiency defense. SC ranks 86th in the nation, giving up 16 sacks.
Don’t be surprised if SC initially goes with a quick-hitting passing attack to try and keep Utah’s aggressive front off-balance which should open up more opportunities to successfully run the ball. The O-line needs to have a good start to allow an offensive rhythm to develop.
Limit Utah’s special teams advantage- Utah has the best special teams unit in the country and ESPN researchers estimate that it is an 8- point advantage over the Trojans. Utah leads the nation in kick-off and punt return touchdowns; They have the best net-punting average (44 yards) in the country; they have connected on 13/15 field goals with an average distance of 43 yards and have hit 26/26 extra points; Finally, they are only one of nine teams to not give up a kick return of more than 30 yards.
Make Utah throw the ball!- Per the earlier paragraph, SC must be able to contain RB Booker and QB Thompson. If they are able to do that and force Utah to play QB Wilson the majority of the game, SC should win. Last year, SC sacked Wilson six times and Utah had a real tough time moving the ball. Wilson does not have any interceptions this season but he largely makes safe throws and is considered one of the lower rated QB’s in the conference. If he is forced to make throws in obvious passing situations, SC will have a major advantage.
Win the third down battle- SC must convert on third down and they must continue the trend of getting teams off the field without sustaining long drives. Utah is converting only 33 percent of its third downs in its last four games. Even worse, nearly 40% of all their drives end without achieving at least one first down. Utah ranks 100th in total offensive efficiency. Last year, SC was only 3-15 on 3rd down against the Utes, but this year, SC is one of the better 3rd down efficiency teams in the country.
The most important stat- Red Zone efficiency- Good teams that struggle in the red zone typically lose tight games. We said that would be the difference at Arizona and sure enough it was as Arizona’s inability to convert opportunities into points cost them the game. Utah struggles turning red zone trips into touchdowns with only a 60% touchdown efficiency, which ranks 9th in the conference. On the flip side, the SC offense struggled mightily in the red zone last year against Utah, leading to a four-field-goal performance from Andre Heidari in a 19-3 victory at the Coliseum. SC will not win if they have to rely on Heidari so heavily.
Nostalgia moment- SC 2004 National Championship team voted best of the BCS era: A panel of 32 AP top 25 voters ranked the 2004 Trojans ahead of Miami’s 2001 and Alabama’s 2009 BCS championship teams. The BCS era lasted from 1998 to 2013.
Reality check: The Trojans are currently an average college football team. Some will say that is not true and SC is two late scores from being 7-1. It can also easily be argued that SC is lucky to be 5-3 and could easily be 3-3 as Stanford couldn’t score in the red zone and Arizona missed three field goals in a two point loss and Utah could have won by double digits if they didn’t turn the ball over twice on the one yard line.
Reality Check Part II: SC should have won but keep things in perspective- SC only dressed 48 players, with 44 prepared to play. Think about it from a practice stand point. You are depending on walk-ons to prepare you for games and they are not good enough to give the offense and defense legitimate looks. This is a big disadvantage when it comes to game preparation.
The losses of left tackle Chad Wheeler and Linebacker JR Tavai early in the Utah game were huge blows and Kessler missed on some wide open passes. This doesn’t excuse Sark’s overrated play calling ability but these are things that should be considered when examining the team.
Third quarter offensive inefficiency cost the Trojans: SC’s final drive was solid. They chewed up almost five minutes on the clock and were a miss-step away from ending the game. What really cost the Trojans was punting the ball four times in the third quarter and following that up with an interception.
If SC had any type of offensive success on those drives, SC probably wins the game. The SC offense is underperforming. The young offensive line is strong enough now that it can’t be used as an excuse for the inefficiency. The players and coaches need to step up and get on the same page or it will be a tough end to the season.
Last two offensive plays calls were fine but here’s the problem: The third down pass play was open enough to get a first down. Unfortunately the ball slipped out of Kessler’s hands. Two problems with this- 1- Why not run on 3rd down. If they stop you short, Utah has to burn its final time out. 2- The pass was to back-up full-back Jaleel Pinner who has barely seen the ball all year. Why not go with Bryce Dixon or Telfer on a play like this?
A few players have grumbled regarding the 4th down running play should have been run to the long side of the field. The pitch play to Agholor was added last week and it was practiced to the long side of the field. Running it to the short side of the field contributed to Agholor stepping out of bounds.
Why didn’t SC have Allen in the game?: Buck Allen hurt his shoulder toward the end of the game but why not have him in the game on the pass play to Pinner? It was a reminder that Sark was the offensive coordinator when SC couldn’t get a first down against Texas without Reggie Bush in the game, even to just serve as a decoy.
Defense lacks true leaders- coaches miss Josh Shaw: The coaches have quietly complained about the lack of leadership on defense. They have some great individual talents (Williams, Cravens, Jackson) but they don’t have a true leader that demands more of teammates. Suspended safety Josh Shaw is a great talent but his leadership is what the defense is missing the most. The coaches have repeatedly asked school administration to end Shaw’s suspension but it seems the school doesn’t want to revisit the situation from a public relationsh standpoint.
It will be 3+ years to get back to a full roster: SC currently has 5 redshirt Seniors (Telfer, Bowman, Shaw, Guertler and Pollard), and 4 true seniors (Heidari, Dawson, Walker and Tavai). In addition, Leonard Williams, Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor will leave for the NFL. A chance exists Agholor could stay since he may not grade out to a first round pick but has the ability to be one if he stays and works hard. Dawson will probably be back as well unless the coaches don’t want him back which I would find hard to believe considering the linebacking group is average. Due to natural off-season attrition with players transferring or failing out, SC will lose around 4 players. When you factor in Anthony Brown and Victor Blackwell no longer being with the team, SC will probably lose around 18 players. After this year’s full recruiting class, SC will only be about 7 players deeper than they are this year. With SC being 30 scholarships short, it will be at least three classes of 25 players before SC has a full roster of scholarship players.
