Game 5: Purple Haze, All in My Brain
Since last September's embarrassing defeat in Seattle, the Trojans have been pointing to the next meeting. Will Saturday night bring redemption?
The AP No. 18 USC Trojans (4-0, 1-0 Pac-10) open their 2010 Pac-10 conference home schedule on Saturday, October 2, hosting the Washington Huskies (1-2) at 5 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ESPN2 cable television audience. It is the 81st meeting between the two schools, with USC holding a 49-27-4 edge. The Trojans have won seven of the past eight meetings, but it was the Huskies who upset then-No. 3 USC, 16-13, a season ago in Seattle. USC won the prior Los Angeles meeting, 56-0, in 2008.
A week ago, the Trojans rolled off unanswered point streaks of 21 and 29 during a 50-16 throttling of Washington State in Pullman. Senior fullback Stanley Havili scored on a 59-yard run on USC's first play from scrimmage, and turned nine touches (four rushes, five receptions) into 187 total yards and two TDs. The Trojans rolled up 613 yards of offense, while the USC defense allowed just 243 yards and nine points in the final 57 minutes of play. Meanwhile, Washington took a much-needed bye week after being pummeled, 56-21, by then-No. 8 Nebraska in Seattle on Sept. 18. The Huskies' Heisman candidate quarterback, Jake Locker, had a miserable outing, completing just four-of-20 passes, with two interceptions, while the defense allowed 533 total yards (383 rushing).
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (11-6 career collegiate head coaching record; 4-0 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. Washington headman Steve Sarkisian (a former longtime USC assistant) is in his second season in Seattle (6-9, 4-5 in Pac-10 games) - and the Huskies' slow start has dimmed some of the excitement created by UW's rebirth in 2009 following a 0-12 2008 season. Locker's return for his senior season had ratcheted up the excitement to levels that, perhaps, were unrealistic - considering Washington still lacks depth and is still an enigma defensively, thanks to years of recruiting neglect.
Sarkisian and offensive coordinator/QB coach Doug Nussmeier oversaw the Huskies' vast improvement in 2009 (doubling their points per game to 26 and adding 110 yards per game of total offense). But, though the Huskies returned a number of key players, the 2010 offense has seen some frustrating moments, being shut down by Nebraska and going scoreless in the second half of a 23-17 season opening loss at BYU.
Some of that frustration is on the shoulders of Locker, of whom a magical 2010 was expected. However, thus far, outside of a stellar performance against Syracuse, the magic has been quite inconsistent. Still, Locker - at one time, the consensus top NFL prospect in the 2011 draft - is capable of a breakout performance at any moment and is, far and away, the best quarterback USC has seen to date in 2010. Locker's name dots the top 10 of all UW quarterback charts, but he's completed barely 50 percent of his passes in 2010, and his usually stellar rushing totals are off slightly. Locker knows he's in "prove-it" mode this weekend in the Coliseum, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts.
Junior Jermaine Kearse leads a potent Husky receiving corps. He leads the Pac-10 and is ranked sixth nationally with 112.7 receiving yards per game, and he has five touchdowns in three games, while averaging more than 21 yards per catch. He has a seven-game TD streak dating to last season. Not far behind him is possession specialist Devin Aguilar. The junior is second on the team with 13 grabs and has the other UW receiving touchdown. Other contributors include junior Cody Bruns, senior D'Andre Goodwin and redshirt freshman tight end Marlion Barnett.
Sophomore Chris Polk is off to a solid start in an attempt to build upon the best freshman season by a running back in UW history. He had 1,113 yards in 2009, and is up to 264 this season, averaging five yards per attempt. His 117 yards vs. Syracuse marked his sixth career 100-yard game. Behind him is speedy true freshman Jesse Collier, who is averaging seven yards a burst and seeing about seven carries per game. Locker is UW's third leading rusher, averaging 3.7 yards per attempt. Senior fullback Austin Sylvester is a tough blocker and has caught two passes.
Atop the list of three returning starters on the offensive line is senior LT Cody Habben, who has started every UW game since the opening of the 2008 season, and played in every game of his Husky career. Junior left tackle Senio Kelemete was the starter at right guard last season, and has handled the transition well. So has senior RG Ryan Tolar, a starter at center in 2009. He's replaced there by former tackle Drew Schaefer, a sophomore who appears to be ready to captain the Husky line for some time to come. True freshman Eric Kohler started at LG vs. Nebraska and will be back in there against USC, ahead of senior Gregory Christine.
After overseeing a 2009 Husky defense that allowed 12 fewer points per game and 62 fewer total yards per game, defensive coordinator Nick Holt, another USC staff veteran, had six returning starters to begin 2010 and hopes were high for another big step. However, opponents are averaging 425 total yards and 33 points against UW during the Huskies' first three games. Teams have proven capable of both running the football and passing it evenly well, and - outside of stud outside linebacker Mason Foster - the Huskies have simply struggled to stop anyone consistently.
The Huskies returned experience in the middle of their front four, but the end spots are somewhat green. Senior tackle Cameron Elisara and junior tackle Alameda Ta'amu return and, while failing to produce much of a push up the middle, were looking serviceable until Nebraska came to town. Depth behind them is questionable, with only true freshman Sione Potoa'e (1.5 sacks) making any impact. At end, junior Everette Thompson and sophomore Talia Crichton have struggled to pressure the quarterback (just one sack between them). Another true freshman, Hau'oli Jamora, is making a push for more time with eight tackles in three games.
