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September 26, 2007

Game 4: Thrown to the Dawgs

The Trojans head north to get their first look at heralded Washington quarterback Jake Locker.

The No. 1-ranked USC Trojans (3-0, 1-0) open the road portion of their 2007 Pac-10 schedule Saturday, Sept. 29, against the Washington Huskies (2-2, 0-1) at 5 p.m. (PDT) at Seattle's Husky Stadium and in front of a national ABC television audience. It is the 78th meeting between the schools, with USC holding a 47-26-4 mark against the Huskies, including five consecutive victories in the series. A year ago, the Trojans got by UW, 26-20, at the Coliseum, but in the teams' last Seattle meeting, USC blasted the Dawgs, 51-24. The Huskies will salute their 1960 national title team by wearing throwback uniforms.

A week ago, USC dominated Washington State with a balanced offensive attack and stellar defense, downing the Cougars, 47-14, at the Coliseum. The Trojans outgained WSU 509-247 and posted 27 unanswered points after the Cougars tied the game 7-7 in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Washington opened Pac-10 play in Pasadena, losing a 44-31 decision to UCLA. The game featured a wild fourth quarter that included 41 points and a number of backbreaking big plays by the Bruin rushing attack.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his seventh season at USC (68-12, 43-7 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 headman Tyrone Willingham (9-18 at UW, 74-69-1 overall, 36-38 Pac-10) is in his third season in Seattle, after serving as the head coach at Stanford (1995-2001) and Notre Dame (2002-04). This is the Huskies third home game in four weeks against an opponent that played in a BCS bowl game a season ago - UW beat Boise State, 24-10, on Sept. 8, but lost to Ohio State, 33-14, on Sept. 15.

Washington Offense
Sophomore quarterback Jake Locker has been hailed as the program's savior from the moment he signed his letter of intent, and in the first two games, he delivered a convincing road win at Syracuse and a home upset of then-ranked Boise State. He's come back to earth a bit in UW's recent losses, and is completing just 53 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and six interceptions. What sets Locker apart as he learns to play quarterback in the Pac-10, however, is his speed and running ability. He leads the Huskies with 6.6 yards per carry and more than 90 yards rushing per game.

Offensive coordinator Tim Lappano likes to use a mix of two- and three-receiver sets. He has given Locker a group of veteran pass-catchers to work with. At wideout, seniors Anthony Russo and Marcel Reece have been Locker's favorite targets. Combining for 35 grabs, five scores and averaging nearly 15 yards per catch between them, the duo has shown some big play capability. Russo had a career night at UCLA a week ago. Reserves Corey Williams and Quintin Daniels, also seniors, will also see the ball. Another group of seniors, tight ends Michael Gottlieb, Johnie Kirton and Robert Lewis, have combined for just six grabs and have held down more blocking duties with Locker roaming around.

Aside from Locker, the remaining weight of the UW rushing attack falls on the shoulders of senior Louis Rankin. Locker and Rankin are responsible for 80 percent of the Huskies 147 rushing attempts so far and nearly 91 percent of the team's 701 yards. Washington is averaging 175 yards per game on the ground, and just less than five yards per carry. However, since blowing up Syracuse for 302 yards on the ground, the Huskies are averaging about 133 yards in their past three contests. Rankin has averaged nearly 70 yards per outing in 2007. Sophomore fullback Paul Homer has accounted for nine carries and three pass receptions - making him the second most active UW rusher - while performing solidly as a blocker.

Washington's front five features experience at center and the tackle spots and a pair of green, but impressive, guards. Senior C Ryan Garcia is yet another Rimington Award watch-lister (that's three USC has faced in four games). Junior LT Ben Ossai played nearly every snap of 2006 and has started all four games thus far, while sophomore reserve Cody Habben has pushed for, and received, time at this spot. Six-foot-eight senior RT Chad Macklin is the anchor of the group. LG Ryan Tolar, a sophomore, and RG Casey Bulyca, a senior, are both making their fifth career starts after combining to appear in one game a season ago.

Washington Defense
Through the first two-and-a-half games, the Husky defense outperformed expectations. But since halftime of the Ohio State game two weeks ago, things have turned sour for defensive coordinator Kent Baer. While the UW pass defense has done okay, the Huskies rushing defense has absolutely fallen apart, allowing 596 yards to the Buckeyes and Bruins. UW has allowed 77 points the past two weekends after allowing just 22 in its first two games. Baer needs to get this group turned around quickly if the Huskies hope to remain competitive with the Trojans Saturday.

Up front, senior defensive end Greyson Gunheim is the group's leader. The speedy 6'5", 265-pounder is responsible for 2.5 sacks and an interception and must be disruptive to opponents' passing attacks for the UW defense to succeed. The Huskies front four has gotten improved pressure so far in 2007, accounting for nine of the team's 10 sacks. The other starting end, junior Daniel Te'o-Neshieim has three sacks among his 14 tackles. In the middle, seniors Jordan Reffett and Wilson Afoa have combined for 23 tackles, but have struggled mightily against the run. Reserve end Caesar Rayford has notched a pair of sacks.