Finding defensive playmakers is the new key for the stretch recruiting run: The coaching staff will be working overtime to land some top defensive recruits who are uncommitted as well as some who have already committed to other schools. SC needs players who can contribute right away and will be selling Adoree’ Jackson’s success this year as a true freshman. The main focus will be defensive lineman and linebackers. In fact, SC might mutually part ways with a few current committed recruits on the offensive side of the ball if they can further upgrade the talent and depth in those personnel groups. Some coaches have whispered that if they don’t get better quick in those areas they could be looking for jobs after next season.
Hayes Pullard a surprise Butkis Award Semi-finalist and coaches are scratching their heads: The Senior inside linebacker was recognized as one of the top 15 linebackers in the county. The Butkis Award is given to the nation’s top collegiate linebacker. Despite having a team-high 59 tackles, this was a surprise to the coaching staff who feel he can play at a higher level. He only has 2.5 tackles for losses and missed on quite a few big play opportunities. They appreciate his good attitude and hustle but feel he lacks the intangibles needed to be a stud linebacker.
Wet weather expected in Pullman…the second straight road game: SC will complete a tough back to back conference road trip as they travel to Pullman to face Washington State. The Cougars are struggling this season but any athlete who has made the trip to Pullman will tell you it is one of the toughest trips in the Pac-12 due to the remote location. Furthermore, the weather is usually miserable and rain is expected Saturday. It is tough for any college team to travel back to back, especially a team as young as the Trojans. Earlier this year we saw what happened at Boston College after the huge road victory at Stanford. Hopefully SC is focused and ready to go against a high powered offense.
Toa Lobendahn to start at left tackle vs. Cougars: The true freshman has shifted to left tackle from left guard with starting left tackle Chad Wheeler out for the season with a torn ACL. Lobendahn has been improving every week and has already caught the attention of pro scouts who feel he has a pro career ahead of him with added weight and strength. The left tackle position is extremely important as it is responsible for protecting the quarterback’s blind side. Lobendahn will have more to see and more to pick-up at his new position and look for Washington State to try and exploit that with an array of linebacker blitzes. Khalil Rogers will take over at left guard and appears to be back to full strength after injuring his knee.
J.R. Tavai injury could significantly hurt defense vs. Cougars: Though LB J.R. Tavai has struggled at times this year, he has been improving and the coaches love his energy. Losing him against Washington State is a bigger issue than it might appear. SC is already thin with linebacker depth and Scott Felix, who originally started this season, will see the majority of the snaps. Felix struggled mightily earlier this year sticking to his assignments and the defensive coaches moved All-America safety Sua’ Cravens into his spot. The good news is against Utah Felix had a team high nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss so hopefully that type of production will continue. It will be interesting to see how the linebackers perform against the pass-happy Cougars.
What to look for against Washington State
*Cougar QB Connor Halliday leads the Pac-12 with 489.9 passing yards per game and they don’t pretend to run the ball averaging just 45.9 yards rushing. They will pass 85-90% on offense. Halliday has re-written the WSU record books holding 9 of the 10 passing records. In a 60-59 loss to Cal on October 4th, Halliday threw for 734 yards and 6 TD’s. He has thrown 32 TD passes this season and they beat Utah 28-27.
On the flip side, he has thrown 10 interceptions and they have a young offensive line. The Trojans must mix up their defensive schemes and keep Halliday from getting in a rhythm. The expected rain should help the defense quiet the WSU passing attack in which nine different receivers have caught a pass in every single game this season.
*WSU head coach Mike Leach is known as the “mad scientist” of the college passing game. Going back to his days coaching Texas Tech, his teams have always been dangerous for any opponent. They almost beat Oregon and defeated Utah. WSU will be prepared and will use trick plays and a possible early on-side kick.
*As long as the weather doesn’t cause problems and SC shows up focused, the offense should have a field day similar to the Colorado game. WSU ranks ninth in the conference in defense, eighth in rush defense and 10thin scoring defense allowing 38 points per game.
Look for the Trojans to establish RB Buck Allen early and often and then open up the passing game with a lot of play action. Trojan WR’s should have a big day as the Cougar secondary is one of the worst in the conference.
*If this game was at the Coliseum SC would probably win by 3+ touchdowns. However, it is the Trojans second straight road game and the Cougars will be playing its second straight home game. The Trojans are coming off a tough loss and a slow start could lead to a nightmarish afternoon. The stronger SC defense should be the difference in the game.
Quick-Hitters: Buck Allen is the only player in college football with 8 straight games to start the season with 100+ yards from scrimmage…USC is 9th in the nation in red zone defense…Fullback Soma Vainuku and receiver Ajene Harris, both recovering from hamstring injuries, are not expected to play Saturday… Kicker Andre Heidari (groin) isn't 100 percent yet. He will be monitored during pregame warmups.
The next three games will be a preview of the Sarkisian Era: With Sua’ Cravens avoiding a potentially season ending injury and the team fairly healthy heading into the November stretch run, the next three games will provide a glimpse into the future of SC football. Despite the reduction in scholarships, SC has the talent to play with and beat Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame. SC does not have to travel out of LA for and two of the games are at home. It is a realistic expectation for the Trojans to go 2-1. If they are able to accomplish this and/or go 3-0, the future looks bright for Sark. The Trojans will close with the top recruiting class in the Pac-12 and a top 15 ranking and carry that momentum into next season and a weak early season schedule.
