Game 3: 'I'm Goin' Down 2 Alphabet Street …'
USC travels to Minneapolis for the first time in 30 years to face an embarrassed and angry group of Golden Gophers.
The AP No. 18 USC Trojans (2-0) continue their 2010 non-conference schedule on Saturday, Sept. 18, visiting the Big Ten Conference's Minnesota Golden Gophers (1-1) at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. It is the seventh meeting between the two schools - USC leads 4-1-1 - but the first since the Trojans visited Minnesota in 1980. USC is 68-27-2 against current Big Ten foes (including a current 10-game winning streak), while the Gophers are 24-23-2 against Pac-10 competition (losing to California in 2009 in their most recent meeting with the conference).
A week ago, the Trojans opened their home schedule with a sloppy 17-14 victory over Virginia. Matt Barkley tossed a pair of second-quarter TD passes for an up-and-down Trojan offense, and the USC defense, beleaguered after allowing 588 total yards at Hawaii, bounced back to hold Virginia in check (the Cavaliers second TD of the night came with 4 seconds to play and the game in hand). However, USC's 13 penalties for 140 yards helped keep at least 10-14 points off the board and helped keep alive more than one UVa offensive possession. Meanwhile, Minnesota fell victim to one of the big upsets of the 2010 college football season thus far, dropping a 41-38 decision to FCS (formerly known as Division I-AA) South Dakota in Minneapolis. Junior running back Duane Bennett's second-consecutive 100-yard rushing effort wasn't enough to overcome the performance of South Dakota quarterback Dante Warren, who accounted for 433 of the Coyotes' 444 total yards (352 passing) and five of their six TDs.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (9-6 career collegiate head coaching record; 2-0 at USC) is in his first season at USC, after serving as the head coach at Tennessee in 2009. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Minnesota headman Tim Brewster is in his fourth season in Minneapolis (15-25). He joined the Gophers in 2007, posting a 1-11 season with a talent-depleted roster, before leading the 2008 team to a 7-6 mark and Insight Bowl berth. The Gophers finished 6-7 a season ago, earning a second-consecutive Insight Bowl trip.
The Trojans have won 18 consecutive non-conference games (including victories in that span over Notre Dame, Ohio State, Arkansas and other BCS conference teams). But last week's undisciplined performance that featured a step back for the offense and a defense still showing signs of tackling issues has put doubts in the mind of many Trojan fans about the likelihood of a successful 2010 campaign. Many believe, though, that this week's match-up and next week's game at Washington State give USC a couple more opportunities to round into form against lesser opponents. What will the Golden Gophers have to say about that?
First-year offensive coordinator Jeff Horton returns to the place he began his coaching career in 1984 as a graduate assistant. After serving as quarterbacks' coach at Wisconsin from 1999-2005, he spent his most recent seasons with the NFL's St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions. He's brought a run-first, run-last mentality in the opening two games (Minnesota has run the ball on more than two-thirds of its plays so far), and has had the good fortune to step in with a veteran group - Minnesota lost only two starters, and a number of reserves have starting experience. The Gophers lead the nation in time of possession through two games, and rank No. 11 in total first downs - signs of an emphasis on ball control.
Senior QB Adam Weber is the Gophers' first three-time captain, and has started 40 games at Minnesota. A week ago, he tied the school record for TD passes and is likely to become just the fifth Big Ten passer to total 10,000 career yards. A solid pocket passer, with good experience and decent feet, Weber has yet to throw an interception this season and can be counted on to make good decisions - though he did have two costly fumbles against South Dakota. Sophomore MarQueis Gray saw limited action in 2009, but did play extensively at wideout last week. Does anyone smell a gadget play involving these two this week?
Gray is the Gophers' leading pass catcher so far, with 10 grabs (nine vs. South Dakota). An athletic 6'4", he's a big target. Experienced juniors Da'Jon McKnight and Troy Stoudermire are the listed starters and have combined for 10 catches and two scores this season. Junior tight end Eric Lair has played plenty the past two seasons, but is a new starter. He's been effective, with four grabs, as has Bennett out of the backfield.
But Bennett has done most of his damage in the rushing attack, picking up 187 yards in 30 carries in the opener vs. Middle Tennessee, before tacking on 104 yards on 18 carries a week ago. The stocky sparkplug is the focal point of the Minnesota attack, and USC must tackle better to slow him down. Junior DeLeon Eskridge is not as explosive, but has been getting about 10 carries per game in spot duty. Senior FB Jon Hoese, a converted safety, former walk-on and co-captain, is a sure blocker who will touch the ball 3-5 times a game - and has never lost a yard from scrimmage on any touch.
Minnesota returns four starters on the offensive line, and the deep unit has 107 combined career starts. Senior center D.J. Burris is the leader, with 30 career starts - most of them at guard. Right tackle Jeff Wills, a senior, and classmate Matt Carufel (RG), who started his college career at Notre Dame, return, as does junior left guard Chris Bunders. Senior left tackle Dom Alford, with 19 career starts, has fallen behind redshirt freshman Ed Olson. Junior Ryan Orton is an excellent utility man, backing up both guard spots.
As experienced as the offense is, that's how green the Gophers' defense is. Third-year defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove (who spent 1995-2003 as defensive coordinator at Wisconsin and 2004-07 in the same role at Nebraska) has his work cut out for him, as the Gophers have only two starters (both safeties) back from a unit that was much improved in 2009 - but neither has played in 2010 (Kim Royston is out with a broken leg from spring practice and Kyle Theret had been indefinitely suspended - until this week). Unsurprisingly, the Gophers rank among the dregs of the nation in points allowed, total defense and pass defense - even though they've played what one would consider less than stellar competition.
