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October 12, 2006In 2003, the Trojans turned around their season in Tempe. Could this year's turning point be this weekend against the same Sun Devils?
The USC Trojans (5-0, 3-0 Pac-10), ranked No. 3 in the AP poll and No. 2 in both the USA Today coaches' poll and Harris Poll, continue the Pac-10 conference race this Saturday, Oct. 14, against the Arizona State Sun Devils (3-2, 0-2) at 5 p.m. (PDT) in a sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a regional ABC television audience. USC is 13-9 against ASU in its history and has won the past six meetings by an average margin of 21 points.
The Trojans played just their second home game in 2006 last Saturday and, once again, escaped with a 26-20 victory over Washington. Mario Danelo's four field goals and Patrick Turner's 12 receptions helped USC hold off a game group of Huskies. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils took a week off to lick their wounds following a pair of dreadful losses to close out September. ASU was trounced in back-to-back weeks at Cal and at home against Oregon.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his sixth season at USC (59-10, 38-5 Pac-10) and seeks to extend a 29-game home winning streak. Meanwhile, Arizona State headman Dirk Koetter (36-30 at ASU, 62-40 overall, 17-25 Pac-10) is back on the hot seat in his sixth season in Tempe. Koetter's teams have seemingly been on the cusp of a breakthrough many times during his tenure, only to almost always fall back in a series of crushing defeats. Under Koetter, the ASU program has yet to win a game in California - trouble when you consider that USC and Cal have been atop the conference for three years running now, but that UCLA and Stanford have struggled often in recent seasons.
Normally, I'd go into notes about ASU's offense, defense and special teams right here. However, after a pair of close victories that have had many questions buzzing around the USC program, I'd like to take the bulk of this week's preview to share my thoughts on the current state of the program and the 2006 season.
Have the past two games been a little too close for comfort for Trojan fans? Yes. Have there been things - offensive and defensive line play, offensive play calling, defensive adjustments, a lack of forced turnovers and pressure on the opposing quarterback - that have caused consternation and concern? Of course.
However, let's jump back a couple months - to happier, more innocent times, when a 10-2 record and Rose Bowl bid this season would have made just about all of us quite pleased. Before the season kicked off, tempered expectations were the norm for Trojan fans and national football analysts. After all, what team loses two Heisman Trophy winners, the school's all-time leading TD scorer, three key offensive linemen and sundry others - 11 total NFL draft picks - and comes back ready to dominate college football as it had for much of the prior three years?
However, an easier-than-it-appeared 50-14 season-opening win at Arkansas ratcheted the expectations almost back to 2005 levels for some, it seems. Perhaps the most important thing that happened in that game, though, was the season-ending injury to safety Josh Pinkard, one of the USC defense's most important players. That loss merely foreshadowed the injury virus soon to come. Among other nicks and cuts, USC is now down three fullbacks and lost All-America candidates Sedrick Ellis and Dwayne Jarrett for all or part of multiple games.
Between the influx of players getting their first taste of real college football action and the waterfall of injuries, is it shocking to see USC playing much closer games than in recent years? Is it shocking that - both offensively and defensively - the Trojans appear to be a much blander team so far in 2006? I think not.
This is not to say there aren't real questions that need to be answered - not for the vocal fans' benefit, but to ensure that the remainder of the 2006 campaign is successful for the team and the program.
1) Is the offensive play calling getting too predictable? While it seems that more defenses are getting a better idea of what's coming based on USC's personnel and formations, the jury is still out here. Those with short memories (and a near-obscene longing for the Norm Chow Era) may forget a couple things: the Trojan offense struggled into the second half of the fifth game of the 2003 season, a year that is the most comparable to this one in personnel changes (though not injury problems); and that even the venerated Chow was questioned often early in his run at USC when the Trojans' offense struggled.
USC is always somewhat vanilla in the opening weeks of a season, and that was amplified with John David Booty taking over the quarterback spot this season.
However, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian clearly are still adjusting to the difference in personnel this year. There have been a few times when this was apparent, as play calls that worked with a Reggie Bush on the field have been ill timed with this new group of USC stars.
One also has to consider the injuries suffered on this side of the ball. Losing just about every capable fullback has removed a key pass catching threat, let alone a crucial lead blocker, that was so important to the Trojan offense in recent years. Notice how often Fred Davis is running the bootleg pass with Booty? How often would that have been a David Kirtman or Brandon Hancock in recent years? Outside, the losses of Jarrett, Chris McFoy and Steve Smith (for much of the second half of the Washington game) cannot be discounted. When players like Mike Brittingham and Brad Walker are lining up on 10, 15, 20 plays (as they did Saturday), you can't tell me that it doesn't make an opponent's defensive coordinator's job more difficult. There are one or two guys on the field at that point that a DC simply doesn't have to account for, meaning the pressure on the playmakers becomes greater.
