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August 28, 2013

Game One - Hawaii Preview




Game 1: 'On an Island in the Sun, We'll Be Playing and Having Fun …'

The Trojans open 2013 with a Hawaiian vacation. Can the Rainbow Warriors snag a first-ever win against USC?

The 2013 USC football team, ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press (AP) poll and the USA Today coaches' poll, opens the season Thursday, August 29 against the Mountain West Conference's Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at 8 p.m. PDT (5 p.m. Hawaii) in Honolulu's Aloha Stadium and in front of a national CBS Sports Network cable television audience. It is the ninth meeting between the two schools, with the Trojans leading the series 8-0, including a 49-10 victory in the 2012 season opener in Los Angeles and a 49-36 victory in the 2010 season opener in Honolulu. USC is 25-1-1 against current MWC opponents, while the Warriors are 29-53 against current Pac-12 members.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (32-19 career collegiate head coaching record; 25-13 at USC) enters his fourth 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 (3-9 in 2012) begins his second year at 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' 2013 opener is USC's seventh on the road in the past 11 seasons. Nonetheless, USC has won its past 15 opening games, and is 28-7-1 in season openers on the road. Troy returns eight starters, led by Biletnikoff Award-winning wideout Marqise Lee, to an offense that will be led by a quarterback other than Matt Barkley for the first time since the 2008 season. On defense, USC returns seven starters, including budding stars Morgan Breslin and Leonard Williams to a group looking to exert a more active and physical style under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

The Rainbow Warriors, meanwhile, feature 16 returning starters (seven offense, eight defense, one specialist) from a team that led the nation a year ago with 32 first-time starters during the season, including six true freshmen. UH's offense underwent severe growing pains as Chow retooled it from its pass-happy past into more of a pro-style set. The Warriors are hoping Ohio State QB transfer Taylor Graham will provide more consistent play at the position this season than Duke transfer (and now back-up) Sean Schroeder did while starting much of 2012. The Warrior defense, which struggled against the run and was hard pressed to force turnovers as a very green group in 2012, is much more experienced, with senior defensive end Tavita Woodard and senior weakside linebacker Art Laurel among the returning standouts.

Hawaii Offense
After the 2012 season, Chow hired Aaron Price, son of former Washington State an UTEP coach Mike Price, as offensive coordinator - a role he'd held at UTEP. But days before fall camp, Price was relieved of duties and Chow took over the mantle of offensive coordinator on top of head coaching duties. The Rainbow Warriors are very mum about what happened, but it appears there was a rift between Chow's style and Price's desire for a more wide-open attack. It remains to be seen what effect the changes have on the Hawaii offense, but one thing is certain: the Warriors' leading passer (Schroeder), receiver (Billy Ray Stutzmann and returning rusher (Joey Iosefa) from 2012 are not expected to see action on Thursday.

Who will? The answer at QB is Graham, son of former NFL passer Kent Graham. A sizeable 6-foot-5 native of Wheaton, Ill., Graham hasn't started a game since high school in 2009. He spent two years in Columbus before heading to the islands in 2012. A quarterback more in the Carson Palmer mold, Graham seems to suit the Chow offense better than the smaller, slighter Schroeder. Junior Jeremy Higgins, a transfer from Utah State, will be the third-stringer.

Hawaii will continue to feature a single-back, three-receiver look. With Stutzmann (113 catches, 4 TDs in 2011-12) out due to injuries suffered in a summer car accident, do-everything Australian junior Scott Harding becomes the leader here. He had 20 catches, with 2 scores, while also appearing as a punt returner and kick returner (as well as both a holder and punter during Hawaii's first three games) in 2012. Harding played six years professionally in the Australian Football League. Senior Chris Gant had 22 grabs, with three scores, a season ago and will start on the outside, while JC transfer Vasquez Haynes, who was recruited as a defensive back, appears ready to start at the third receiver spot. Keep an eye out for taller freshman targets Keith Kirkwood and Marcus Kemp as well, while sophomore Harold Moleni appears to have beaten out senior Clark Evans (9 catches in 2012) for the starting tight end spot.

With the bruising Iosefa likely out Thursday due to a foot injury suffered prior to camp, three players who've never played a snap at the highest level of college football are likely to see opportunities. All three are sizeable, with the biggest being 240-pound redshirt freshman Steven Lakalaka. True freshman Aofaga Wily and senior Marcus Langkilde, a transfer from Whittier College, are also in the mix. There doesn't appear to be a ton of speed here, so it will be interesting to see how the trio will fare against USC's quick front.

A season ago, Hawaii faced an offensive line crisis, with only RG Dave Lefotu carrying more than a game or two of starting experience into the season. The results were predictable, as Hawaii rushed for just 3.0 yards per carry and allowed 40 sacks. There is hope for better play from a more experienced group in 2013, led by junior Lefotu and sophomore center Ben Clarke, who was selected the team's offensive MVP. Junior tackle Sean Shigematsu shifts to the left side this year, where he'll be joined by junior guard Kody Afusia. Senior Mike Milovale has shifted from guard to right tackle and rounds out the starting five.

