Game 5: Is Washington Back
The Pac-10 home opener brings a rejuvenated Husky squad to the Coliseum.
The USC Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-10), ranked No. 3 in the AP poll and No. 2 in both the USA Today coaches' poll and Harris Poll, open their Pac-10 conference home schedule this Saturday, Oct. 7, against the Washington Huskies (4-1, 2-0) at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) in a sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Fox Sports Net cable television audience. USC is 46-26-4 against UW entering the 77th meeting between the schools, and has won the past four meetings by an average margin of 26 points. However, the Huskies do hold one of only five victories over USC by Pac-10 schools since the beginning of the Pete Carroll Era, a 27-24 last-second win in Seattle in 2001.
The Trojans played their second straight Pac-10 road game (and third game away from the Coliseum in four starts in 2006) last Saturday and escaped with a 28-22 victory at Washington State. Steve Smith's huge game in the absence of Dwayne Jarrett helped the Trojans overcome a strong effort by the Cougars on both sides of the ball. Though USC led 28-15 with five minutes to play, it took a last-play interception by freshman Taylor Mays to turn the Cougars away for good. Meanwhile, the Huskies doubled their win total from 2005 and notched their best overall and conference starts since 2001 with a 21-10 victory at Arizona.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his sixth season at USC (58-10, 37-5 Pac-10) and seeks to extend a 28-game home winning streak. During Carroll's tenure, the Trojans have won four consecutive Pac-10 championships, three BCS bowl games (2003 and 2005 Orange Bowls, 2004 Rose Bowl) and the school's 10th and 11th national championships. Meanwhile, Washington headman Tyrone Willingham (6-10 at UW, 71-65-1 overall, 35-31 Pac-10) is in his second season in Seattle, after serving as the head coach at Stanford (1995-2001) and Notre Dame (2002-04). Willingham is the last coach to beat a USC team in the Coliseum, leading Stanford to a 21-16 win in September 2001. What had become a moribund Husky program, going 3-19 in 2004-05, has shown signs of life in 2006's opening month.
Senior quarterback Isaiah Stanback has blossomed in 2006. Always, a big, athletic, fleet and strong-armed athlete, Stanback has minimized the mistakes that hampered him during his first two seasons at the UW helm. He's completing almost 57 percent of his passes – better for a QB whose accuracy has always been an issue – and has tossed eight touchdowns against just three interceptions. He's also averaging almost five yards per carry and is the Huskies' second leading rusher with 306 yards and two scores. When he's on the mark and not forcing the ball, the Huskies have a dangerous passing attack. When he falls back into his old ways, UW is much easier to defend.
Wideout Sonny Shackelford has really stepped up in 2006. The 6'2" senior leads Washington with 21 grabs for a 15-yard average and five TDs. The Huskies, though they have decent speed outside, don't present the kind of consistent deep threat that's necessary to spread defenses out. Junior Anthony Russo has 16 catches and junior Corey Williams should also see time. Sophomore TE Johnnie Kirton is a threat around the goal line.
Another part of the Huskies improvement has come in the running game. UW had struggled mightily in recent seasons running the football, and things weren't exactly looking up when 2006 began. However, Washington is averaging 167 yards per game on the ground and 4.6 yards per carry, led by junior Louis Rankin (348 yards), Stanback and senior Kenny James (195 yards). FB Mark Palaita is strictly a blocker. While the Huskies rolled up 204 yards on the ground at Oklahoma, they struggled mightily against the suddenly stout UCLA run defense, mustering just 49 yards on 27 carries.
Another reason for UW's offensive improvement is a front five that has played each and every snap this season. Junior C Ryan Garcia and redshirt freshman LT Ben Ossai hadn't played a single snap in college before this year. Seniors Stanley Daniel and Clay Walker have played well at guard, while junior Chad Macklin is a budding star at RT. What's the biggest problem for the Huskies here? Should one of the players go down with an injury, not one back-up has played a single down of college football.
While the Husky offense has improved, the UW defense has also played better but still features a lot of question marks. At different times, the Husky pass defense has faltered, but the run defense has sucked it up. Other times, it's been the other way around. However, the strength of the Husky defense definitely is in its back seven. Its top seven tacklers play linebacker or defensive back and eight of UW's 13 sacks come from those spots. Because of this, UW has struggled a bit against the rushing attacks of its toughest opponents (Oklahoma, Fresno State and UCLA rushed for an average of 160 yards per game).
Up front, senior defensive tackle Donny Mateaki, is the group's leader. The 6'5", 285-pound senior is the most experienced player on a line that has struggled to bring its own pressure on the quarterback. Junior end Greyson Gunheim and senior back-up Brandon Ala have combined for the lines four sacks. The other starting end, redshirt frosh Daniel Te'o-Neshieim, is the group's leading tackler with 18 stops and four tackles for loss.
Senior outside linebacker Scott White is the team's second leading tackler (41) and has seven tackles for loss, three sacks and the Huskies' lone fumble recovery in 2006. Senior Tahj Bomar is a serviceable MLB and outside backers Dan Howell and Chris Stevens round out the rotation. Stevens has been solid filling in at both outside spots.
