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August 31, 2012
Game 1: 'It's 5 O'clock Somewhere'
Norm Chow's improbable first task as a head coach - lead Hawaii to an upset of top-ranked USC - could drive a lesser man to drink.
The 2012 USC football team, ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press (AP) poll and No. 3 in the USA Today coaches' poll, opens the season Saturday, Sept. 1 against the Mountain West Conference's Hawaii Warriors at 4:30 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Fox network television audience. It is the eighth meeting between the two schools, with the Trojans leading the series 7-0, including a 49-36 victory in the 2010 season opener in Honolulu. USC is 18-1-1 against current MWC opponents, while the Warriors are 29-52 against current Pac-12 members (but, surprisingly, 4-3 in road games against the conference).
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (25-13 career collegiate head coaching record; 18-7 at USC) enters his third season at USC. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Meanwhile, Hawaii headman Norm Chow takes the reins on Oahu after spending 39 years as one of the sport's most vaunted offensive assistants. While he spent 27 years at BYU, his four years at USC were star-making, as Chow chaperoned both Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart to Heisman Trophies and oversaw a USC offense that won a pair of national championships (2003, 2004).
The Trojans' 2012 opener is only USC's fourth at home in the past 10 seasons. Nonetheless, USC has won its past 14 opening games, and is 60-16-7 in season openers at home. Troy returns nine starters to an offense expected to be among the nation's most potent, led by senior quarterback and Heisman candidate Matt Barkley. On defense, USC returns seven starters, including All-America free safety T.J. McDonald to a group looking to continue the impressive improvement it showed in the second half of the 2011 season.
The Warriors, meanwhile, feature 13 returning starters (six offense, four defense, three specialists). UH's offense has been completely re-tooled by Chow and his new staff after spending 13 years operating out of the pass-happy run-and-shoot. QB Sean Schroeder, an Orange County native, is the surprise starter after graduating from Duke in just three years and taking advantage of the NCAA's graduate transfer rules to join the Warriors as a junior. The Warrior defense is rather green across the board, with senior defensive end Paipai Falemalu and junior strong-side linebacker Art Laurel the returning standouts.
Offensive coordinator Tommy Lee, a native Hawaiian and 40-plus-year veteran of coaching, is working with Chow to make a massive shift in the Warriors' offensive playbook. After utilizing the run-and-shoot for more than a decade, Hawaii's pro-style attack will rely more on the run game and add a tight end to the offense for the first time since the late 20th century. However, with Chow working with various different offenses in recent years - the Pistol at UCLA, for instance, or a more spread-oriented attack at Utah last year - it will be intriguing to see what Hawaii incorporates into its new vision.
The announcement a week into camp that the 6-foot-3 Schroeder would take over the starting quarterback duties was a shocker. Most observers thought junior David Graves would take the reins after he showed well in two late starts a season ago replacing an injured Bryant Moniz. However, Graves has shifted to receiver and the only other QB with game experience with the Warriors, Cayman Shutter, is suspended for the first four games for an unspecified violation of team rules. Schroeder hasn't taken a snap in a live game since playing for Dana Hills High School in 2009, so it's hard to know what to expect. Sophomore Jeremy Higgins is the back-up.
The Warriors' two-deep does give a little indication of how to expect them to line up in 2012 - three receiver spots and a single running back spot are listed. Hawaii has a bevy of solid pass catchers returning, as you'd expect from a former pass-first, pass-last offense. Junior Billy Ray Stutzmann led Hawaii in catches a season ago with 78 (including four TDs). Diminutive senior Jeremiah Ostrowski (65 catches, five scores in 2011) and Australian sophomore Scott Harding are the other starters, but juniors Ryan Hall (more of a tight-end sized option) and Justin Clapp (38 catches , four TDs in 2011) and sophomore Trevor Davis (28 rec., three TDs a season ago) will also rotate regularly.