If the Trojans stumble and do not show improvement in key game management areas, finishing 1-2 or 0-3, recruiting will be negatively impacted and Sark will be stuck with the “7 win Sark” stigma and continue to rank in the lower tier of pac-12 coaches. With the Pac-12 regularly recognized as the top conference outside of the SEC, the players’ belief in Sark’s ability to make them a champion is paramount. Sark must show he can coach with the big boys and that starts tonight vs. Cal.
Odds strongly against a Coach O return: Coach O has stated he wants to return to SC as an assistant and that SC is his home. Though it makes sense on the surface as it would strengthen the staff and bolster recruiting, it is extremely difficult to have a former head coach return and coach under a new head coach at the same school with players the old coach recruited. It can create problems in the locker room even if Coach O goes out of his way to support Sark. Coach O had a successful interim run and it will create a level of anxiety and turmoil, especially if the program struggles. Athletic Director Pat Haden and Sark would prefer to avoid this potential drama. It sounds great but from a coaching and leadership standpoint but it is a lot more complex than it appears. You don’t see many CEO’s resign from a company and then come back and work under the new CEO.
Buck Allen is further proof that Sark is a running back’s dream: Based on what Sark did with Bishop Sankey at Washington, I predicted that Buck Allen would rush for close to 1,500 yards. He is on pace to eclipse that while also having 500 receiving yards. Despite an inexperienced offensive line, Sark has put Allen in position to be recognized as one of the top backs in the country. In fact, Allen is receiving fringe Heisman trophy consideration. He leads the Pac-12 in rushing yards with 1,124 (124.9 per game, 10th nationally) and is 7th in all-purpose yardage with 162 yards per game. His 1,458 yards from scrimmage is second nationally and his current streak of 6 consecutive 100-yard rushing games is the longest since Marcus Allen had 11 in a row in his 1981 Heisman Trophy season. He also is the first Trojan since Reggie Bush to have at least 8 100-yard rushing games in a season.
Sark has proven he will take care of his running backs which should pay off in recruiting big-time talent at the position.
Walk-on Matt Lopes proving to be a valuable asset: Earlier this year we noted that redshirt freshman Matt Lopes was impressive in practices and moving up the depth chart. He played well in the Washington State game when Sua’ Cravens left the game due to an injury and he showed why he has beaten out scholarship players to earn a significant role on the team. Lopes has a great football IQ and is the type of player the coaches can plug into multiple positions and trust he will make the correct play. Role players like Lopes that have a team first mentality are an important ingredient in building a championship level program.
SC Basketball embarrasses itself un-retiring Bill Sharman’s jersey: Jordan McLaughlin has the talent to be one of the best point guards in the Pac-12. During his recruitment, McLaughlin made it clear he must wear #11. SC, desperate for talent, obliged, even though the most decorated basketball player in school history, Bill Sharman, wore the number and it was rightfully retired. This situation bother me for a few reasons. A great player with a strong mentally will take a new number and make it a goal to have that one retired. SC went down this path in football to get the highly touted Darnell Bing. Mike Garrett unretired his number to get Bing’s commitment. Bing had a solid career and was on two national championship teams though some will say the success of the team made him look better than he truly was. He barely made an impact in the NFL as a 4th round pick in the NFL draft.
For all that McLaughlin could potentially accomplish in his career, I highly doubt it will touch what Sharman accomplished as a player: All-American/All-Conference, Eight Time NBA All-Star and a four-time NBA champion. As a coach, he guided the Lakers to its first NBA championship in Los Angeles and that 1972-73 team still holds the record for the longest winning streak (33) in NBA history. He’s the only coach to be named both NBA and ABA coach of the year and is in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach…oh, he also was a 1st baseman on the 1948 SC National Championship baseball team.
It is really sad that a school of SC’s stature with some of the best basketball facilities in the Pac-12 has to pull a stunt like this to get talent. Sharman passed away last year and whether the family or Sharman himself ok’d it, the scenario should have never been given any thought.
If the school and McLaughlin cares at all about the school’s basketball heritage (they don’t seem to as the Harold Miner jersey retirement last year was embarrassing and didn’t do nearly enough to show those in attendance how special he was), prior to SC’s game on Saturday, McLaughlin should announce he’s changing his number to honor the legacy of Sharman. Plus, the classiness of a move like that would play well in the minds of NBA general managers.
Why SC vs. CAL should be an offensive showcase that goes down to the wire: The improving Cal Bears come into the Coliseum with one of the best offenses in the country and the SC coaches are very concerned that Cal’s balanced/up-tempo offense will expose the Trojans linebackers and test their depth in the secondary. The loss of JR Tavai (should be back for the UCLA game), could have a big impact on this game. Cal averages more than 500 yards of offense and 40 points a game. They are ranked nationally in the top 15 in passing yards, total offense and passing efficiency. They average 148 yards rushing and spread the ball around to a myriad of targets often confusing defenses which doesn’t bode well for an SC defense that ranks 104th nationally in passing defense. Cal uses a lot of different offensive formations and quickly deploy a multitude of new personnel groupings.
On the flip side, Cal ranks dead last nationally in passing defense while Cody Kessler ranks fourth nationally in passing efficiency. Cal surrenders over 500 yards a game and 40 points a game and SC arguably has the most skill position talent of any team they have faced this year. SC and Cal are the only schools in the Pac-12 scoring touchdowns more than 70 percent of the time in the red zone and both have scored touchdowns on a higher percent of their drives than every school in the Pac-12 outside of Oregon.
