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November 22, 2013

Game Preview: USC vs. Colorado

Game 12: 'Don't Let Me Down'

After a Trojan-Family-wide emotional catharsis last weekend, USC is faced with the definition of a 'trap' game in Boulder. But do the Buffs have enough to take advantage?

The USC Trojans (8-3, 5-2 Pac-12 South), ranked No. 23 by the Associated Press and BCS and No. 25 by the USA Today coaches' poll, take to the road for the final time during the regular season when they face the Colorado Buffaloes (4-6, 1-6 Pac-12 South) this Saturday, November 23, at 6:30 p.m. PST at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo., and in front of a national Pac-12 Networks cable television audience.

According to SportsBettingOnline.ag, the Trojans are 22-point favorites on the road.

It's the eighth meeting between the schools, third as conference rivals. USC has won the previous seven. Since joining the Pac-12 prior to the 2011 season, the Buffs have been hammered twice by the Trojans: 42-17 in Boulder two seasons ago and 50-6 in the Coliseum last year.

A week ago, the Trojans scored their biggest win in two years - and, for many, it felt even bigger than that - defeating then-No. 4/5 Stanford, 20-17, on a 47-yard Andre Heidari field goal with 19 seconds to play. Wideouts Nelson Agholorand Marqise Lee made 14 combined catches, none bigger than Lee's 13-yard grab on fourth-and-two during the climactic drive. And the USC defense came up huge after Stanford tied the game early in the third quarter, notching a blocked field goal and two interceptions in the game's final 25 minutes to thwart Cardinal scoring opportunities. Meanwhile, the Buffaloes broke a 14-game conference losing streak with a 41-24 home whipping of hapless California. Colorado receivers Paul Richardson and Nelson Spruce each snagged 140 yards worth of passes, and Spruce also returned a Cal onside kick attempt for a touchdown.

Ed Orgeron, who was in his 11th season as a USC assistant (1998-2004; 2010-13) before becoming interim head coach on Sept. 29, spent three years as a head coach at Mississippi (2005-07), notching a 10-25 mark. He's 5-1 so far (5-0 in Pac-12 games) at USC, and sentiment for him earning the full-time gig is peaking. In Boulder, Colorado headman Mike MacIntyre (20-27 as a head coach) is in first campaign trying to resuscitate the Buffs' football program after performing miraculous work at San Jose State (2010-12). The Spartans improved from 1-12 in his first season there to 11-2 and nationally ranked a season ago. While he faces a similarly brutal rebuild at CU, he seems to have the Buffaloes headed in the right direction - while two came against FCS foes, Colorado's four wins in 2013 are the most they've notched since leaving the Big XII in 2010.

Colorado Offense
Offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren gained a reputation as a young quarterback and passing game guru in stints at Northern Arizona and San Jose State (where he served on MacIntyre's staff last season as offensive coordinator). However, with capable and experienced talent being an issue in Boulder, the Buffaloes have actually run the ball slightly more often in 2013 - though not very effectively. The CU offense mixes in some newfangled looks with a fairly traditional attack. The biggest shift made by Lindgren was turning to true freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau as starter before the season's sixth game. He replaced junior Connor Wood, who struggled, completing just 53.5 percent of his passes, with 8 TDs and 7 INTs. Liufau has been far more accurate (63.4 completion percentage), though he, too, has made some errors (six picks vs. eight TD tosses). Liufau is more agile around the pocket than Wood, as well, and it appears CU is interested more in his long-term upside by throwing him into the fire.

Whoever quarterbacks the Buffs, he has one of the best receivers in the conference, if not the country, to sling it to in Richardson. A junior who has finally been able to stay healthy all season, Richardson is averaging 16.9 yards on 71 grabs (he ranks second in the conference and 16th nationally in receptions per game). He has nine TDs and is a consistent big play threat. Spruce, a sophomore, is an excellent complement to Richardson as more of a possession-style target (11.8 yards per on 45 catches, with two scores). Junior D.D. Goodson has been a solid option from the slot (18 catches, 14.7 avg., two TDs), while junior Tyler McCullouch is the only other wideout with double-digit catches (14, 9.9 avg., one TD).

