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September 7, 2012
Game 2: 'Start Spreading the News '
Matt Barkley makes the first of what he hopes are two trips to the New York metro area in 2012 as the Trojans face Syracuse in the Meadowlands.
The consensus No. 2 USC Trojans (1-0) make their first trip to the New York City area in a dozen years to face the Syracuse Orange (0-1) at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) on Saturday, Sept. 8 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and in front of a national ABC television audience. It is the fourth meeting between the two schools, with the Trojans leading the series 3-0, including last season's 38-17 decision at the Coliseum. Prior to that, USC toppled Syracuse, 34-16, in the 1990 Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium, the pre-cursor to the building housing this weekend's tilt. Incredibly, Saturday's game also means that USC has played a current BCS-level opponent either on the road or at a neutral site in each of the past 28 seasons (and 58 of the past 59 seasons).
A week ago, the Trojans opened the 2012 campaign by forging a 35-0 halftime lead in an eventual 49-10 thumping of overmatched Hawaii. Wideout Marqise Lee overcame several dropped passes to notch 10 catches for 197 yards, including a 75-yard catch-and-run for a score on the season's first offensive play. Lee also returned a second-half kickoff 103 (nee, 100, according to NCAA rules) yards for a TD. The Trojan defense, though missing presumed starters Wes Horton (DE) and Lamar Dawson (MLB), limited the Warriors to just 264 total yards and forced four turnovers. Meanwhile, Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib saw his 470-yard effort to lead the Orange back from a 22-point deficit go for naught when Northwestern scored in the closing moments to edge SU, 42-41, at the Carrier Dome.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (26-13 career collegiate head coaching record; 19-7 at USC) is in 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, Syracuse headman Doug Marrone is in his fourth season at the reins of the Orange. He sports 17-21 mark, but watched his Orange struggle to a 5-7 finish a season ago. A Syracuse graduate, Marrone had split most of the previous two decades between NFL and college assistant positions prior to becoming the first SU alum to helm the Orange football program in more than 60 years.
After kicking off the season in the friendly confines of the Coliseum, the Trojans now face a schedule that finds them on the road for four of the next five games (only a Sept. 22 showdown with Cal will take place on home turf). USC has plenty to work on following last week's blowout, with some drops and a slow-starting running attack among those things that need addressing on offense. At the same time, the expected return of Dawson and Horton (and, perhaps, CB Torin Harris) this Saturday are expected to boost a defense that looked susceptible, at times, to the Hawaii passing attack. With three-year starter Nassib shredding the Northwestern defense a week ago, some are giving the Orange a puncher's chance against a USC defense that many national pundits still haven't bought into.
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett (son of former USC head coach Paul Hackett - ugh) had some holes to plug coming into 2012 with just five returning starters. Luckily, one of those five was Nassib, who set Syracuse single-season records for completions (259) and passing yards (2,685) in 2011. Nassib's name dots the top 10 in most of Syracuse all-time passing charts and with more performances like last week's Big East-record explosion, the 6-foot-3 pocket passer is likely to leave campus with plenty of records. After completing about 60 percent of his passes for 41 TDs and just 17 interceptions in his first two seasons, his 45-of-66 performance against the Wildcats included four touchdown tosses and a single pick.
At running back, junior Jerome Smith, who had just 37 carries a season ago, looks to be tasked to handle much of the hard running for the pass-happy Orange. He had 34 yards on just 10 carries a week ago, as Syracuse tried to climb out of a big hole. Junior Prince-Tyson Gulley is more of a speedy, do-everything back. He had 50 yards on seven carries (including a touchdown) and also gained 46 yards on seven receptions.
Nassib's most experienced target, senior Alec Lemon, did not play against Northwestern due to a lower body injury, but is listed atop the depth chart this week. Lemon, a Biletnikoff Award candidate, had 68 catches a season ago and, health willing, will likely top the school's career charts after this season. Speedy senior Marcus Sales, who sat out 2011 after grabbing 54 passes combined in 2009-10, returned with a flourish last week, notching 11 catches for 117 yards and a score. Junior tight end Beckett Wales filled in nicely for injured senior David Stevens (19 catches in 2011) in the opener. An array of other receivers - juniors Jarrod West and Christopher Clark, sophomore Jeremiah Kobena and true freshman Ashton Broyld - caught multiple passes in the opener.
Syracuse's front five returned three starters from 2011: seniors Justin Pugh (tackle) and Zack Chibane (guard) on the left side and junior center Macky MacPherson. One problem: Pugh missed last week and is out this week with an upper body injury (junior Sean Hickey is getting the first crack at replacing him). This is a line built for pass blocking, with sophomore Ivan Foy (guard) and senior Lou Alexander (tackle) handling the right side.
Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer has seen some ups and downs the past two years at Syracuse. However, with eight starters back from 2011, hopes were high that the Syracuse defense would resemble the stellar 2010 unit. And, based on total yardage, he might just have something as the Orange allowed just 337 yards to Northwestern - but three SU turnovers helped the Wildcats roll up 42 points. And, in the end, the Orange couldn't get a final stop after the Syracuse offense regained the lead in the game's closing minutes.
Up front, junior nose tackle Jay Bromley and senior tackle Deon Goggins lead a group that held Northwestern to just 124 yards in 40 attempts. Goggins, a native Southern Californian, had a sack - one of five for the Orange a week ago. JC transfer Markus Pierce-Brewster impressed in his first start at defensive end, with seven tackles and a fumble recovery. Across the way, senior Brandon Sharpe gets the nod for a second straight game, but the Orange rotated a total of eight players a week ago and are expected to do the same against USC.
