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September 20, 2007

Game 3: Up the Wazzu!

After a destruction of Nebraska, USC turns its attention to the Pac-10 schedule - beginning with Washington State.

The No. 1-ranked USC Trojans (2-0) open their 2007 Pac-10 schedule Saturday, Sept. 22, against the Washington State Cougars (2-1) at 5 p.m. (PDT) at likely sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ABC television audience. It is the 67th meeting between the schools, with USC holding a 54-8-4 mark against the Cougars, including four consecutive victories in the series. A year ago, the Trojans edged Wazzu, 28-22, in Pullman, but in the teams' last Los Angeles meeting, USC pummeled the Cougs, 55-13. This is the USC football program's 1,100th game.

A week ago, the Trojans overcame 85,000 screaming, red-clad Nebraska fans - and a solid Cornhusker team - by scoring 35 consecutive points in the second and third quarters on their way to a not-that-close 49-31 win. The Trojans outgained Nebraska, 313-31, in rushing yardage and built 42-10 and 49-17 leads before some late Husker scores against the Trojan reserves. Meanwhile, Washington State closed out its non-conference schedule by defeating regional rival Idaho, 45-28, on the strength of a 300-yard, four-TD passing performance by senior quarterback Alex Brink.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his seventh season at USC (67-12, 42-7 Pac-10) having led the Trojans to five consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Washington State headman Bill Doba (27-23) is in his 19th season at Wazzu and his fifth as the head coach. After notching a 10-win campaign in his rookie season in 2003, the Cougars have fallen on leaner times, missing out on bowl season in each of the past three campaigns. The Cougars, as always it seems, feature a solid passing attack that leads a potent offense. However, question marks abound on the defensive side of the ball, and a 28-point performance by Idaho a week ago didn't do much to provide answers.

Washington State Offense
As a senior starter, Brink has looked as solid as ever. Completing nearly 74 percent of his passes, averaging more than 315 passing yards per game and boasting a 10-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Brink has truly come into his own. For the past two years, the strong-armed but mistake-prone signal-caller had been as up and down as the Cougs' fortunes. However, the Cougars - who have had problems with turnovers the past two seasons - are still playing fast and loose with the ball, from time to time, suffering five giveaways through three games.

The Cougs still operate out of offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller's familiar three-receiver, one-back set. Though Wazzu lost all-conference receiver Jason Hill to graduation, Brink still has a solid corps of receivers, including all-conference candidate senior Michael Bumpus and junior Brandon Gibson. The duo has combined for 42 grabs and six scores this season, with the 6-foot Bumpus operating out of the slot and the 6'1" Gibson as more of a deep threat. Senior Charles Dillon is the third starter and has added 13 grabs, while senior TE Jed Collins has 12. Back-ups at these four spots have combined for just eight grabs in three games, so it's clear these are Brink's guys.

Though sophomore Dwight Tardy was the returning starter, an uninspired performance in spring practice had left some question marks about his job. Consider those questions answered, as Tardy has averaged 101 yards per game through three contests, and taken on about 20 carries per game. Backup Chris Ivory missed the Idaho game with a collarbone injury and is in doubt for Saturday, which means senior Kevin McCall and freshman Marcus Richmond are likely to see a few carries each.

An offensive line blending youthful talent with solid experience has done the job so far, allowing just two sacks and helping Wazzu post 160 yards rushing per contest. Senior Bobby Byrd shifted to LG this season to make room for JC transfer Vaughn Lesuma at left tackle, giving the Cougs a solid duo on Brink's blind side. Junior RG Dan Rowlands and sophomore center Kenny Alfred are dependable returning starters, while the play of freshman RT Micah Hannam has allowed Rowlands to remain at guard. There is no experienced depth here, and WSU's front five has yet to face a front seven resembling USC's.

Washington State Defense
With the departure of defensive coordinator Robb Akey, who took the Idaho head coaching position, Doba re-inserted himself as the Cougs' defensive coordinator - a job he performed so admirably during the Mike Price Era in Pullman. However, some inexperience at cornerback - and around leader Greg Trent at linebacker - has tested Doba's back seven. A solid, but injury-prone group up front has held together so far, but the Cougars are allowing 29 points and 404 yards per game after games against Wisconsin, San Diego State and Idaho.

Up front, massive senior tackle Ropati Pitoitua has started all three games and notched 11 tackles, after missing 12 games due to injury in his first three seasons. Senior Aaron Johnson joins him in the middle with juniors A'i Ahmu and Matt Eichelberger also seeing time. Outside, undersized senior Lance Broadus returns this week and can cause some havoc with his speed. Junior Mike Graise and senior Matt Mullenix have started early in the season, but replacing departed sack monster Mkristo Bruce has proven difficult for the Cougars.

The loss of outside linebackers Scott Davis and Steve Dildine, both long-time starters in Pullman, has also been tough on Doba. Trent has been stellar so far, notching a team-leading 31 tackles, but strongsider Cory Evans has struggled a bit, allowing sophomore Andy Mattingly to split time. On the weak side, speedy junior Kendrick Dunn won the job in the fall and has played well in the early going.