Why SC could cover the 14.5 point spread: Washington physically beat up Cal on the way to a 31-7 victory. SC is one of the most physical teams Cal will play this year. If Cal’s banged up offensive line has trouble early and SC is able to rattle Cal QB Jared Goff, SC will have a huge advantage. Cal’s defense has been hit hard with injuries and SC should have no problems scoring 40+ points. Early turnovers and SC’s ability to establish a dominant run game will dictate whether this is a shoot-out or a blow-out.
Players to Watch-
CAL- QB Jared Goff- The 6’4 sophomore is the best QB at Cal since Aaron Rogers. He has a great arm and a good football IQ. An NFL scout told me he’s the best QB prospect in the Pac-12. He has nice touch and loves to spread the ball around. Cal has four receivers with more than 20 receptions. He is fourth in the nation with 346.5 passing yards per game and he has thrown 27 touchdowns with only four interceptions. **When Cal subs in back-up QB Luke Rebenzer, it will most likely be for him to run the ball as he rushed for 48 yards and two touchdowns vs. Oregon and is a regular fixture in the offense about 15% of the time.
RB Daniel Lasco- Cal’s gawdy passing number would lead one to believe they are all about passing which is not the case. Lasco, a 6’1 210 pound junior has rushed for 796 yards and 10 touchdowns. He rushed for 188 yards and three touchdowns in Cal’s victory over Oregon State two weeks ago and has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the past three games. He is also an accomplished receiver out of the backfield. SC coaches are very concerned about him and feel if they can’t contain him early the young Trojan defense will have a long night.
SC- CB/WR Adoree’ Jackson- The true freshman is a shut-down corner that has not given up a touchdown all year. He will be tested against the talented Cal offense, especially when matched-up with Bryce Treggs who leads Cal in receptions. Jackson has been a big playmaker on defense lately and he practiced with the offense this week. Sark knows he has a special talent and wants him on the field as much as possible. Jackson has also emerged as one of the best kick returning threats in the Pac-12.
RB Buck Allen- Despite each team’s ability to throw the ball well, this game will be won by who runs the ball well. It wouldn’t be surprising if Buck rushed for over 200 yards and has over 50 yards receiving. If Cal sells out to stop the run they will get killed over the top with SC’s talent at receiver so look for Cal to play more of a base defense which should allow Allen to have a big night. Sark is counting on a big night from Allen to give the defense the rest it will need.
Quick-Hitters: QB Cody Kessler has thrown 14 TD’s in the past three games and his passing efficiency numbers are on track to be the best in SC history…WR Nelson Agholor is second nationally in punt return TD’s and seventh in reception TD’s…WR Steven Mitchell had another great week of practice and is playing confidently with touchdown receptions in two of the past three games…the team was loose and upbeat this week in practice, reminiscent of the Carroll era…PK Andre Heidari appears to be 100 percent…Freshman safety John Plattenburg may miss the game as he has bad upper thigh contusion.
The season will be defined by the next two games: Despite looking rather mediocre for most of the season, SC can define Sark’s inaugural campaign as successful with victories over UCLA and Notre Dame. A 4-0 November will bring comparisons to Carroll’s first season. However, SC was swept by UCLA and Notre Dame last year and another sweep will put Sark on the hot seat and give life to the “Seven-Win Sark” moniker he was given at Washington.
Pac-12 Championship still a reality: With a victory over UCLA and an ASU loss to Washington State or Arizona, the Trojans will win the South and play in the Pac-12 championship game against a beat-up Oregon team. A hot Trojan team will be the last team that Oregon will want to play with the pressure of a “Final Four” spot on their shoulders.
SC dominant when it counts…don’t worry about the 2nd half vs. Cal: SC destroyed Cal in the first half. The Trojans are a young team and a let-down was bound to happen in the second half with UCLA and Notre Dame next on the schedule. Cal made some good defensive adjustments that puzzled the offense but the game was not nearly as close as the scoreboard indicated. SC came out with a great game plan and physically beat up a solid Cal team.
Josh Shaw will be a factor on Saturday…his leadership has been missed: Despite being suspended for the first ten games and only being reinstated Tuesday evening, safety Josh Shaw will play against the Bruins. The former captain looked good in practice and his size and athleticism provides depth to a thin secondary. He will see action on special teams and the depth he provides will give true freshman sensation Adoree’ Jackson a few more breaks which will free him up to play more on offense. Shaw may play some nickel back as well. Shaw is a natural leader that is respected by his teammates. His leadership has been sorely missed and some players and coaches feel his absence cost the Trojans victories over Arizona State and Utah.
Nelson Agholor will go pro: It is not a coincidence that Nelson Agholor is finishing the year strong. He knows this is “go-time” when it comes to impressing pro scouts and he has made it clear he plans to declare for the NFL draft. Some scouts feel he has an outside shot at breaking into the 1st round but will most likely be a 2nd round pick. It will be tough for him to improve his positioning by staying for another season.
SC getting healthy and welcomes back- JR Tavai and Soma Vainuku: Linebacker J.R. Tavai is back at full-speed after suffering a sprained knee against Washington State. He gives the Trojans a much needed boost of athleticism and play-making ability which will be needed against both UCLA and Notre Dame. Fullback Soma Vainuku is back from his hamstring injury and provides the SC offense with a pass-catching full-back that is one of the better backs at picking up blitzes in max pass protect situations.
Rumor mill- Suspended Tight End Bryce Dixon will play Saturday: According to multiple sources close to the program, true freshman tight end Bryce Dixon will play on Saturday. SC held him out of the Cal game for an unspecified student code of conduct violation. Dixon has practiced all week and should play a key factor in the SC passing game.