Hawaii Defense
Second-year defensive coordinator Thom Kaumeyer spent 2008-11 as a secondary assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars. That experience helped Hawaii rank 11th nationally against the pass a season ago (well, honestly, it also helped that the Warriors struggled mightily against the run, too). Kaumeyer did bring an aggressive 4-3 look to a Hawaii defense that continued its knack for playing to the echo of the whistle.

UH was decimated by injury in its front four last season, losing four players to season-ending injuries. Still, playmakers did step up, including Woodard - now a senior - who led the Rainbow Warriors with 5.5 sacks. The honorable mention All-Mountain West end is complemented at the other end by junior Beau Yap, whose 10.5 tackles for loss tied for 10th in the MWC. UCLA transfer Iuta Tepa provides depth at end. Inside, there is some more experience, with senior Siasau Matagiese and junior Moses Samia leading the way after playing major roles a season ago. Sophomore Calen Friel could also be a factor inside, especially with true freshman Kennedy Tulimasealii - a major recruit for the Warriors, who was likely to see immediate time at DT - suffering a knee injury on the final day of camp.

Laurel started 11 of the Warriors' 12 games last season, splitting time between the strong and weak sides. He had 9.5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks among his 51 total stops. The senior will lead this group unquestionably in 2013. On the strong side, sophomore Jerrol Garcia-Williams, who had his moments during seven starts in 2012, gets the nod over junior TJ Taimatuia while, in the middle, physical senior Brendan Daley is looking to improve on his 26 tackles in 2012 as a part-time starter.

Senior John Hardy-Tuliau has 32 career starts, including nine at free safety and one at cornerback in 2012, and is the leader of the Rainbow Warrior secondary. He's penciled in at strong safety as he's flipped roles with sophomore Marrell Jackson, UH's leading returning tackler with 56 stops (and two INTs) a season ago. Classmate Ne'Quan Phillips started five in 2012 and showed himself to be an aggressive leader at corner, while juniorDee Maggitt outdueled senior Tony Grimes for the other starting corner spot.

Hawaii Special Teams
JC transfer Ruben Guzman gets the first crack at replacing four-year starting punter Alex Dunnachie, who finished fourth nationally at 46.2 yards per boot. Junior placekicker Tyler Hadden handles the placekicking duties and was 13-of-21 on field goal attempts and 29-of-29 on PATs, though he doesn't have the strongest leg. Gant is expected to handle kickoff returns (as a reserve in 2012, he averaged 28 yards on two chances), while Harding is back at punt returner after finishing 13th nationally a season ago (12.8 yards per, including a 69-yard TD vs. UNLV).

USC Offensive Gameplan
If there were any more ORs on the USC depth chart as the 2013 season kicks off, you'd think a 10th-century version of Lane Kiffin was building a knarr to set sail across the Atlantic and claim Nova Scotia for the Vikings. Of course, the most talked-about OR is the one separating the names of redshirt sophomore quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, who have spent much of the preceding nine months battling to replace four-year starter (and Pac-12 record-book regular) Barkley. With both expected to see action Thursday, many fans have freaked out about the Trojans going to a "two-quarterback system." While that's unlikely, and I expect a full-time starter to be named no later than the Boston College game on Sept. 14, the fact that Kiffin "anticipates" both playing in Honolulu makes for some intrigue.

Whoever eventually wins the QB derby will have the good fortune of throwing to Lee for at least the 2013 campaign. The all-everything wideout is truly the only irreplaceable part of the Trojan squad this season, so you can understand why his bruised shoulder during camp was such big news. Lee is joined by budding sophomore Nelson Agholor, while freshman Darreus Rogers also made quite a bit of noise as a pass catcher during camp. With injuries slowing the stellar junior tight end duo of Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer throughout camp (Grimble could see time in Hawaii), senior Kevin Greene has moved from the D-line to tight end and been a surprise during practices. In the backfield, with senior leader Silas Redd still recovering from spring surgery for a torn meniscus, expect true freshman Justin Davis and redshirt sophomores Tre Madden and Javorius "Buck" Allen to split carries Thursday. And, keep an eye out for sophomore fullback Jahleel Pinner, who was shown excellent pass catching skills.

Perhaps the greatest amount of shuffling that's gone on with the Trojan roster has been along the offensive line, where the emergence of some and injuries to others have thrown the group into a bit of disarray as the opener approaches. At the moment, it appears that only the tackle spots are nailed down and healthy, with senior RT Kevin Graf being joined by spring ball and camp surprise Chad Wheeler at LT. USC is very fortunate to have the services of versatile sophomore Max Tuerk, a Freshman All-American in 2012, who is capable at all line spots and appears most likely to line up at left guard on Thursday. However, injuries have slowed junior center Marcus Martin (who shifted over from guard in the spring to replace the departed Khaled Holmes), senior RG John Martinez and junior Aundrey Walker, who has shifted to guard with the emergence of Wheeler. With all mum on the injury front, it's possible that Trojan fans will see all three of them Thursday - or none of the three. Sixth-year senior Abe Markowitz could see time at center, while junior Kevin Giovanni Di Poalo and true freshman Khaliel Rodgers could also get some early time.