Senior free safety Husain Abdullah is the leader of a very inexperienced secondary. Joined by JC transfers Alfonso Jackson at strong safety and Devin Giles at corner, Abdullah is also bringing along a true freshman - Chima Nwachukwu - at the other corner spot. The Cougars are allowing 265 yards passing per game, and Idaho was able to throw for 3 TDs and 205 yards against WSU a week ago. The Cougar secondary, including reserve SS Christian Bass, is responsible for all five of Wazzu's interceptions so far. A graduate of Fullerton High School (the writer's alma mater), sophomore Xavier Hicks, has notched 11 tackles in three games as Abdullah's back up.

Washington State Special Teams
The Cougars' special teams have been below average. Senior Romeen Abdollmohammadi (how's that for a mouthful?) handles kickoff and placekicking duties, after taking the job from fellow senior Loren Langley a year ago. He's perfect on PATs, but is just two-of-four on FG attempts, with a long of 31 yards. Junior punter Darryl Blunt has struggled a bit as well, averaging only about 36 yards per boot. Bumpus is a very dangerous punt returner, but has not gotten on track so far in 2007, averaging just 1.7 yards per return, while Dillon is averaging just 21 yards per kickoff return.

USC Offensive Gameplan
After jamming the football down Nebraska's throat with an astounding rushing effort, what does the opening of Pac-10 play hold for Steve Sarkisian's offense? With WSU's problems on pass defense, one might expect an early wake-up call for John David Booty and his receiving corps. However, don't discount just how much Carroll and Sarkisian were impressed by the work of the offensive line in USC's rushing attack a week ago.

Traditionally, Washington State loves to bring pressure on quarterbacks from all angles and at any time. However, without a rush end like Bruce in the lineup and a green secondary, Doba has been a little more handcuffed. The Cougars' starting front four has struggled to pressure quarterbacks, and the blitzers - aside from LB Dunn, who has two sacks - haven't hit their targets. That secondary youth also prevents the Cougars from playing their normally physical game with their cornerbacks.

Patrick Turner needs to have a bounceback game after struggling at Nebraska, and WSU's defensive deficiencies should make a big game exceedingly possible. At the same time, if Turner continues to struggle, look for David Ausberry to continue to become Booty's primary target. While USC is unlikely to break any new ground in its playbook this weekend, the running back stable - currently led by Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable - is likely to put up solid numbers again. With the Cougars' defensive issues, the Trojans should be able to keep WSU off balance between run and pass all day.

USC Defensive Gameplan
If Sedrick Ellis plays every week the way he did in Nebraska, the rest of the teams on USC's schedule are going to have a tough time accomplishing much of anything offensively. If it seemed like Ellis single-handedly blew up the Huskers' running attack, well, it's probably because he did - even when not making the tackle, Ellis funneled backs into the waiting arms of linebackers like Keith Rivers and Kaluka Maiava all night long. With another young center on tap this Saturday, Ellis could have another big outing.

As always, the key to a Pete Carroll defense showed up last week - stuff the run and use the first half to pick up on what the opponent's passing attack is looking to accomplish. Then in the second half, bring adjustments to shut down the passing game as well. Against the Cougs, this will again be the Trojans' goal - though Brink really has appeared to take a big step forward in efficiency and accuracy this season. And a big sack number is unlikely for USC as the Cougs' offense is designed with quick hitting pass plays.

This could mean that the Cougars have early success with their three-receiver sets. Bumpus could make some serious hay out of the slot in the first half if the USC linebackers don't play smart and solidly against the pass. Levenseller's offenses love taking the underneath passes - something USC is almost always willing to give up early in games. Brink's accuracy this season is reason for concern, because against Carroll's scheme, a quarterback must be extremely accurate to keep drives alive. However, unless Tardy and the WSU backs are able to balance the attack - an unlikely scenario against this USC front seven - eventually the Trojan defense should be able to adjust to the Cougar offense and make some plays against Brink and the receivers.

The Pick
Will the Trojans fall subject to the Sports Illustrated cover jinx? Doubtful, but if Brink displays the same maturity and accuracy this weekend, the Cougars' offense could make things more interesting than many expect during the first half. Wazzu has some solid offensive weapons, and its passing attack is operating at a high level.

Can they keep it up throughout? Unlikely, as USC's defensive speed should immediately neutralize the Cougars' running attack - and Carroll's ability to adjust after he sees what an offense has to offer likely will mean a post-halftime shutdown of Brink and Co.

No such shutdown appears to be forthcoming for a Cougar defense that has too often been searching for answers against the likes of Idaho and San Diego State. Heck, even Wisconsin doesn't strike fear into most people with their Big 10 scheme and speed. Yet, the Badgers were able to put up 42 points on the WSU defense. I expect a much more balanced attack - yardage and success-wise - from USC this week, as Booty will have a strong outing, and the Trojans' stable of backs should continue to build on its early-season success. USC 52, Washington State 17.

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for seven years. He is the editor-in-chief of a monthly trade magazine in the television advertising industry and is a graduate of the USC School of Journalism (1994). He has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at Thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.

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