OFFENSIVE GAME PLAN
Attack the middle of the field- The Bruins expect SC to come out and try and establish the run early. Don’t be surprised if you see SC come out throwing. SC has a decided size advantage at receiver and should be able to beat the Bruin press coverage. If the SC offensive line is successful early and forces the Bruins to blitz their linebackers to get pressure on Kessler, the middle will be open for in-routes in the 10-15 yard range as the Bruin safeties typically play pretty deep.
Buck Allen and the cut-back: UCLA has the same tendency that SC does when it comes to defending the run. They over-pursue to the outside and are not discipline when it comes to gap assignments. These tendencies make UCLA vulnerable to some big running plays if Allen can cut-back and stay inside the hash marks.
The bubble screen should be effective: Fans complain about Sark’s use of the bubble screen but UCLA has had difficulty defending it this year and the SC receivers, especially JuJu Smith, are becoming solid down-field blockers. The Bruins like to play an aggressive man on the receivers, however, when the receivers are stacked, they usually cover differently and one side of the defense will have the corner play off the wide receiver creating a gap that can be exploited.
Involving players not named Agholor: SC is expecting UCLA to double-team its star Wide receiver Nelson Agholor or pay significant attention to him. A diverse passing attack utilizing all of the skill positions on offense will allow the Trojans to creat the offensive rhythm they need to be effective against the Bruin defense.
DEFENSIVE GAME PLAN
Contain Hundley: UCLA QB Brett Hundley is a top-tier dual-threat QB that has really hurt the Trojans with his legs the last two years. His ability to scramble and make big-time throws outside of the pocket is impressive. SC All-American safety Sua’ Cravens will most likely spy on Hundley to try and minimize the big plays he makes with his feet.
Mix up the defensive looks: Look for the Trojans to mix up their looks on defense and blitz more often than they have this season. The coaches have held back on blitzing due to the young secondary but the secondary has improved and the coaches want to pressure Hundley early and slow down the UCLA running game. SC will be more susceptible to big plays but increasing pressure is necessary against a solid UCLA offensive line.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
#1- SC offensive line: The young and improving offensive line will determine the outcome. They must play its best game of the year and stay disciplined throughout. UCLA has a strong defensive front 7 and feels they can contain Buck Allen and pressure Cody Kessler without having to commit extra players and employing multiple blitz packages. The Trojans have to be able to establish an offensive rhythm early forcing the Bruins out of their base defense.
Keep an eye on UCLA defensive end #98 Tak McKinley. He is a great athlete and one of the key reasons for UCLA’s improved defense late in the season. The junior college transfer, who didn’t join the team until the fourth game of the season, has an endless motor and the SC offensive line must be aware of him at all times.
#2- Brett Hundley vs. Cody Kessler: Big games usually come down to quarterback play and this game will be no exception. After struggling early in the season while trying to impress pro scouts as a pocket passer, Hundley finally ditched that idea and is back to beating teams as a dual threat QB. He is the nation’s most efficient passer with a 72.1 percent completion percentage while also rushing for 564 yards despite being sacked 29 times. The majority of those sacks came early in the year with 23 of them occurring in the first five games. Hundley has played well against the Trojans the past two seasons and the SC defense must limit his ability to run for big chunks of yardage when a play breaks down. Hundley does struggle with staring down receivers and panicking when his first option is not open so look for the Trojans to play press coverage when UCLA is in obvious passing situations.
Cody Kessler is fourth in the nation in passing efficiency with a 70.2% completion percentage while throwing for 2,919 yards and 29 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions. He is having a tremendous season but needs a marquee victory to solidify himself as one of the nation’s top QB’s. He isn’t as agile as Hundley but don’t be surprised to see him make some plays with his legs as well. Kessler struggles when defenses pick-up on the original SC game plan with the offense typically stalling in the second half. He has to play well for four quarters on Saturday.
The winning quarterback will have to make a few big time throws late in the game to pull this one out. An invitation to the Heisman Trophy presentation will most likely come with a victory.
#3- Establishing the running game- Both running backs are having great seasons and both defenses have struggled against defending the zone-read option. Buck Allen leads the conference in rushing while UCLA’s Paul Perkins is second. UCLA is more dependent on having a successful rushing attack with SC having better skill players at the wide receiver position. However, neither team is good enough to be one-dimensional in the passing game. If both teams struggle to run the ball it will be a low scoring affair while it could be a double digit victory for the team that is able to grind out over 200+ yards on the ground. Whoever can put together a long ball-controlled drive in the second half will have a major advantage down the stretch.
#4- Turnovers- SC has been outstanding at forcing turnovers and maintaining a turnover margin ranked in the top 20 nationally, while the Bruins have given it away as much as they’ve taken it away. UCLA has allowed 30 more points off turnovers than the Trojans. In the last two Bruin victories, the Trojans turned the ball over 5 times compared to only 1 for UCLA.
#5- Special Teams- Both teams have electric punt and kick-off returners. UCLA’s Ishmael Adams is a phenomenal athlete and one of the most feared returners in the country and Nelson Agholor and Adoree’ Jackson are considered elite returners as well. Both placekickers are solid and have made clutch kicks this year. A slight advantage goes to the Trojans if the game comes down to a game winning field goal.
#6- In-game adjustments- This is where UCLA has an advantage. While the Trojans start fast and are one of the best 1st quarters teams in the country, the Bruins are one of the best second half teams. The Trojans have struggled closing out games and cannot afford to have its typical sluggish 3rd quarter and expect to leave the Rose Bowl with a victory. SC has been outscored 78-66 in the 4th quarter this season.