Sophomore Joey Iosefa is a bruising running back, carrying 240 pounds on a 6-foot frame. He averaged almost five yards per carry a year ago and scored seven times. Hawaii also has a couple of more traditional running backs in Californians John Lister (sophomore) and Will Gregory (freshman), but neither has much game experience. The trio is listed as co-starters in Hawaii's two-deep.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing Lee and Chow is an offensive line group that lost seven experienced players (including four starters) that had combined for 76 total starts. With a new offensive design and an inexperienced quarterback, this is a recipe for disaster. Sophomore Dave Lefotu (RG) is the only returning starter, and he is joined on the right side by tackle Sean Shigematsu, another sophomore who started Hawaii's first two games in 2011 before a season-ending knee injury. The Warriors will open the season with freshmen at left tackle (Blake Muir) and center (Ben Clarke), while junior Kapua Sai opens at left guard.
Defensive coordinator Thom Kaumeyer spent the past four seasons in the NFL, as a secondary assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He's been a defensive assistant in college and the NFL for the past 20 years and is expected to bring an aggressive 4-3 look to a Hawaii defense that's long been known for being quick, undersized and willing to play to the echo of the whistle. While the Warriors had 35 sacks and forced 24 turnovers in 2011, they also allowed nearly 30 points and 390 yards per game. And with just four starters returning, this group will have to get up to speed quickly to have any hope of slowing the Trojans.
Falemalu is the clear leader - and only returning starter - on the Warriors' front four. He had 50 tackles and 4.5 sacks a season ago. Sophomores Beau Yap and Marcus Malepeai and junior Tavita Woodard have seen action and will rotate with Falemalu at the end spots. Inside, there is some more experience, with seniors Haku Correa and Geordon Hanohano expected to rotate with listed starters Siasau Matagiese (junior) and Moses Samia (sophomore).
The losses were tougher at linebacker, as UH's two leading tacklers - Corey Paredes and Aaron Brown - took their 511 career tackles to NFL training camps this summer. That leaves Laurel (61 stops in 2011) to lead a group lacking game experience at this level. Junior George Daily-Lyles has made just three starts in his career, but is penciled in on the weak side, while sophomore TJ Taimatuia (a special teams standout last season) and redshirt junior Brendan Daley look set to split time in the middle.
Juniors Mike Edwards, a cornerback, John Hardy-Tuliau, who will begin the season at free safety, but can also play corner, are returning starters in the secondary - and are capable if undersized players. Sophomore Mike Sellers is able at free safety should Hardy-Tuliau shift to a corner. Junior transfer Tony Grimes is expected to fill a starting corner spot while sophomore Bubba Poueu-Luna will get the first crack at strong safety.
Hawaii Special Teams
Senior punter Alex Dunnachie, an honors candidate, is sitting out a suspension following an off-season DUI. Chow and staff have been somewhat mum on his replacement, but it's possible you'll see Australian Rules Football veteran Harding (a 26-year-old sophomore receiver) take a crack at it. Sophomore placekicker Tyler Hadden may also get a look, but will most certainly take on kickoff duties, PATs (18-of-21 a season ago) and field goals (5-of-10 in 2011). Edwards handles kick returns (24.7 average in 2011), while Harding is a threat on punt returns (7.4 average last year).
USC Offensive Gameplan
As 2012 gets underway, the Trojan offense is getting as much national attention as the 2005 USC team, which ended up as perhaps the most prolific offense in Trojan history. Aside from Barkley, who passed for 3,528 yards and a conference-record 39 TDs a year ago, USC also returns a pair of 1,000-yard receivers, junior Robert Woods and sophomore Marqise Lee, the most impressive duo in the nation. The Trojans also not only boast a returning 1,000-yard rusher from a season ago - senior Curtis McNeal, who gained 1,005 yards in a surprising 2011 - but they also add the 1,241 rushing yards of junior (and recent Penn State transfer) Silas Redd. With all of that skilled talent, defenses still wouldn't be wise to sleep on sophomore tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, who combined for nine scores in 2011.
The Trojans suffered their biggest loss on offense when LT Matt Kalil opted to go pro (and was picked by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round). However, USC's offensive line returns the other four starters from a stellar group: sophomore LG Marcus Martin, senior center Khaled Holmes, junior RG John Martinez and junior RT Kevin Graf. Former top recruit and current sophomore Aundrey Walker will get the first crack at replacing Kalil and protecting Barkley's blind side.
