Game 7: 'Fighting on Arrival, Fighting for Survival'
The Trojans return to L.A. to host a young and struggling group of Buffaloes.
The USC Trojans (5-1, 3-1 in the Pac-12), ranked No. 9 by the USA Today coaches' poll, No. 10 in the BCS standings and No. 11 by the Associated Press, return home for the first time in nearly a month to face the Colorado Buffaloes (1-5, 1-2) at 3 p.m. (PDT) on Saturday, October 20 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Pac-12 Network cable television audience. The seventh meeting between the universities is Colorado's first visit to Los Angeles as a member of the Pac-12. USC owns a 6-0 mark against the Buffs, including last November's 42-17 victory in Boulder. The Trojans won the previous meeting in Los Angeles, 17-14, in 2000 - when Colorado was a member of the Big XII Conference.
A week ago, the Trojans opened a 24-7 halftime edge in Seattle and watched their defense force four Washington turnovers to hold on to an eventual 24-14 win over the Huskies. USC's fourth road game of the season (by far the most of any top 15 team at this point) was also it's next to last trip outside Los Angeles for the year, and the Trojans played it ultra-conservative after having their way with the Husky defense early on. Meanwhile, the Buffaloes saw Arizona State break open a tight game at the half and pull away to a 51-17 victory in Boulder on Thursday, Oct. 11. The Sun Devils outscored Colorado 31-0 in the second half.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (30-14 career collegiate head coaching record; 23-8 at USC) is in his third season at USC. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Meanwhile, CU headman Jon Embree (4-15) is in his second season at the reins in Boulder. He is only the third CU alum to lead the school's football program, and prior to taking over in 2011, was an assistant for two decades, including stints with Colorado, UCLA and the Kansas City Chiefs. While Embree knew he had a major rebuilding job on his hands when he took over, the Buffaloes have failed to take any visible steps forward in 2012 after a dismal 2011, ranking below No. 100 nationally in a slew of statistical categories.
Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy thought he'd seen enough of a 2011 unit that was hampered by injuries, ineffectiveness and youth. But - with a CU team that has eight seniors total (four on offense) - it's been more of the same in 2012. The ACL injury suffered in spring by excellent wide receiver Paul Richardson was a big blow, but just the first of many. The Buffs rank No. 76 nationally in pass offense - and that's as good as the statistical news gets, as CU ranks No. 105 in rushing and No. 103 in scoring and total offense. Junior quarterback Jordan Webb, a transfer from Kansas who was the Jayhawks starter in 2010-11 but wasn't a fit under the new Charlie Weis regime in Lawrence, has been okay when he can stay on his feet (he's suffered 26 of CU's stunning 29 sacks allowed). He's completing 56 percent of his passes, with eight TDs and just four INTs. Sophomores Connor Wood and Nick Hirschman have appeared sparingly in relief.
Richardson was CU's big-play threat, and the Buffaloes have struggled to replace his home run ability. Redshirt freshman Nelson Spruce leads the team with 27 catches, but averages less than 11 yards per grab, while sophomore Tyler McCulloch has 20 grabs with a 12.2 yards per average. Both have caught a pair of TDs. True freshman Gerald Thomas has 12 catches as CU's third wideout option. Senior tight end Nick Kasa has gained midseason notice as a Mackey Award watch-lister, and has scored three times on his 11 catches, including a 70-yarder that is Colorado's longest pass play of 2012.
True freshman thumper Christian Powell had taken hold of CU's starting tailback spot before suffering a charlie horse against UCLA that kept him out of last weekend's loss to Arizona State. The 6-foot, 235-pounder is expected back Saturday. He's averaging 4.3 yards per carry and has scored three times. Diminutive sophomore Tony Jones began the year as the starter and is averaging more than 5.5 yards per carry, while also catching 14 passes out of the backfield. Junior fullback Alex Wood is a former walk-on who earned a scholarship thanks to his blocking skills.
Consistent play on the offensive line - due to both injury and ineffectiveness - has continued to hamper the Colorado offense. The Buffs' original starting five for the season - juniors David Bakhtari (LT), Gus Handler (C) and Jack Harris (RT), and sophomores Alexander Lewis (LG) and Daniel Munyer (RG) - teamed again last week for the first time since the season's second week. They are expected to start as a group again on Saturday - not bad news for a group that has little talented depth.
Defensively, things haven't been much better for CU under coordinator Greg Brown, who is in his third stint in Boulder. A 15-year NFL assistant, Brown swapped last season's 3-4 look for a more traditional 4-3 in 2012, but the Buffaloes are allowing a dismal 494 yards and 41 points per game (both in the bottom 10 of NCAA rankings and dead last in the Pac-12). Colorado's pass defense has been especially porous, allowing more than 312 yards per game.
Up front, junior end Chidera Uzo-Diribe has been the Buffs' best pass rusher, leading the team with six sacks (CU has 15 total) among his 24 stops. Senior Will Pericak has 35 tackles at the other end spot, while sophomore Kirk Poston also rotates in (he's started twice) and has three sacks. Inside, youth has been a factor in the Buffaloes' ineffectiveness. Junior Nate Bonsu has been average at best, while true freshmen Samson Kafovalu and Josh Tupou have seen more time as the season has gone along. Tupou, with 24 stops, appears to have the most upside of the trio.
Senior inside linebacker Doug Rippy, Colorado's emotional leader on defense at middle linebacker, has struggled to return to form after last season's devastating knee injury. He's played in just three of CU's six games, though he's listed as the starter this week. Senior Jon Major has split time in the middle and at his preferred strong side spot and has 43 tackles so far. Junior Derrick Webb is the man on the weak side, and his 48 tackles rank second on the team. Junior Paul Vigo and sophomore Brady Daigh are also part of the rotation - Vigo has started twice at MLB.