Quick-Hitters: Look for CB/WR Adoree’ Jackson to be on the field for at least 10 offensive snaps… UCLA leads the nation in red zone efficiency at 97% while the Trojans check-in at a healthy 89%…SC leads the conference in third-down defense and rank second in third-down offense…It could get ugly- both teams rank in the top 15 in the nation for most penalties per game…UCLA has been much better on defense since the loss to Oregon. They are making more adjustments and showing different looks compared to earlier in the season…UCLA needs one more win for its third straight nine-victory season- a first in school history…The Gold Sheet predicts a 33-26 UCLA victory…UCLA is a 3 point favorite and is 3-6 against the spread when favored…
Notre Dame Preview
Sark’s strategy on the road needs some adjusting: If you win the toss on the road, why not defer so you have the ball kicked to you in the second half? Having the ball at the start of the second half can help shift momentum or maintain momentum. FYI: SC’s first early score was a defensive touchdown.
Why not take 3 points on the road early in the game instead of going for it on 4th down with a young offensive line? Getting points in the red zone is critical, especially in a hostile environment.
Bruin insider nailed the outcome: In last week’s Skinny, we noted that UCLA was highly confident in their ability to dominate SC’s offensive line without blitzing. They also felt the SC safeties and linebackers could be exploited in the passing game. In fact, they felt the game wouldn’t be that close if UCLA limited its mistakes. They were right…
Selfishness rears its ugly head again: Earlier this year I wrote about selfishness within the program being a contributor to the team’s struggles. Nelson Agholor’s muffed punt when he admittedly should have made a fair catch killed the early momentum SC had while leading 7—0. Agholor has told the media he wanted to make something happen and unfortunately, he did. With the game tied at 7-7, Adoree’ Jackson brought a ball out from the back of the end zone and got tackled around the 10 yard line launching the hostile Rose Bowl into a frenzy. Those two special team’s mishaps put all the momentum on the side of the Bruins at the most inopportune time.
Josh Shaw return caused team chemistry issues late in the week: A few players voiced how happy they were that Josh Shaw was back and they felt it would be a positive for the team and we reported that. However, it came to light on Friday afternoon that quite a few players were not happy with his return as they felt his absence for lying about his predicament really hurt the team early in the season. They also felt it was unfair he could possibly receive quite a few snaps against UCLA while only practicing a few times. This may have created some issues in the locker room, but with the way the defense played his presence on more snaps may have helped.
SC offense struggles against teams with a winning record: SC only has two wins against teams with winning records. One of the key issues is the offenses inability to put together consistent drives. The SC offense only scored 7 points against what is considered a mediocre UCLA defense when the game was in doubt. SC had the same struggles against Utah, Stanford and Arizona but did perform well against ASU.
The offensive line is obviously struggling but should there be concern about Kessler’s ability to make plays when it matters? Sark’s ability to call plays and make adjustments while being the head coach?
SC offensive line should be special in ’15 and ‘16- After this season, the offensive line only loses seldom used Audrey Walker which means they will return the entire starting offensive line and two of the top reserves. SC is creating depth with 6 or 7 highly rated offensive lineman in this year’s recruiting class. The depth will allow the recruits to focus on getting stronger and improving technical skills without the pressure of performing early on. Offensive line is the toughest position to learn and coaches prefer players have about two years to learn the system. SC should have 15 offensive lineman in the program next year.
Did SC miss an opportunity with Del Rio?- When Jack Del Rio was in town to be honored as an inductee into the Trojan hall of Fame when SC played Oregon State, a number of people who spent time with him have expressed how impressed they were with his demeanor, passion and personality. One well regarded football mind, who last year felt Del Rio would not be a good fit for SC, completely changed his feelings and said Del Rio reminded him of Carroll and felt he would be a dynamo on the recruiting trail. Del Rio is also a coach looking for an opportunity to prove he is a great coach after being fired and passed up for pro jobs…the type of hunger you need to succeed.
Last coaching thought: Doesn’t it make sense to hire a good defensive head coach who manages the program and hires a great offensive coordinator who is entirely focused on the offense? Didn’t that work well for Carroll-Chow and doesn’t it work well for Nick Saban?
Rumblings of Pat Haden stepping down within the next two years picking up: A few sources have indicated that Pat Haden will most likely step down in the spring of 2015 or 2016. Haden has accomplished his main goals of getting the Athletic Department on solid ground despite NCAA sanctions and creating a more positive image of the department when it comes to the media and the NCAA. He is extremely passionate about SC and developing a championship department in all phases. The stress and demands of the job have had some adverse effects on his health and with his short-term goals accomplished, the timing might be right to step away. At the same time, the competitor in him will want to stick around until both the football and basketball programs are competing at a higher level.
Why SC should beat Notre Dame:
Notre Dame has a depleted roster- Notre Dame lost four starters at the beginning of the season due to academic issues and they are recently down three more defensive starters due to injuries. Two of the injured players (Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day) have played significant roles on the Irish defensive line and will hurt them quite a bit when it comes to pressuring Cody Kessler and stopping Buck Allen. This should allow the young offensive line to help the offense fine the rhythm it never had vs. UCLA.
Notre Dame QB Everett Golson is struggling- He started the year on fire and was even considered a Heisman candidate until a five turnover performance at Arizona State. Since that game, Golson has not been the same QB and there was even talk of pulling him for the back-up last week in the loss vs. Louisville. The Notre Dame offensive line is considered mediocre and that should allow SC to pressure the turnover prone QB.