All of this firepower is likely to be a massive headache for an inexperienced and undersized Hawaii defense. Though Kiffin should have his choice between thumping the UH front seven with the running game or blistering their secondary through the air, expect USC to get the Barkley Heisman campaign off to a flying start, with the Trojans throwing early and often. Hawaii just doesn't have the players in the secondary to match up with Woods and Lee, and I am sure the coaching staff wants to see plenty of reserve receivers George Farmer, De'Von Flournoy and true freshman Nelson Agholor in a live game as they battle for third-receiver snaps. That doesn't mean McNeal and Redd won't get plenty of opportunities on the ground. If things go as planned, expect to see redshirt freshman Max Wittek get his first live snaps as Barkley's back-up late in the game.
USC Defensive Gameplan
With Chow now in charge of the Hawaii offense, playing against the Warriors will likely be a lot less stressful than facing those old run-and-shoot outfits, especially the one USC - with a very green group - struggled against in 2010. As Kiffin said earlier this week, the Trojans have seen plenty of Chow-led offenses in recent seasons, and they generally know what to expect from his pro-style sets. At the same time, the UH quarterback situation can't exactly give Warrior fans a lot of confidence heading into the opener.
That's also good news for the Trojans' most untested defensive group, a front four that must replace three starters from 2011, including all Pac-12 first teamer Nick Perry. Then, the Trojans received news just prior to camp that senior Devon Kennard, expected to replace Perry, tore a chest muscle and is out for at least half of 2012. Still, if you could pick a position coach on the USC staff that you'd like to handle such adversity, it's probably D-line leader Ed Orgeron, perhaps the best position coach in America. The Trojans spent much of camp working on finding a group of players they could rotate in the four spots. Senior DE Wes Horton and sophomore tackle George Uko will be the anchors, but keep an eye on redshirt freshmen Antwaun Woods and Christian Heyward at nose tackle, as well as true freshman Leonard Williams behind Uko. Additionally, sophomore DE J.R. Tavai will start opposite Horton, but the rotation at end also includes redshirt freshman Greg Townsend Jr. and juniors Kevin Greene and Morgan Breslin.
The good news is that while this group rounds into a form USC fans have become used to from an Orgeron-led front, exciting and athletic sophomore linebackers Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard all return and look that much more active and confident. Pullard and Bailey, especially, became key playmakers for the Trojans in 2011 and appear poised to double down on that performance in 2012.
Similarly, the Trojans return a talented and improving group in the secondary, led by All-American free safety McDonald and junior All-Pac-12 cornerback Nickell Robey. This crew will need to be on its game, as its clear that the Warriors' best position group, in both talent and experience, is at receiver. The corner group also features sophomore Anthony Brown opposite Robey (Brown was a two-game starter in 2011 before a season-ending ankle injury), with junior Torin Harris and impressive freshman Kevon Seymour pushing for time. At strong safety, junior Demetrius Wright and senior Jawanza Starling form an impressive rotation.
Suffice it to say, this game should not be close. The Warriors are not only operating out of new offensive and defensive systems, but they lost a lot of key players from 2011. That doesn't bode well in most circumstances, and opening on the road against the No. 1 team in the country isn't "most circumstances."
This game should provide a great opportunity for USC to work out some kinks on both sides of the ball. How will McNeal and Redd split the workload in the backfield? How will Walker perform in game situations in his new role at left tackle? Can the Trojans find a playmaker or two along their retooled defensive line?
Most importantly for the fans out there, though, Saturday's game marks the end of a long wait - since last Nov. 26 - for a much-anticipated USC football season. The Trojans have come through the bowl-restricted part of their NCAA sanctions in much better shape than anyone (especially the brutally crooked group that handed down those sanctions) could have imagined. Now, with the hype flying at warp speed, USC and its fans get to see if team can back up its mottoes for 2012 - "Unfinished Business" and "Prep, Not Hype" - on the field. Welcome back to the Coliseum, everyone. Let's kick it off!
USC 49, Hawaii 13
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 12 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants