Game 6: 'Upon Us All, a Little Rain Must Fall'
Can USC close out the road-heavy portion of its 2012 slate with a win over the Huskies in rainy Seattle?
The USC Trojans (4-1, 2-1 in the Pac-12), ranked No. 9 by the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 11 by the Associated Press, close out a stretch of four road games in their past five when they head to Seattle to face the Washington Huskies (3-2, 1-1) at 4 p.m. (PDT) on Saturday, October 13 at CenturyLink Field and in front of a national FOX television audience. It is the 83rd meeting between the two schools, with the Trojans holding a 50-28-4 edge. The Trojans pummeled the Huskies, 40-17, last November in the Coliseum, breaking a two-game losing streak to the Dawgs. The last time USC played at Washington, the Huskies defeated the heavily favored Trojans (who were without an injured Matt Barkley) 16-13 in 2009.
A week ago, USC recovered from a comically bad opening three minutes to eventually whip Utah by the misleading score of 38-28. The Utes led early, 14-0, thanks to a pair of botched center snaps by the Trojans deep in their own territory. But Troy, behind Barkley's spot-on passing and three TDs, outscored Utah 38-7 over the next 56 minutes before the Utes notched a garbage-time touchdown to set things off in Vegas. Meanwhile, the Huskies fell for the ninth consecutive time to rival Oregon, 52-21, in Eugene. Washington was also sloppy in falling behind quickly, 21-0, but was never able to recover.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (29-14 career collegiate head coaching record; 22-8 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, Husky headman Steve Sarkisian (22-21) is in his fourth season at the reins in Seattle. While the former USC assistant has revived the UW program from some severe depths - and has scored a number of major upset victories along the way - the Huskies remain inconsistent halfway through 2012. UW is undefeated in CenturyLink (home of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks and temporary home for Washington while Husky Stadium is renovated) this season, including a 17-13 upset of then-No. 8 Stanford. But the Dawgs are 0-2 on the road and have been outscored 93-24 outside of Seattle by LSU and Oregon.
Offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau joined the staff after spending the past decade with Cal and Colorado, but unsurprisingly, Sarkisian maintains a huge sway over the Washington offense. Junior quarterback Keith Price returned to high expectations after an excellent 2011 - including an epic seven-TD performance in the Huskies' Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor. However, Price has struggled a bit early in the season, completing just 59.5 percent of his passes, while giving up four interceptions against five TD passes. Still, Price is a dangerous passer when given time and the Trojans would be loath to underestimate him this weekend.
Part of the issue for Price has been a green receiving corps that's missing such key targets from a season ago as Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar and James Johnson. Sophomore wideout Kasen Williams has emerged as the star of the group, with 31 catches for 340 yards and three scores. None of the Huskies other young receivers have set themselves apart yet - junior Kevin Smith is the most experienced, but has just six catches, equal to sophomore DiAndre Campbell and one behind fleet freshman Jaydon Mickens. Sophomore tight end (and Husky basketballer) Austin Seferian-Jenkins has continued to become perhaps the most crucial cog in the UW passing attack, notching 24 catches for 254 yards and a score. He's expected to play after suffering a foot injury at Oregon.
A highlight for the Huskies has been the play of sophomore tailback Bishop Sankey, who had the formidable task of replacing long-time starter Chris Polk. He's averaging 4.9 yards per carry, has scored six TDs and has notched three consecutive 100-yard outings. He's also caught six passes out of the backfield, while taking up the bulk of the playing time at the spot. When the Huskies utilize a fullback, senior Jonathan Amosa will see the field, but has yet to carry the ball in 2012.
The Huskies' biggest problem, though, has been an injury ravaged front five. Three expected returning starters - sophomore guard Colin Tanigawa, junior guard Colin Porter and junior tackle Erik Kohler - have either been lost for the season (Tanigawa), for a lengthy period (Kohler) or forced to retire from football altogether (Porter). Only senior center Drew Schaefer and sophomore LT Micah Hatchie have started all five games this season. Redshirt freshman Dexter Charles took over at LG after Tanigawa went down, while true freshman Shane Brostek and sophomore James Atoe have split time filling in for Kohler. Meanwhile, another starter, RT Ben Riva, suffered a broken forearm in the season opener and hasn't been back yet. He's listed on the depth chart this week as a possibility, but sophomore Mike Criste is also in the mix. Given this upheaval, it's shocking that Price has only been sacked 12 times.
Wholesale changes were made to the UW defensive staff after the Huskies' continued struggles under Nick Holt. New coordinator Justin Wilcox (a former DB at Oregon) brought on three new assistants after joining Sarkisian's staff from Tennessee. The Huskies have performed in fits and starts so far, excelling at home and struggling mightily on the road. Washington hasn't been able to get much pressure on quarterbacks (just seven sacks) but, still, it has a national top-10 ranking in pass efficiency defense, has forced 10 turnovers and is allowing less than 13 points per game in Seattle.
Up front, sophomores Danny Shelton and Andrew Hudson anchor the inside of a Husky line that has given up 178 rushing yards per game. The duo has combined for 35 stops and Hudson leads the team with two sacks. Senior Semisi Tokolahi also rotates in regularly. UW's defensive ends - a position with a rich history in Seattle - have struggled. Senior Talia Crichton (five tackles in four starts) and redshirt sophomore Josh Shirley (10 tackles, one sack) were expected to be stronger. But, as time has gone on, true freshmen Pio Vatuvei and Cory Littleton (who made his first appearance last week) are seeing more and more time in the rotation.