SC has a strong special teams advantage- SC has a decided advantage when it comes to field goals. The Irish kicker is just 13-22 on the year and has missed 5 of his last 8. The ND kick and punt returners have been average at best while SC features Nelson Agholor and Adoree’ Jackson.
Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor should have big games- Unless the offensive line has a case of the yipes after the UCLA game, Buck Allen should have a big game and finish the season as the Pac-12’s leading rusher. The Irish secondary has struggled all year and Nelson Agholor is looking to have a big game after being shut down in the UCLA game. Notre Dame does not match-up well with the Trojans when it comes to skill position players.
SC plays well after a loss…ND is in a tail-spin- Notre Dame has lost three straight and four of its last five while the Trojans have followed up every loss this season with a victory. With exception of a hail-mary loss to ASU, the young Trojans have been dominant at home this year.
Why Notre Dame could beat SC:
Everett Golson is a playmaker- Despite his recent struggles, Golson is one of the most gifted dual threat QB’s in the country. The SC defense has trouble with dual threat QB’s and if he’s able to get into a rhythm and avoid turnovers, he has the ability to put the Irish on his back and pass for 250+ yards and run for over 100.
The SC offensive line was dominated last week: If the SC offensive line is still reeling from last week’s domination (left guard Lobendahn gave up 3 sacks and 5 hurries), the Trojan offense will not be able to get into the rhythm it needs to distance itself from the Irish.
Coaching: Brian Kelly is considered one of the top 10 coaches in college football while Sark is still an unproven commodity. Sark will have the Trojans ready to go as his teams bounce back well after losses, but if it is a tight game in the 4th quarter the advantage goes to Kelly and the Irish.
Running Back Terean Folston has a big day: Folston has 539 yards and six touchdowns in the past five games. If he is able to give ND a balanced offensive attack they will be able to put up quite a few points.
SC plays undisciplined: The Trojans are one of the most penalized teams in the country while the Irish are known for playing a discipline brand of football.
Nebraska Preview (2015 Holiday Bowl)
Quick rewind- Kessler carves up depleted Notre Dame: The Trojans rebounded well from their loss to the Bruins to crush Notre Dame in the Coliseum. QB Cody Kessler looked phenomenal completing an array of deep throws to a diverse group of receivers early and putting the game away with a 35-0 lead mid-way through the second quarter. The combination of Kessler’s accuracy on deep throws and the offense attacking the middle of the field was great to see. Our scouting report stated that if Notre Dame QB Everett Gohlston was rattled early it would be a long day for the Irish and that turned out to be the case. Notre Dame’s injury issues made them look like a second rate team compared to the Trojans. Coach Sark and his staff did another great job of getting the Trojans ready to play after a loss.
Will the NCAA be apologizing and financially compensating SC in 2015?: We are about a month away from hearing whether the California Court of Appeals panel will keep the e-mails submitted in the Todd McNair case against the NCAA sealed. Legal experts expect the e-mails to be released to the public, which many feel will show a clear bias against SC when the school was given some of the stiffest NCAA penalties in the history of college football. The e-mails could uncover major violations in how the NCAA handled the case and could provide SC the potential opportunity to go after the NCAA for damages. If the bias against USC is explicit, SC should be entitled to major financial damages. Forbes magazine valued SC 62% higher than any other Pac-12 school in 2007 (before the sanctions took effect). This year SC ranks behind Washington and is only 19thnationally.
Speaking of sanctions…Kiffin did an admirable job considering the situation: After watching the 30 for 30 ESPN special “The U Part II”, which documented how Miami recovered from NCAA sanctions to win a national title, I have a much greater appreciation for SC’s ability to stay competitive and pull off two 10 win seasons while dealing with sanctions that were stiffer than what Miami faced. Miami was not very competitive while on sanctions and the coaches and players interviewed spoke about how difficult the environment was. It would have taken a very special coach and a lot of luck for SC to remain a true national power. The fact the Trojans still remained relevant and were even ranked in the top 10 on quite a few occasions is impressive. Kiffin and Coach O’s ability to recruit top tier talent during this time should be applauded. They kept a potential sinking ship afloat and the program is now in a position to flourish.
Interesting financial note: It cost SC $7 million to fire Lane Kiffin and bring in Steve Sarkisian…Michigan is talking about paying Jim Harbaugh over $8 million a year to coach. How can we call this an amateur sport?
SC has the most first round picks in the modern NFL draft: Since 1967, the start of the modern NFL draft, SC has the most 1st-round picks with 66. They are followed by Miami and Ohio State each with 56.
Offensive line should be a force next year: Offensive line coach Tim Drevno recently said in an interview the young line is starting to become so cognizant of the scheme they are correcting each other’s mistakes in the film room and creating a strong bond that is essential to developing a top tier line. True freshman Toa Lobendahn was named a USA Today Freshman All-American.
Receivers George Farmer and Steven Mitchell poised for a great 2015 campaign: Redshirt junior George Farmer is starting to show people why he was one of the top recruits in the country coming out of high school. He finished the regular season strong and is flashing speed that some were concerned he lost after tearing ligaments in his left knee last year. He recently beat several teammates in a post-practice sprint which included speedsters Adoree’ Jackson, Gerald Bowman and Josh Shaw…
Redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell finally has the pop in his step that he lost after injuring his knee last year. He has gone from not appearing in two September games to closing out the regular season by starting twice in November. He looks great in bowl practices and seems ready to take Nelson Agholor’s slot position with Agholor expected to leave school early for the NFL. His emergence has allowed Sark to open up the play book and use four-slot receivers at the same time which will be on display in the Holiday Bowl.
