When Pete Carroll saw his birthday cake sitting on the table at his press conference, he displayed his trademark grin. Facing off against his old protégé Steve Sarkisian Saturday in Seattle, Carroll knows his smile will be even wider.
"There's nothing I've liked more than playing against people that I really love," Carroll said. "For whatever sordid reason that is, I don't know. I can't explain it, but it's fun to go against our guys."
As the dynamic between the two head coaches headlines the discussion about the game, the focus of the coaches turned to the two young quarterbacks that led their teams to victories last week.
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"I don't think there is a better player than Jake Locker that we play," Carroll said. "He's a guy that really carries the program. There aren't many guys like that."
The high praise for Locker is backed up by the numbers this year. In his first year in Sarkisian's pro-style offense, Locker leads the Pac-10 in total offense and passing yards per game. Although Locker has put up numbers through the air, it is what he does on the ground that concerns to Carroll.
"Without question, this offense is built around Jake," Carroll said. "He gets to full speed in a shorter amount of time (than Terrelle Pryor), and he runs more aggressively."
Sarkisian knows Locker's running ability is ahead of his passing skills now but thinks that the talent is there for him to eventually be compared to his former quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer or Mark Sanchez.
"I think he runs probably better than any guy we had when we were (at USC)," Sarkisian said. "For Jake, a lot of the things we're doing are new for him and so there is a learning curve. I don't know if he's as polished as those guys in the pocket, but I think in time, within two years, he will be."
While Locker is the focal point for the USC defense, the USC offense is adjusting to the shoulder injury of starting quarterback Matt Barkley.
"We'll wait to see how he feels when it comes to throwing the ball," Carroll said. "He'll get work at practice, but we'll limit his throwing if we do any today. Aaron Corp will take the bulk of the snaps and we'll go to tomorrow to see where we are."
Sore shoulder or not, the offense will continue to rely on the running game. After two games as the primary offensive weapon, Joe McKnight figures to have a large part in the game plan after he played a key role in the final drive against Ohio State. The running back had 33 yards on the ground and had a 21 yard reception.
"Joe took off and ran through the spaces that were available and made yards," Carroll said
The success McKnight has shown in the first two games this year are attributable largely to what Carroll has seen as a new attitude this season for McKnight.
"He's approached it just in a more mature manner," Carroll said. "He's running more physically and in all situations. He's tough. I think he feels like one of the older kids now. He doesn't feel like a young pup on the field out there and it shows."
Sarkisian has noticed the same things from his former player as well.
"I think Joe McKnight could arguably be the best player in the country right now," he said. "I've always thought that now for three years, and it's coming true. He's a special player, he's playing physical, he's running hard, he's catching the ball out of the backfield and he's tough to defend."
The bad news for Sarkisian is that now he has to game plan against him instead of with him. That might be another area where the master has the advantage over the protégé.