Between a pair of new quarterbacks, two running backs who've combined for zero carries at the college level, and injury concerns along the front five, it would be an awful lot to expect of the Trojans to match last season's 49-point output against the Rainbow Warriors. Hawaii is more experienced than it was a year ago, though still undersized. Though Kiffin's natural instinct is to attack by the air first, it seems to make more sense to challenge UH's front seven with the run early. The Rainbow Warriors need to prove they've improved against the run, and effective work early on by the Trojans would boost the confidence of a line group that has to be a little jittery heading into the game. If the Trojans run the ball effectively, it will only open things up even more for Lee, Agholor and Co., allowing USC's young quarterbacks to ease into the game as well.

USC Defensive Gameplan
While the Rainbow Warriors struggled to adapt from their run-and-shoot roots to Chow's more traditional system, getting a full year under their belts - as well as adding Graham - should help Hawaii this Thursday. While UH has serious issues in the backfield and still doesn't have a lot of quality depth at receiver, the offensive line should be improved, which the Warriors have to hope gives them a fighting chance.

That more experienced Hawaii front five should be a good first test for Pendergast's retooled USC front seven. While nominally a 3-4 set, the way Pendergast likes to play it equates more closely to a 5-2, with the outside linebackers relied upon as playmakers and pass rushers in their own right. The attacking style of the defense should - if it works - put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and running backs, while also allowing the Trojan secondary to play a more physical brand of football. If it works, it'll start up front with a deep and talented group, where Freshman All-American Williams and junior George Uko will anchor the ends and sophomore Antwaun Woods - who has looked spectacular at times during camp - will play nose tackle. But don't sleep on juniors J.R. Tavai, Greg Townsend Jr. or freshman Kenny Bigelow, all of whom could make contributions this season, starting as early as Thursday (though Townsend appears doubtful from most reports).

At linebacker, the return of senior Devon Kennard couldn't come at a better time, as Pendergast's defense has the perfect spot for him as one of the rush outside linebackers. Kennard, named one of four team captains Monday (with Lee, Martin and fellow linebacker Hayes Pullard), was stellar in spring and throughout camp. Expect his leadership and athleticism to shine in 2013. At the other outside spot, Breslin, a senior and Hendricks Award finalist in 2012 with 13 sacks, is expected to provide similar pass rushing skills as a season ago. Breslin's been forced to sit due to an apparent leg/foot injury much of camp, and he appears unlikely to play much, if at all, against Hawaii. Senior Marquis Simmons and freshmen Jabari Ruffin and Scott Starr are also in the mix. Pullard, the team's leading returning tackler (107 in 2012) will anchor the middle, with athletic junior Lamar Dawson on the weakside.

The biggest question marks for the Trojan defense are in the secondary, where the losses of T.J. McDonald, Nickell Robey and Jawanza Starling have depleted USC's experience reserves. Two-year starting LB Dion Bailey returns to his natural position at free safety, and will also be used extensively as a nickelback. However, the junior has been battling injury and could be limited against the Warriors. Josh Shaw, also a junior, is likely to start in his place, with senior Demetrius Wright capable at both safety positions. True freshman Su'a Cravens and senior Gerald Bowman will likely both see time at strong safety. As a matter of fact, expect USC to use eight to 10 defensive backs in this game, as coaches try to rotate players in for experience and find a core group they can rely upon. At corner, this means senior Torin Harris, junior Anthony Brown, sophomore Kevon Seymour and even redshirt freshman Devian Shelton will likely see time - and don't forget that Shaw can also shift over to corner as well.

The Pick
While this shouldn't be the same kind of blowout that last season's game at the Coliseum was, there's no doubt that USC has a massive talent and physicality advantage over the Rainbow Warriors. The Trojans' injury issues, however, add to the issues caused by the scholarship limits USC is still operating under (before awarding scholarships to a group of walk-ons this week, the Trojans had 69 scholarship players ready to suit up in 2013), which causes some concern about how the team could be affected if early mistakes pop up.

While UH will come out sky high in front of its home crowd, the Trojans will just have to weather that emotional storm and play to their strengths against an undersized and less talented Rainbow Warrior team. At some point, there should be a moment in the game that sends it in the Trojans' direction - perhaps a turnover, or even a return by Lee or Agholor against Hawaii's new punter?

Whatever it is, I expect USC's defense to get after Graham early and often. Hawaii will not be able to sustain a rushing game in this one, and that will put even more heat on its new QB. On the other side, the Trojans should be able to pound the ball with their young running backs, giving more open looks to Wittek and/or Kessler. USC pulls away midway through this one and coasts home.

USC 35, Hawaii 17

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 13 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 thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)


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