The problems have started up front, as Minnesota has recorded just one sack in its first two games, that by junior nose tackle Jehwan Edwards. The 330-lb. Edwards, who has appeared often his first two years but is a new starter, did have three tackles for loss (TFL) a week ago against South Dakota. At the other tackle spot, juniors Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs make up the rotation. Sophomore DE D.L. Wilhite was a freshman All-Big Ten selection by the Sporting News a year ago, and looks like he'll be a player. At the other end spot, a pair of redshirt freshmen, Matt Garin and Ra'Shede Hageman, are splitting time.
The new starter parade continues at linebacker, where weaksider Keanon Cooper, a sophomore, was the leading returning tackler (43). So far, he's second on the team with 15 stops in two games, including 2.5 for loss. The big jolt so far, though, has come from classmate and strongside starter Mike Rallis, who leads the team with 16 stops, 3.5 TFL and two interceptions. Junior Gary Tinsley starts in the middle. Depth is an issue here, as well, with a dearth of experience behind the three starters.
Those missing safeties have been a huge problem for the Gopher secondary. Theret was, essentially, a three-year starter, while Royston started all of 2009. Junior FS Christyn Lewis, a transfer, and true freshman SS James Manuel are tied for third on the team in tackles, but their inexperience has caused some communication and angle issues (sound familiar, Trojan fans?). The expected return of Theret could help immensely. At corner, senior Ryan Collado is the veteran of the group - he has 15 career starts. He's joined by sophomore Michael Carter outside, while reserve safety Kenny Watkins, a redshirt freshman, is seeing time at nickel.
Minnesota Special Teams
Redshirt freshman punter Dan Orseske missed the final 10 games of 2009 with mononucleosis, but has resumed his duties and is averaging 38 yards per boot. He can be a shade slow in getting the ball out, however. Senior Eric Ellestad handles the placekicking and kickoff duties, and has made just two-of-five FG attempts in 2010, and has yet to record a touchback. Junior wideout Brandon Green handles punt returns, and is averaging just better than nine yards per, while Stoudermire is the top kick returner, averaging 24 yards per chance.
USC Offensive Gameplan
After a stellar opening performance in Hawaii, USC ran into some roadblocks against a hungry, more physical, well-coached and veteran group from Virginia. An inconsistent rushing attack against a defense that stacked the box didn't help, nor did Barkley's second-half problems with accuracy. However, the penalty issue is what really put a halt to the Trojan attack. Drive after drive stalled thanks to penalties, with one holding call even wiping a long Barkley-to-Ronald Johnson touchdown pass off the board (Johnson received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the same play for good measure).
Still, there were some highlights from true freshmen Dillon Baxter and Robert Woods, both of whom look ready for primetime. Baxter showed his knack for making tacklers miss on a number of fourth-quarter runs, while Woods' back-to-back grabs set up USC's first score. Expect these two to continue expanding their roles within the Trojan attack.
Though Virginia was able to pressure USC's running attack because of a physical and experienced secondary, such a gameplan from the Golden Gophers would likely be suicidal. Putting seven or eight in the box regularly would likely strain their young secondary and struggling pass rush beyond belief. Barkley, Johnson and Woods have an advantage against the Minnesota secondary, and the Gophers' defensive front is unlikely to push USC's front five as Virginia's did a week ago. Expect the Trojans to come out firing this week, and if they have success, the rushing attack should come.
USC Defensive Gameplan
Minnesota is going to run the football at USC. There are no two ways about it. And while the Trojan pass defense was the cause of much hand-wringing after the Hawaii game, it is USC's lack of physicality in the front seven against both Hawaii and Virginia that concerns me. It's very odd, after the past decade, to look at a USC defense and see it as soft - yet, so far, that's exactly how I'd describe it.
Both Virginia and Hawaii ran the football very effectively against USC, with the Trojan defensive ends losing contain often, and poor tackling across the board exacerbating the problem. Certainly, it was great to see T.J. McDonald have a great game against Virginia, but no defensive coach wants to see a safety lead the team with 14 tackles.
With a veteran quarterback, a solid offensive line and a stellar running back, this is the best-balanced offense USC has faced thus far. Fortunately, Minnesota seems focused on running the football, allowing the Trojans to focus the gameplan on stopping the run. In the past, this Minnesota offense is the kind USC would have eaten for lunch - run-heavy, pocket quarterback, average receivers. The gameplan will be there - but, in 2010, it looks less like the gameplan being the key, but instead the execution. If the Trojans read better, adjust better and tackle better, they have the talent to slow Minnesota. If they don't …
For much of the past 10 years, this kind of game would be one that a Pete Carroll-led USC would leave the home fans gasping. Remember 40-3 at Colorado, 23-0 at Auburn, 45-14 and 38-0 at Notre Dame, 50-14 at Arkansas, 49-31 at Nebraska, 52-7 at Virginia? The Trojans roll into town, the locals get hyped, and USC bombs them into submission.
Now? Who knows? Yes, I know that Minnesota just lost to South Dakota. However, didn't a Kansas team that lost at home to North Dakota State (6-3, no less) just bounce back to beat a top-15 Georgia Tech team? Motivationally, Minnesota's loss is the worst possible thing that could have happened for USC. The Gophers are wounded, their pride hurt. and they want to prove to everyone last week was a fluke, plain and simple.
Against a USC team still looking for an identity - and facing continuing defensive issues - the Gopher offense is good enough to control the clock if it executes. That's a scary thought as USC travels across multiple time zones for the second time in this young season. Talent-wise, the Trojans should be able to score early and often against the Gophers' troubled defense. Will the USC defense stiffen against Bennett, Weber and Co. - and will they not be left gasping for air at the end of a third straight game? The Trojans should have enough to win - but I'm willing to bet it won't look much like those games I mentioned just above.
USC 38, Minnesota 28
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 10 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.