The Buffs are a three-headed monster at tailback. Sophomore bruiser Christian Powell is the big leader in carries (134), but has averaged just 3.8 yards per. He's scored three TDs. True freshman Michael Adkins II is a speedster and looks like he could be the future if his body holds up (he's missed three games so far). He's averaging 5.5 yards on 79 carries and has scored five TDs. He truly is CU's big-play threat out of the backfield. Junior Tony Jones is undersized, but can be slippery. He's averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, but has been effective as a receiver with 12 grabs (one for a score).

The health of the CU offensive line has been a key to Colorado's slight improvement. After the Buffaloes suffered through injuries across their lineup in recent years, the same fivesome has started all 10 of Colorado's games in 2013 - and is expected to start Saturday. They are: senior LT Jack Harris (a two-year starter); junior LG Kaiwi Crabb; senior center Gus Handler (another two-year starter); junior RG Daniel Munyer (who was another returning starter); and sophomore RT Stephane Nembot. Crabb is versatile, as he's listed No. 2 on the depth chart at three of the other four line spots.

Colorado Defense
Defensive coordinator Kent Baer should be familiar to Trojan fans. Before spending the past five years at San Jose State, Baer was a DC for four different Pac-10 schools (Cal, Arizona State, Stanford and Washington), as well as Notre Dame, between 1987-2007. He's got his work cut out for him in Boulder, though, where talent and experience were serious issues entering 2013. And though Colorado's defense seems to have improved from recent seasons, there's still a long way to go. The Buffaloes rank last in the conference (No. 103 nationally) in rushing defense (210.4 yards per game allowed) and 11th in the Pac-12 in passing defense (267.5 yards allowed, No. 108 nationally), total defense (477.9, No. 110 nationally) and scoring defense (38.8, No. 114 nationally).

Much like on its offensive front, the Buffaloes defensive front four have been blessed with excellent health in 2013, allowing the group to grow on the job. Senior DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe is the top playmaker in this group. He leads Colorado with four sacks among his 40 tackles. Junior Juda Parker plays the other end, but has had just one sack among his 27 stops (Colorado has only 15 sacks as a team, a symbol of its struggles to stop either pass or run). True freshman Jimmie Gilbert has eight stops in limited action as a reserve end, but has upside. At the tackle spots, sophomores Josh Tupou and Justin Solis start, while senior Nate Bonsu rotates in.

True freshman MLB Addison Gillam has been a revelation for the Colorado staff. He's been everywhere, notching 99 tackles (seven for loss, three sacks), and is making a push for freshman All-American honors. Senior weakside linebacker Derrick Webb has not only been a great mentor for Gillam, but he's also second on the team with 74 tackles. On the strong side, CU is hopeful that junior Woodson Greer III will be available after missing the past two contests due to a stinger he suffered in practice on Nov. 6. If he's unable to go, expect to see junior Brady Daigh (13 tackles) in his spot.

In the secondary, CU is led by junior corner Greg Henderson, who not only has 55 tackles, but leads the team with four interceptions. Across the way, sophomore Kenneth Crawley has been learning on the job. He has 42 tackles and two picks. The emotional leader of the group, senior strong safety Parker Orms (61 stops) is expected back after sitting out last week's game with a shoulder injury. Junior free safety Jered Bell has 58 tackles and three INTs. The big story with this group, though, has been true freshman nickel back Chidobe Awuzie, who has surprised with 53 stops (three for loss and a sack).

Colorado Special Teams
Junior Will Oliver handles the placekicking duties. He's made all 25 PATs and has been busy as a field goal option, given CU's inconsistent offense. He's made 16-of-23 opportunities, including nine-of-10 inside 40 yards. Junior Darragh O'Neill is averaging 40.8 yards per punt (and a net of 36.8), dropping 19 of his 52 boots inside the 20. Freshman Ryan Severson handles kickoff returns and is averaging about 23 yards per try, while Spruce is the top punt returner, though he only averages five yards (with a long of 19).

USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojans came out on fire last Saturday night against the Cardinal, taking their first three offensive drives for scores. The importance of this cannot be understated, as Stanford had allowed just a single first-quarter touchdown in 2013 before USC got it rolling. A solidly drawn and exceedingly well-executed passing attack put Stanford on its heels, and though USC was only able to cobble together a few effective running plays in the early going, they were enough to allow Cody Kessler the time and space to operate. Kessler made a number of fantastic throws in key situations, and both Lee and Agholor did a great job making themselves available and converting. However, as Stanford adjusted and the USC rushing attack just couldn't get going - no big shock against the Cardinal's stout front - those pass plays became harder to execute. And though the Trojans didn't score for more than two quarters before Heidari's game winner, the offense made enough plays to avoid the three-and-outs Stanford feasts on when they grind you down.

Health remains a big issue for this offensive group, heading into the regular season's final two weeks. Will Lee be available (and effective) after gutting his way through a shin injury to make one of the biggest plays in recent USC history? And what about tailbacks Tre Madden and Silas Redd? Can one, or both, of them be healthy enough to provide a good option to Javorious "Buck" Allen?

Against Colorado's statistically challenged defense, these questions may seem superfluous. But they aren't. This is a big "letdown" game, after last week's huge win and next week's matchup with UCLA. Though last week was the first time the CU defense had given up fewer than 40 points to an FBS-level offense since its opener, you can't underestimate the confidence a victory might give the Buffs' defense. That, plus the cold (and possibly snowy) weather, makes this tricky. That's why I look for the USC brain trust to return to what worked so well recently on the road and gave the Trojans an identity - establish a power running attack and utilize play-action against CU's outmanned secondary. The Trojan offensive line should have its way with the Colorado front - if they're ready to play.

USC Defensive Gameplan
I bet you've never seen a USC defense play such a stellar game - while allowing 210 yards rushing at a clip of six yards per carry. But make no mistake, the Trojans balled out on defense last week, holding Stanford to 337 total yards and its lowest point total of the season - all with just 13 players appearing during the game (and one of those just for a single play). Yes, Cardinal RB Tyler Gaffney had a few big runs, but the Trojans did enough against Stanford's preferred power attack that the Cardinal switched up a bit from their normal M.O., utilizing a more wide-open feel with misdirection in their run game and more extensive passing, trying to penalize USC for loading up the box. Just getting Stanford out of its comfort zone was part of the reason quarterback Kevin Hogan threw two big INTs. And don't be fooled. Those were forced. On the first, Dion Bailey, who read the same formation the Cardinal tried on a third-and-goal late in the first half, lured Hogan's throw by feigning the same coverage - a brilliant rope-a-dope. On the second, pressure by Devon Kennard and Hayes Pullard forced Hogan's ill-advised attempt at a throwaway that ended up in Su'a Cravens' waiting arms.

At the same time, the play of Leonard Williams on the front line - battling a shoulder injury that will require surgery at season's end - set an example and a tone for the rest of his group. There simply was no quit in the Trojan defense against Stanford - it was one of the truest examples of the university's "Fight On" motto that you'll ever see.

Can they keep it up this week, when the stakes seem much less and the opponent less imposing? Again, it comes down to the "letdown" factor. USC has performed exceedingly well against young quarterbacks in 2013 and faces another in Liufau. They'll need to get after him, because Richardson is capable of doing some damage against the Trojan secondary - he's the best all-around receiver the Trojans have faced in 2013. I don't expect the Buffaloes to do much on the ground - Powell is not the kind of back who often finds success against this USC defense. Adkins and Jones (in the passing game) are more of a concern from a "home run" perspective should the Trojans heads not be in the game early.

The Pick
I'm sure you've noticed the word "letdown" in this preview. Truly, that's the only thing that concerns me about this game. Yes, the Buffaloes got their first conference victory in nearly two years last week (but we all saw how bad Cal is a couple weeks ago), and with a pair of wins, CU would actually be bowl eligible. But don't be fooled - Colorado is still early in a big rebuilding job. Two of their four wins are against FCS competition (Central Arkansas and Charleston Southern, in a replacement game for a meeting with Fresno State that was cancelled due to flooding in September), and their six conference losses are by an average of 34.5 points.

The outcome this week is solely in the hands of the Trojans. If USC arrives with the same sense of purpose they've had in recent weeks - and avoids mistakes that give immediate and direct points to Colorado - the Trojans simply have too much. Expect another big game from Allen and some second-half rest for a defense whose health will be crucial next weekend.

USC 45, Colorado 14

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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