More youth - and more injuries - have made the CU secondary a huge issue throughout 2012. Colorado has only three interceptions this season - none by its starting corners. Sophomore Greg Henderson, who started most of 2011 as a true freshman at right CB, lost his job to true freshman Yuri Wright. But Wright suffered a concussion during an Oct. 2 practice, putting Henderson back into the fire. Wright is questionable for Saturday. Another true freshman, Kenneth Crawley, has started all six for CU at left corner and is third on the team with 45 tackles. Sophomore Jered Bell and freshman Marques Mosley have split time at the nickel spot - each has an interception, while Mosley has 21 tackles. Things are a little more stable at safety, where juniors Terrell Smith (a team-leading 52 tackles at strong safety) and Parker Orms (39 tackles at free safety) are entrenched.
Colorado Special Teams
Sophomores Will Oliver (PK/kickoffs) and Darragh O'Neill (P) both return in 2012. Oliver is perfect on PATs and has hit two-of-three FG opportunities. O'Neill can kick with either foot and is averaging more than 43 yards on 45 punts. Mosley (22.2 yards per return) shares kick return duties with freshman DB Jeffrey Hall (25.0 average), while Crawley averages about six yards per punt return.
USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojan offense looked excellent for the first quarter-and-a-half in Seattle last Saturday, mixing a bruising running game with some solid downfield passing looks to Robert Woods and Xavier Grimble that led to a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter. But after Anthony Brown's punt block for a touchdown put USC up 24-7 at the half, the Trojans looked more like a John Robinson-coached USC squad in the second half, preferring to sit on a lead that was far from insurmountable, even with the defense playing so well. Kiffin was clearly happy to keep Matt Barkley out of harm's way and keep Kyle Negrete busy, believing 24 was more than enough to win. And, though the Huskies came within three yards of cutting USC's lead to just three points early in the fourth quarter before a key strip and fumble recovery by Jawanza Starling, he turned out to be right.
While it was great to see Silas Redd running with authority and Curtis McNeal providing a surprising change of pace when he was questionable to return to the lineup, it's hard not to feel that USC is squandering the full capabilities of its offensive talent halfway through the season. I've received more than one E-mail in recent weeks asking me if I thought that Kiffin is holding things back for the second half of the schedule. My most positive response has been to say that I am hoping the Trojans are instilling the idea of a pounding rushing attack for their own mental benefit while holding some more exotic things in check for the tougher opponents on the schedule. Time will tell.
But, it's unlikely we will see much new this week against a CU defense that the Trojans should be able to carve up with the basic things they've been doing - power running, short passing and the occasional shot down the field. While USC has been very much a run-first team in recent weeks, I do expect them to go back to a pass-first look this week against an overmatched Colorado front line and secondary. The Buffs struggle to get pressure on the quarterback and their secondary is, at best, suspect. Perhaps the newspaper columnists will be happier with some pretty stats for Barkley on Sunday morning, but don't expect USC to roll out any new looks on offense when they'll need the full breadth of the playbook available starting next weekend in Tucson.
USC Defensive Gameplan
In the three games since the loss at Stanford, the USC defense has forced eight turnovers and allowed averages of 91 rushing yards and 284 total yards in wins over Cal, Utah and Washington. Opponents are just 9-of-38 on third down in those three games, and the Trojans have 15 sacks in that time. While these three teams are not nearly the cream of the Pac-12's offensive crop, the 2012 Trojan defense is starting to gain a slight resemblance to some of Pete Carroll's crews that shut down opposing rushers, hassled quarterbacks, forced turnovers and were stellar on third down.
There is also a clear group of leaders emerging in each position group, from Morgan Breslin up front to Dion Bailey at linebacker, and T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey in the secondary - guys who make the big plays when the time calls for it. And, guys who set an example on every play for their teammates. Now, with one more "warm-up" before facing some the conference's better offenses in Arizona, Oregon and Arizona State, it's crucial for this group to keep the momentum building.
Colorado has struggled to run the ball effectively all season and has been held under 90 yards rushing in its past two games by UCLA and ASU. And the passing offense hasn't been much better, especially considering how often Webb has been put on the ground by opposing defenses. Outside of the Buffs' shocking come-from-behind win at Washington State, this offense simply hasn't been any good. Look for the Trojan front four to feast on the CU offensive line and rough up Webb early and often. If both teams hold to form, there's also a good chance the Trojans could equal the four takeaways they earned last week in Seattle.
After what has to feel like a really long road trip, USC has to be happy to be home and have what looks like a bit of a breather on the schedule. That, though, could be a recipe for a so-so performance against a Colorado team that doesn't really inspire even the weakest of opponents. (There's no question, however, that the CU football team inspires the school's Sports Information Department. I mean, what else can explain the 59 - FIFTY-NINE - pages of media notes for a team that's been outscored 248-125 in its six games?)
However, this is also the beginning of a season-closing stretch that will see USC play five of its final six games in Southern California - all with a chance to control its destiny for the Rose Bowl (and, I still believe, for a shot at the BCS title game). It's the same time of year that USC turned the corner in 2011 - only this time, they don't have to do it at Notre Dame.
I expect a solid and more diverse performance from USC's offense - Colorado hasn't allowed fewer than 451 total yards in a game since its opening loss to Colorado State - and an inspired showing from a Trojan defense that is improving each week. The Trojans will take a 6-1 mark to Tucson.
USC 51, Colorado 10
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 12 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 or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)