What to expect when Nebraska has the ball: Nebraska is going to play with a lot of heart while trying to send out the recent coaching staff with a victory after being let go at the end of the regular season. The interim coach Barney Cotton, who played at Nebraska and coached at the school for 16 seasons along with having two sons on the team, is going to coach with nothing to lose. Look for them to use some trick plays and possibly go for it on 4th down when they typically have not. Through the first eight games, Nebraska had the nation’s sixth-best rushing offense behind stud RB Ameer Abdullah. However, after Abdullah was hampered by a nagging leg injury and the schedule got tougher, Nebraska fell to 93rd nationally averaging only 3.8 yards per carry. In fact, in the last four games, Nebraska only had 40 plays of ten or more yards and QB Tommy Armstrong was sacked once every 8 pass attempts and he only had a 43.7% completion percentage. Armstrong is a dual-threat QB but is not an effective passer and will be turnover prone if the Nebraska offense is forced into obvious passing situations. Nebraska will look to establish the run early and often using the Boston College blueprint with both Abdullah and Armstrong carrying the load. It will be a tough task with three offensive lineman out with injuries. However, Abdullah is the best running back the Trojans have faced all year. He has great vision and shows a great knack to cut back at the line of scrimmage which can cause problems for the SC linebackers who tend to over-pursue.
What to expect when the Trojans have the ball: Nebraska has a solid secondary but that is by Big-10 standards. They have yet to face a passing offense like the Trojans and look for SC to go to the air early and often. The Trojans finally attacked the middle of the field against Notre Dame and they had no idea what hit them. Expect much of the same against Nebraska. Nebraska will be without starting linebacker David Santos which should make the middle of the field even more vulnerable. The Trojan tight ends (Telfer and Dixon) should figure heavily into the game plan, especially in and around the red zone. In an ideal world Sark would like to see Buck Allen finish the season with a 100 yard+ performance so the Trojans will still have a balanced attack.
With the Trojans the healthiest they have been all year they should be firing on all cylinders. If they are able to contain Nebraska’s running game and have success throwing the ball early it will be a very long night for the Cornhusker faithful. If Nebraska can run the ball though it will be a drama-filled evening in San Diego.
Key Match-up of the game OL Toa Lobendahn vs. DL Randy Gregory: Gregory is a projected top five selection in this year’s NFL draft and if Lobendahn struggles and is overtaken by Gregory on a consistent basis, the SC offensive game plan will take a big hit. He is by far the best pass rusher SC will have faced this season. Expect SC to mix things up on the line so Toa doesn’t have to go up against him on every play.
Pac-12 Power: Six teams in the CFB committee’s top 25 with four in the top 10. 14 first-team All-Americans including the Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota. The SEC was second with 11 first-team All-Americans. The Pac-12 has eight bowl teams this season and seven of them are favored. Is the Pac-12 ready to overtake the SEC for conference supremacy in the coming years?
Recruiting Buzz: Talk around the program is SC has at least four silent commitments from 4- and 5-star recruits with one being a big surprise. Things can change quickly in the mafia style world of college football recruiting, but as of now, Coach Sark is on the verge of signing a top 5 nationally rated class (currently rated 12th by ESPN). The major focus of SC’s recruiting efforts down the stretch will be on the defensive side of the ball with hopes of shoring up the linebacker and defensive line positions. As we head into the big Under Armour High School All-Amercian game on January 2nd, where quite a few kids announce their college choices, here is some info you should know:
Ykili Ross- a four-star defensive back from Riverside, CA, will announce his college decision at the game. Ross is down to USC and Notre Dame. The Trojans had a great in-home visit while his visit with Notre Dame was less than inspiring. It would be a shocker if he doesn’t commit to SC.
Marvell Tell- a 4-star safety out of Encino, CA (Crespit), is considered a strong SC lean heading into his announcement at the game. Oregon and Texas A&M have made a late run but it would be stunning to not see him put on a SC hat.
Osa Masina – The 4-star linebacker from Salt Lake City, Utah is a huge priority. Everything went well on his official visit in early December. However, the longer he takes to announce his decision the less likely he will be a Trojan. The Bruins and Arizona State are making a strong late run and Sark is hoping to hold them off. His decision could also be influenced by what Porter Gustin decides. Look for an announcement in Mid-January.
Porter Gustin – Another 4-start linebacker from Utah (Salem), is also strongly considering ASU and has yet to have his in-home visit with Coach Sark. The coaching staff would love to have both Masina and Gustin but it appears they will probably only be able to land one of the two.
Rasheem Green - The 5-star Serra defensive tackle will not play in the All-American bowl, but he is one of the crown jewels of this recruiting class and considered a huge SC lean since he eliminated Stanford from consideration. Green will officially visit January 17 and then announce his decision on signing day with teammate and five-star linebacker John Houston. Green is also considering ASU and UCLA.
Ronald Jones II- This 4-star running back from McKinney Texas, will also make his announcement at the All-American game and it is between SC and Notre Dame. Both schools are very confident they will sign him. SC is selling him hard on the opportunity to potentially play early with limited depth returning to the position next year with Buck Allen expected to go pro.
In addition to the uncommitted targets playing in the game, SC will also have a host of commits representing the school in QB’s Sam Darnold and Ricky Town, Offensive tackle Chuma Edoga, and Defensive linemen Christian Rector and Jacob Daniel.
Fun Fact: 6’5 backup quarterback Max Browne was one of two recepients of SC’s “Lifters Award” for excellence in the weight room.
WISHING YOU AND YOURS A HAPPY AND HEALTHY NEW YEAR!!