Foster, a senior, has been all-everything for UW so far. He is averaging just less than 13 tackles per game, leading the Pac-10 and third nationally. He also has a sack and two tackles for loss. Across the way, senior Victor Aiyewa has been solid after moving from safety during the spring in an effort to add speed to the linebacking corps. He has 24 stops. Junior Cort Dennison has 15 stops as the starting MLB, though he sat out the Nebraska game with an injury. He's expected back on Saturday, but true freshman Garret Gilliland got some big-time experience filling in for him.
Senior strong safety Nate Williams, who has started 25 of the Huskies' last 26 games, is the leader of the secondary, and is second on the team with 27 stops. However, the regulars in the UW secondary have yet to notch an interception (the only pick was by third-stringer Gregory Ducre in the blowout of Syracuse). Sophomore Nate Fellner, who started three times as a true freshman in 2009, has been solid at free safety, with 21 tackles. At corner, the Huskies have three players with starting experience, as junior Quinton Richardson and sophomore Desmond Trufant are the guys so far, and sophomore Adam Long also sees time.
Washington Special Teams
Junior placekicker Erik Folk, who won the USC game last year with a field goal in the final seconds, has been stellar in 2010, nailing all 10 PATs and all three FGs he's attempted, including a 54-yarder at BYU. He's been below average on kickoffs, though, with Husky opponents averaging a start position of the 30-yard line. Junior punter Kiel Rasp is a walk-on who took over for injured Will Mahan to start the Syracuse game, is averaging 45 yards on 15 boots. Freshman wideout Kevin Smith and freshman safety Sean Parker share kick return duties, Aguilar is the punt returner.
USC Offensive Gameplan
Only three first-half turnovers kept the Trojan offense from a look at 70 points against Washington State. Two troubling Matt Barkley interceptions, similar to the pair he threw at Minnesota, definitely have to concern Lane Kiffin. However, while USC built on its big-play reputation with Havili's run and a couple of other lengthy gainers, the Trojans showed a better ability to sustain drives against the Cougars by mixing run and pass and maximizing their plethora of weapons. The Trojan offensive line also had a second consecutive dominant performance, and with only five penalties total, the Trojans found out how effective they can be when they don't set themselves back.
The Trojans' stable of running backs - Allen Bradford, Marc Tyler, Dillon Baxter and Havili - must concern any opposing defensive coordinator. Each seems primed to make a big run at any moment, and Bradford's particularly hard running between the tackles has the ability to wear on any front four that lacks depth. The continuing growth of freshman receiver Robert Woods, as well as Barkley's trust in spreading the wealth among all of USC's receivers, has made Ronald Johnson an even bigger threat.
Still, it seems clear that the Trojans can make some hay immediately against the Huskies in the ground game. Even in last season's debacle, the Trojans paved over the Husky defense running the football to an early 10-0 lead that dissipated with a series of mistakes. With the USC offensive line playing with confidence, showing them early trust and trying to jam the ball down the Huskies' throat seems prudent - and would leave UW's secondary, which is less than threatening, susceptible against Johnson, Woods and Co. Though this game is billed as USC's first real test of 2010, the Trojans - if they avoid turnovers and penalties - should be able to have their way with the Husky defense.
USC Defensive Gameplan
On the other hand, this weekend is a clear test for the USC defense. While Locker has struggled more than expected, the Huskies have plenty of firepower with him, Polk and Kearse. It will be crucial for the USC defensive line to continue to step up as it has the past two weeks. The return of Armond Armstead from injury should help, and it's hoped that Wes Horton, who was outstanding in Pullman, will be able to go after getting leg whipped late in the game.
Slowing down Polk will be crucial to USC's hopes of limiting the Husky offense. Too much focus can be placed on Locker, who remains fairly inaccurate as a passer. If USC can make things tough on the UW rushing attack - including Locker (in each of the past two games, a quarterback has gotten loose up the middle on a third-down play, which would be deathly against a runner as good as Locker) - it puts heat on UW's passing attack to maximize accuracy.
And, while Kearse has been outstanding for UW - and he will likely test Nickell Robey deep a number of times - Aguilar's possession capabilities are a big concern, as teams have taken a cue from Hawaii and made hay against USC with shallow crossing patterns. So, though Locker and Kearse are the clear stars of the Husky attack, I believe the difference between a solid USC defensive performance and a shootout is how the Trojans handle Polk and Aguilar.
As the Trojans enter what will be a very interesting October, the showdown with the Huskies appears to be one which most Trojan players have been pointing to throughout the offseason. At the same time, the first meeting between former USC offensive coordinators Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin adds to the intrigue.
Unlike the past two weeks, motivation should not be in question heading into this week's battle. Anyone who was part or sat through the embarrassment that was the 2009 Trojan-Husky clash - to be honest, a good football team would have beaten USC by 3-4 touchdowns that day - has been looking forward to this game for the good part of a year.
Containing and directing that excitement will be crucial for USC early. If the Trojans are too fired up, it could lead to big plays by the Huskies and a deflation of USC's emotion. However, the Trojans should (I repeat should, penalty-and-turnover gods) have plenty of offense to show the Huskies. Making Havili a threat with last week's game plan at Wazzu gives Holt another thing to think about - allowing more room for all of USC's weapons against a UW defense that still has too many holes. On the other side, containing the run game and Locker's outlets will likely allow the Trojans to grab a takeaway or two. Together, this should be enough to send USC on to the Farm with a 5-0 mark.
USC 34, Washington 23
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.