At linebacker, junior Marquis Spruill moves back outside in 2012, after starting in the middle in 2011. He's in his third year starting and is the heart and soul of this group. Unsurprisingly, he had eight stops (two for a loss) against Northwestern from the strong side. Sophomore Dyshawn Davis is a returning starter on the weakside, after recording 43 tackles in his true freshman campaign. He is rangy and athletic. Senior Dan Vaughan returned at middle linebacker, but lost his job to classmate Siriki Diabate. However, it appears the duo will be sharing time, as they combined for nine stops last week, including Vaughan's 1.5 sacks.
Senior strong safety Shamarko Thomas is an honors candidate in the Big East. He had a sack and a forced fumble against the Wildcats. Though junior Jeremi Wilkes is listed atop the free safety depth chart, it was sophomore Durell Eskridge who had a big game against Northwestern, leading SU with nine tackles. At corner, senior Ri'Shard Anderson returns after beating out fellow returning starter Keon Lyn, who sees extensive action in nickel packages. Across the way, sophomore Brandon Reddish made his first career start a week ago.
Syracuse Special Teams
Junior placekicker Ross Krautman handles PATs and field goals. He ranks third among active kickers thanks to making 35-of-41 FG attempts in his career (including 2-of-3 last Saturday, the lone miss a 44-yarder). Freshman Ryan Norton has taken over kickoff duties (and pinned five of his eight attempts for touchbacks last week). Sophomore Jonathan Fischer took over punting duties for the Orange early in 2011 and averaged 39.3 yards per boot (he upped that to 52 yards per in three tries against Northwestern). Kobena is the lead kick returner, while junior Steven Rene is back as the Orange's punt returner.
USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojan offense looked as explosive as expected throughout much of the first three quarters, with only a Silas Redd fumble (on a nice punchout by a Hawaii defender) and some struggles on two-point conversions keeping USC under 40 points before halftime. Lee was captivating every time he touched the ball, Matt Barkley looked every bit the senior Heisman candidate and Robert Woods' understated two-TD performance surprised no one. Even Redd made up for the fumble, busting free for a 31-yard TD run on a fourth-and-short in the second quarter. Still, there were the predictable early-season missteps: six combined drops from Woods and Lee, imprecise route running and some inconsistent run blocking by a veteran offensive line.
That gives the USC offensive brain trust plenty to improve upon this week, and the opportunity for a captive audience that knows it didn't nearly play its best game. Though it's clear to anyone that Barkley, Woods and Lee will remain the focus of the attack throughout 2012, expect to see USC try to establish Redd and Curtis McNeal a little bit more this week and get the front five into a more physical mindset with Stanford looming.
Still, the Syracuse defense was exploited by Barkley a season ago, to the tune of 324 yards passing and 5 TD tosses. And it's difficult for anyone to say that the Orange have closed the athletic gap on USC's main receiving targets. If anything, Lee is almost a new target for Barkley compared to last September's meeting (he had only two catches in just his third game). And with teams so focused on the Trojans' dynamic outside threats, expect to see more of tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, along with Redd and fullback Soma Vainuku exploiting defenses underneath as the season moves along.
USC Defensive Gameplan
USC's young defensive line acquitted itself well against Hawaii, keeping the Warriors' rushing attack ineffectual and leading the charge to five USC sacks. Ed Orgeron had to be happy, but he also knows Hawaii isn't a major test. Still, getting impressive efforts from newbies like Morgan Breslin (five tackles and a sack) and Leonard Williams (a sack and a fumble recovery) is a boost for a group which should add Horton back into the mix Saturday. At the same time, redshirt freshman Anthony Sarao showed promise at the weak linebacker spot when Hayes Pullard shifted to the middle to replace Dawson - and scored on a pick-six.
One concern coming out of the Hawaii game was some soft coverage on the corner opposite Nickell Robey. With Robey shutting down his side of the field - in what's become a regular occurrence - sophomore Anthony Brown struggled at times in the second half to locate his assignment. Against Nassib and his bevy of receivers, USC can ill afford to allow openings on third down. Expect the Trojans to try to press their physical advantage and get up close and personal with the Orange wideouts. Again, if Harris is available this week, it would be a boost for USC, especially in nickel situations.
With Nassib having to take to the air early to bring Syracuse back against Northwestern, it's tough to say how little confidence the Orange staff has in its running attack. The goal for USC has to be to completely shut that half of SU's offense down and focus on pressuring Nassib. He's too big and too experienced to let sit back and pick apart coverage. The Trojans cannot play soft in the secondary and must try to out-physical the Syracuse receiving corps.
The Trojans' first visit to the New York area couldn't be better timed from a PR perspective. USC, back in the national title mix from what appeared to be crippling sanctions just a couple years ago, is a major national story. And there's nowhere better to get some exposure - especially for Barkley's Heisman hopes - than playing a game in America's biggest city.
That said, Syracuse is a dangerous opponent should USC not shake some of the cobwebs from game one - or should the Trojans get caught up in the New York hype. The Orange feature plenty of offensive playmakers that could keep pace with USC for at least a half - and more, if the Trojans don't perform.
However, all things equal, the Trojans should likely improve on last week's performance in just about every area. USC has a distinct physical advantage across the board against an Orange program that's still rebuilding in anticipation of its move to the ACC next year. Barkley and Lee will shine near the bright lights of Broadway, and the Trojan World Tour rolls into the Bay Area at 2-0.
USC 45, Syracuse 21
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)