The Huskies are also green at the linebacker spot, but incredibly UW's leading tackler, junior outsider Thomas Tutogi (33 tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery), has started only the past two games. He led UW in tackles against both LSU and Stanford. Sophomore middle linebacker John Timu is the only Husky LB to start all five, and has 28 stops to show for it. Junior Princeton Fuimaono (13 tackles) has made just one start, though he's listed atop the depth chart at one outside spot (as is redshirt freshman Travis Feeney, who has 27 stops), mainly because UW has started all five of its games in the nickel.
Of course, the player at that nickel spot - true freshman Shaq Thompson - has given the Huskies every reason to want him on the field. A sizeable playmaker at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Thompson's 28 tackles are tied for third on the team and his 3.5 tackles for loss are tied for the team lead. He also has an interception. Junior strong safety Sean Parker has continued his solid play of a season ago, with 30 tackles, while senior cornerback Desmond Trufant (17 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one sack, one INT, three pass break-ups) has been as impressive as any Pac-12er at his position. Junior Will Shamburger and sophomore Justin Glenn continue to share the free safety spot, much as they did at the end of the 2011 season - though Glenn has earned more time as 2012 has gone on. At the other corner, junior Tre Watson has been picked on thanks to Trufant's play, and redshirt freshman Marcus Peters is pushing him.
Washington Special Teams
Junior Travis Coons takes over for the departed Erik Folk and not only handles all the placekicking duties (three-of-four on field goals, with a long of 43) but has also shared the punting role with freshman Korey Durkee. The duo has almost evenly split 29 punts, though Coons has handled the role exclusively the past two weeks. Freshman receiver Marvin Hall handles punt returns, while sharing the kick return role with classmate Mickens. The Huskies have yet to enjoy a big play in the return game.
USC Offensive Gameplan
After a very tough start, the Trojan offense rounded into form nicely last week in Salt Lake City. Though USC continued to (over?)utilize the short passing game, it finally appeared to set up (along with more solid running from Silas Redd and D.J. Morgan, subbing for an injured Curtis McNeal) some downfield shots for Barkley and Co. The only things that stopped the USC offense for the final 57 minutes of the game were some silly penalties and a pair of missed field goals from Andre Heidari. Still, the collective sigh of relief after Barkley's career-long 83-yard TD connection with Marqise Lee to give the Trojans a 10-point edge early in the fourth quarter was audible in my hotel room in Paris.
Injuries appear to remain an issue in some key spots, with question marks around McNeal's return for Saturday (concussions are not usually one-week injuries in this day and age) as well as the availability of tight end Randall Telfer, who was last seen with a bag of ice strapped around his ankle on a Salt Lake City training table. At the same time, it's probably safe to say that Khaled Holmes' lower-leg injury leaves his availability in question each week.
What does this mean for Saturday? The Trojans have not had any trouble moving the ball against the Huskies the past two seasons, but Wilcox has instilled a different mindset. Washington's secondary is improved and with rain in the forecast - and the Huskies issues in the front seven - one would expect the Trojans' ground game to carry a heavy load. The Huskies appear vulnerable to the run on the edges - just where USC made hay against Utah's better defensive front. Still, while the Dawgs' secondary has been more impressive, they've yet to face a passing attack that features anything like Barkley, Lee and Robert Woods. Expect USC to test that group - and hopefully continue to look downfield more often.
USC Defensive Gameplan
Following a nine-sack performance against Cal, the USC defense was put on the spot early by the Trojan offense's miscues that gave Utah 14 easy points. They responded, allowing just one Utah scoring drive until the Utes scored a garbage TD in the final minute against the Trojan reserves. The leadership of T.J. McDonald - and how the Trojans are lining him up all over the field, putting him in position to make plays - along with the front seven's continuing excellent work against the run forced Utah into undesirable throwing situations.
The sophomore linebacking trio of Hayes Pullard, Lamar Dawson and Dion Bailey continues to follow McDonald's lead, making plays all over the field, and Nickell Robey's game-clinching pick-six was a just reward for a player who is quickly becoming one of the nation's top cornerbacks.
A season ago, the Trojans sacked Price seven times, eventually knocking him out of the game, while throttling the Huskies' rushing attack. Against the Dawgs' battered front, there's no reason to think that Ed Orgeron's front four will turn down the aggressiveness that has led to 17 sacks and a top-25 rush defense so far in 2012. Price will be looking almost exclusively for Williams and Seferian-Jenkins - don't be surprised to see Robey and McDonald draw the bulk of the snaps facing them. Keeping an eye on that duo, hassling Price, and slowing down Sankey, whose confidence has grown with each 100-yard outing, are the three keys to another successful USC defensive performance.
If you've watched USC football for any period of time, you know that no visit to Seattle should be overlooked. The Trojans are just 18-17-4 in their history against UW in the Emerald City, and have lost 10 of their past 17 trips north. Washington is a proud program, Sarkisian still circles this game on the calendar, and the Dawgs have enough playmakers to keep pace if USC continues its inconsistent play to date.
The Huskies are, simply, a different team in Seattle. Expect to see some new wrinkles on offense and a pumped-up defense early on. However, that's the same story every time USC heads on the road - it's part and parcel of being the Trojans. USC is always the hunted, whether at the top of the conference for much of the past decade or even in the low times of the 1990s.
However, if the Trojans can avoid turning the ball over in the wet weather, USC owns a distinct advantage across both lines. I would talk about avoiding penalties too, but these are Pac-12 refs and this is USC on the road in the northwest - we all know how many breaks that usually means. Expect the Trojans to run the ball well, hit some big plays in the pass game and get after Price from the get-go. Remember, the Huskies have scored more than 21 points only once in their first five games - and that was against lower-division Portland State. If things go well, expect the Trojans to survive the end of a brutal road stretch during the season's first half in the thick of the race for the Rose Bowl - and, perhaps, even more.
USC 30, Washington 17
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)