Senior outside linebacker Dan Howell is the leader of the linebacking group. Though he missed the Ohio State game with injury, Howell is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss and had an interception against UCLA last Saturday. At the other outside spot, junior E.J. Savannah has been outstanding, leading the team with 42 tackles, including four for loss. In the middle, senior Trenton Tuiasosopo and junior Donald Butler have split time, with Butler notching 27 stops.

Third-year starting CB Roy Lewis is the Huskies No. 2 tackler, with 31 - but has just two career interceptions, perhaps symbolic of the Huskies' lack of secondary pressure on opposing receiving corps. Across the way, 5'9" true freshman Vonzell McDowell has started three of the first four games at the other corner spot. Sophomore Matt Mosley started in his place a week ago and has seen the most time in nickel packages. Senior strong safety Mesphin Forrester and junior free safety Jason Wells have combined for 50 tackles in four games.

Washington Special Teams
Junior Jared Ballman handles kickoff and punting duties. He's yet to have a touchback on a kickoff and opponents are averaging nearly 27 yards per return. As a punter, he's averaging just 39 yards per boot. Junior Ryan Perkins handles placekicking duties. He's perfect on PATs, but has missed two of his four FG attempts - both outside 40 yards. Freshman reserve tailback Brandon Johnson is the leading kick returner, having handled 10 kickoffs, but is averaging less than 17 yards per return. Rankin has handled four kickoffs and averages 26 yards. Russo has been solid as a punt returner, averaging 12.5 yards.

USC Offensive Gameplan
After showing off an impressive, smashmouth rushing attack at Nebraska, the Trojans destroyed the Cougars with an efficient passing attack and tremendous balance. With UW's problems against the run, and Carroll's focus on running the ball early in tough road environments, many might expect a bit of a reversion to a Nebraska-style game plan. However, with USC facing another less physical Pac-10 secondary, I foresee another balanced offensive effort with John David Booty likely to attempt to pick apart the Huskies pass defense early and often.

For years, the Huskies have relied upon speedy ends and linebackers blitzing from all over to pressure quarterbacks. So far this year, any blitzing UW has done has been generally ineffective, with the front four accounting for 90 percent of the team's sacks. Trojan tackles Sam Baker and Drew Radovich must neutralize the Huskies' Gunheim and Te'o-Neshieim. If they do, and UW is forced to blitz with linebackers and safeties, it will once again open the middle of the field for TE Fred Davis and the rest of the receivers.

Patrick Turner bounced back nicely against Washington State and has good memories of last season's meeting with UW. Turner caught 12 passes that day and could have another big evening against the Huskies' smallish secondary. With Chauncey Washington now joining Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable as healthy threats in the backfield, expect Sarkisian to look to polish the game off with a grinding rushing attack in the second half.

USC Defensive Gameplan
Last week, DT Sedrick Ellis earned kudos. This week, it's Keith Rivers' turn. After notching 10 tackles in a half at Nebraska, Rivers followed that up with a 14-tackle outing against WSU, roaming all over the field to help shut down the Cougars' rushing attack and slow their short-passing game. Rivers is playing the best football of any LB in the nation right now - and with the challenges presented by Locker's legs, Rivers should be in line for another big night.

Stuffing the run against the Huskies will be tougher than it has been the past two weekends because of Locker's unpredictability and speed. In Rankin, Locker also has a solid, experienced tailback. It's likely that USC will focus on slowing Rankin and trying to contain Locker, especially when he drops back to throw. With his recent interception problems (five in the past two games), the Trojans would much rather take their chances with him throwing than running when a play breaks down. That containment from ends Lawrence Jackson, Kyle Moore and Everson Griffen, as well as Rivers and his fellow linebackers will be the key for USC's defense.

This containment scheme could allow the Huskies to have some early success in the passing game - but its unlikely UW will come up with some of the big plays it did against UCLA. Once Carroll and his defensive assistants get a line on what Lappano and Locker are trying to accomplish, I expect to see a lot more pressure on Locker, who - like most young quarterbacks - tends to hold on to the ball too long and then overthrow receivers.

The Pick
Once again, USC's traveling circus arrives in a city that's revved up for its shot at the nation's top team. With the Nebraska experience in their back pockets, however, the Trojans are unlikely to be rattled by what can be a very vocal crowd in Seattle.

With rain looking possible, if not likely, USC must put extra focus on holding on to the football on offense. A year ago in Corvallis, bad turnovers and special teams mistakes allowed Oregon State to build a (barely) insurmountable lead. With the Huskies likely to come out sky-high, early turnovers and mental gaffes are the one thing that can keep this game closer than it should be for longer than it should be.

Barring those kinds of errors, USC simply has too much for what looks to be an improving Washington program. While Locker and his experienced receivers might have early success, the Trojans' history against young quarterbacks under Carroll has been stellar. The USC defense should eventually lock in on the Dawgs, while only mistakes can prevent Booty and the Trojans' offense from having another big night on ABC. USC 45, Washington 16

For the inside scoop on what is going on during the season including live practice updates, make sure you read The Peristyle!

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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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