Four of UW's five leading tacklers start in the Husky secondary. This can be taken one of two ways: these guys are good; or that's too many tackles from guys who play that far from the line of scrimmage. The answer is definitely somewhere in between those poles. Senior strong safety C.J. Wallace and senior corner Matt Fountaine are the best the Huskies offer in the secondary. Wallace leads UW with 48 stops. Sophomore Jason Wells is the free safety, junior Roy Lewis starts opposite Fountaine and sophomore Mesphin Forrester is the nickelback.
Washington Special Teams
Junior Michael Braunstein handles kickoff and placekicking duties. He hasn't been challenged much, making just two of four FGs and trying none beyond 39 yards. Senior punter Sean Douglas is having a huge year, averaging almost 47 yards per kick. However, the Huskies punt coverage has struggled, allowing more than 24 yards per return (only eight of Douglas' 27 boots have been returned). Lewis is the leading kickoff returner but hasn't been much of a threat. Junior Marlon Wood has been similarly average on punt returns.
USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojan offense came up big when it was needed last weekend in Pullman, first driving 99 yards for a third quarter touchdown and then taking more than eight minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter before scoring what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. On both drives, senior receiver Steve Smith was the star, stepping up in Dwayne Jarrett's absence with a career day that included a pair of second-half TD grabs. However, the loss of fellow senior wideout Chris McFoy to a shoulder injury for the next month or so, along with Jarrett's status as an apparent game-time decision this Saturday will put even more heat on Smith and sophomore Patrick Turner.
Injuries are also starting to take a bit of a toll along the offensive front, with RG Chilo Rachal apparently out for the UW game with a sprained ankle. Coaches have been a little frustrated with the talented Rachal's inconsistency in 2006, but he was not in danger of losing his job. Alatini Malu will get first crack at his spot this Saturday. Also, it was announced this week that Jeff Byers would miss the rest of the season with his continuing back problem.
The good news is that against the inconsistent but blitzing Husky defense, the Trojans should be able to find some room to run the ball. Chauncey Washington picked up some tough yards last week against WSU in his most extensive work to date in 2006. Expect to see more of him this week. Emmanuel Moody broke another long run in Pullman (48 yards) and is continuing to learn where his holes are. With those two finding daylight, it could take the pressure off of John David Booty in the passing game. One problem the injuries seem to have caused, however, is a bit of predictability in the play calling thanks to some limited personnel. With Vidal Hazelton, Travon Patterson and Stafon Johnson seeing more practice time this week, perhaps that will change.
USC Defensive Gameplan
Until Washington State's last two drives, the Trojan defense performed fairly well – certainly not up to their early season efforts, but WSU was really the first team to challenge the Trojan defense consistently. Alex Brink played an excellent game and the Cougars' one-back, counter-based running attack took advantage of USC's speed on defense, causing some overpursuit. Still, with five minutes to play, the Trojans had allowed fewer than 300 total yards and just 15 points, including holding WSU to three field goals deep in Trojan territory. The problems really arose when it appeared the defense suffered a bit of a "game-over" mental letdown after USC took a 28-15 lead. The Cougars final two drives were disturbing – and somewhat reminiscent of a certain game this past January.
This week, Carroll and defensive coordinator Nick Holt have to focus on Stanback. He makes the Huskies go with his arm, his escapability and his threat as a runner. Slow Stanback and the Husky offense is almost debilitated. Yes, Washington's receivers and offensive line have shown improvement this season, but the return of Sedrick Ellis should help a Trojan defensive front that, for all intents and purposes, should dominate the Husky line. The UW rushing attack should be a non-factor in this game, unless Stanback runs wild. If the Huskies are able to line up and run the ball, it would be a major surprise.
The coaches were not happy with the defensive end play and are looking for more ways to get Brian Cushing involved from the elephant spot. Cushing had a strong first quarter in Pullman but was not much of a factor afterward. He and Lawrence Jackson need to be involved in getting into the UW backfield this week, as USC's success in both attacking and containing Stanback will be the difference between a blowout and a close game.
After last week's tight battle, a lot of outsiders may think that USC is growing riper for the upset on a weekly basis. And with the Huskies at 4-1 and showing signs of life for the first time in years, many might think this game could be another danger spot for USC. This reporter is not among that group.
Unless USC loses the turnover battle by a wide margin and/or fails to handle the Washington running game – both major long shots based on personnel and recent history – USC should control this game from the start. That's not to say that the Trojans will blow UW away early. USC is not quite built that way in this new offensive era just yet. But the Husky offense will struggle early, allowing USC to edge out to a double-digit margin by halftime – say 17-3 or 21-7? In the second half, with the Huskies scrambling to get back into the game, the Trojans should be able to force a couple early mistakes and turn this into a no-contest by the end of the third quarter. USC 38, Washington 13.
Tom Haire (Tom4SC) has been writing for USCFootball.com for five years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the television 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.email@example.com.