None of this is to absolve anyone of blame for USC's offensive struggles in recent weeks. Adjustments by the coaches seem slower to come this year, and USC is struggling - especially in the red zone - because of it. I, for one, thought USC could have run for 300 yards against UW last weekend, if only they'd have used more single-back sets - and not passed 42 times. The Trojan backs were gashing the Husky defense up the middle all day, yet USC spent a lot of time utilizing the I, which wasn't working as well, and throwing, even with Booty's options growing fewer as the afternoon went along.
2) Why is USC's defense struggling to get pressure on quarterbacks and force turnovers? On the other side of the ball, there may be more important issues to address. In recent seasons, no college football team has been better at forcing its opponents into mistakes, often by living in their backfields. Quarterback sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles are among the biggest reasons for the resurrection of USC's football dynasty. In these past two weeks, only a final-play interception against Washington State kept the Trojans from being completely shut out in these categories.
Add to that the fact that a previously struggling Washington rushing attack gashed the Trojans for more than 150 yards last Saturday, and more than a few fans were having Rose Bowl flashbacks. However, were the issues of the past two weeks symptomatic of the Trojans' weaknesses or merely good game planning and a bit of good fortune on the Cougars' and Huskies' parts?
Both Alex Brink and Isaiah Stanback are capable with their feet, and both were unleashing passes after either short drops or from the shotgun, making pressure on the QB almost impossible. At the same time, both Wazzu and UW were fortunate to cover their own fumbles while Trojan players missed out on four or five almost certain interceptions in the two games. USC's switch to a 3-4 look on defense - to accommodate its vast supply of linebackers - naturally makes the job of the down linemen more difficult, and perhaps Lawrence Jackson and Co. haven't quite adjusted yet. The return of Ellis at a DT spot last week was a boost.
USC has played a bend-don't-break defense since Carroll arrived in 2001. And, the loss of Pinkard has amplified that style so far in 2006. However, with how the Washington schools were able to run the ball effectively while using a quick hitting passing game, bending will only take a team so far. Keeping a team's passing game in front of you and not allowing big plays only works if you're able to shut down a team's rushing attack as well.
While I expect USC to stick with the 3-4 for much of the season, slipping into a 4-3 only every so often (they're pretty invested in it halfway through the year), Carroll and Nick Holt must make some adjustments to create the QB pressure and rush defense that has been such a force in recent seasons. With excellent (possession) passing teams like Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame - all of which also offer a solid to excellent rushing component - coming up in November, USC must find a way to press the quarterback while keeping runners in check. It will likely be on the linebackers and DBs, who have the speed and skill, to help out via blitzing and open up some better lanes for the front three.
This week should present an opportunity for the defense to get back on the turnover and sack path. USC has hammered ASU's quarterbacks in recent seasons, thanks to the Sun Devils' downfield passing attack. ASU relies on neither the short drops nor quick hits that brought WSU and UW success. The Devils look to run more five-to-seven step drops and 15-20 yard patterns. This has spelled doom for ASU against Troy since Carroll came on board.
That's not to say Arizona State doesn't have weapons. Rudy Carpenter has struggled in recent weeks, but was the Pac-10's most efficient quarterback a year ago. And the one-two punch of Ryan Torain and Keegan Herring at running back is a concern after Washington's rushing performance last Saturday. However, the Devils are -4 in turnover margin this season, which buried them against Cal and Oregon. If they don't turn that around this week, they don't stand a chance.
If USC expects to have a successful second half of 2006, this is where it must begin. ASU's offense provides just the right scheme to get the Trojan defense back on track, while the Sun Devils have, as usual, struggled on defense. Arizona State definitely gives up its share of big plays. If Jarrett and Smith are capable - with Turner turning up his game - and if Chauncey Washington continues his rapid improvement, look for the Trojans to finally open up a little bit of the offense fans have become accustomed to.
If it doesn't happen this week - if USC struggles yet again, or even loses (a distinct possibility, if USC puts in the same performance as last weekend) - it may very well be a long November. However, it says here that Carroll and Co. deserve the benefit of the doubt until further notice. USC 38, Arizona State 20.
Tom Haire (Tom4SC) has been writing for USCFootball.com for five years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the television 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 Thomas.email@example.com.