September 24, 2010

Game 4 Preview: Washington State

Game 4: Your Own Private Idaho

The Trojans travel through the Gem State to get to the Pac-10's most remote outpost in eastern Washington for the conference opener.

The AP No. 20 USC Trojans (3-0) open their 2010 Pac-10 conference schedule on Saturday, Sept. 25, visiting the Washington State Cougars (1-2) at Noon (PDT) at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash., and in front of a regional FSN Prime Ticket cable television audience. It is the 70th meeting between the two schools, with USC holding a dominating 57-8-4 edge. The Trojans have won the past seven meetings, including a sloppy 27-6 victory in the Coliseum a year ago. USC won the prior Pullman meeting, 69-0, in 2008.

A week ago, the Trojans rolled off 19 consecutive points in the third and fourth quarters to down Minnesota, 32-21, in Minneapolis. Freshman receiver Robert Woods lit the fire for USC after the Golden Gophers had taken a 14-13 lead midway through the third quarter, returning the ensuing kickoff for a 97-yard touchdown. The Trojan defense had its best performance of the season, holding what had been a potent Minnesota rushing attack to just 83 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, Washington State fell, 35-21, at SMU in Dallas. There were positives for what has been a moribund Cougar program, though, as WSU scored a first-quarter touchdown for the first time in almost two years and did not trail at halftime (a 14-14 tie) against a FBS (formerly Division I-A) opponent for the first time in three years.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (10-6 career collegiate head coaching record; 3-0 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 State headman Paul Wulff is in his third season on the Palouse (4-24, 1-17 in Pac-10 games) - and is squarely on the hot seat. The Cougs have lost 11 games in each of his first two seasons, and while recruiting deficiencies in the prior administration left the cupboard incredibly bare, his teams have scarcely improved since his arrival.

After winning or sharing seven Pac-10 championships from 2002-08, the Trojans slipped to 5-4 in the conference a season ago (good for fifth place). Under Pete Carroll, the conference road opener was always a tricky task. However, if you have to open conference play on the road, it's hard to find a better opponent than Washington State. The Cougars have struggled in epic fashion the past two seasons, and 2010 is off to a similar start. What kind of threat does Washington State pose this week?

Washington State Offense
Offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy, who came with Wulff from Eastern Washington prior to the 2008 season, had to hope that his group would improve on 2009's abysmal numbers (2.4 yards per carry; 11 touchdown passes, 16 interceptions; 249 yards per game; 12 points per game). So far, they've seen limited success. With just five returning starters (three on the offensive line), there were plenty of question marks - and a pair of backfield injuries in the opener that affected depth haven't helped.

Though sophomore QB Jeff Tuel was not listed as a returning starter, he did start five times in 2009 and was clearly the best option for Wulff and staff. He owns the strongest, most accurate arm and showed great toughness in 2009. So far in 2010, he's been solid, completing 55 percent of his passes and keeping mistakes to a minimum (5 TD/1 int.). The Cougs did throw for 284 yards against SMU, raising hopes for continued growth. Behind him is junior Marshall Lobbestael, who also has some experience but struggled in 2009, completing just 46 percent of his passes and tossing eight picks in just 144 pass attempts.

Throwing out of the Cougs' traditional three-wide, single-back set, Tuel has found true freshman receiver Marquess Wilson to his liking so far. In WSU's opener, Wilson became just the fourth Cougar true frosh in history to have a 100-yard receiving game, and he was outstanding last weekend against SMU, grabbing six passes for 134 yards and a 68-yard score. All-Pac-10 honorable mention a season ago, junior Jared Karstetter remains a sizeable target, and a favorite of Tuel's. Senior Daniel Blackledge is another outside threat, while junior Isiah Barton and sophomore Gino Simone share the slot spot. Senior Jeffrey Solomon stepped up against SMU with four grabs. Wazzu's tight ends, Skylar Stormo and Andrei Lintz (also listed as the starting fullback) have one catch between them in three games.

Former Cal transfer James Montgomery tops the depth chart at running back. Montgomery has suffered a series of brutal leg injuries, but has fought his way back and is averaging 4.5 yards per carry. His 116-yard effort against Montana State was the Cougs' first 100-yard game by a back since 2008. He's also been a threat as a pass catcher, with five grabs. He's spelled by a duo of career reserves in Chantz Staden and Logwone Mitz.

Atop the list of three returning starters on the offensive line is senior RT Micah Hannam, who has started every WSU game since the opening of the 2007 season (Doesn't he deserve some sort of combat decoration for that?). Joining Hannam on the right side is guard B.J. Guerra, another returnee. Former guard Zack Williams slides over to center for 2010, as JC transfer Wade Jacobson has impressed enough to take over at left guard. Another JC transfer, David Gonzales, earned the starting left tackle spot. This group had nowhere to go but up after 2009 - and still has plenty of room to improve.

Washington State Defense
Co-defensive coordinators Chris Ball and Jody Sears also had a major rebuilding job on their hands entering 2010. Opponents averaged 512 yards per game (including 236 on the ground) against WSU a season ago, as well as 38.5 points. With just five returning starters, and after losing sophomore safety LeAndre Daniels, an expected starter, prior to the season with a career-ending neck injury, expectations for much improvement remained tempered. Giving up 65 points and 544 yards in the season opener at Oklahoma State didn't help. Even FCS opponent Montana State was able to put up 407 yards in a one-point loss to the Cougars.

The problems have started up front all along, as not only was Wazzu unable to stop the run effectively, but it mustered almost no pass rush, notching just 10 sacks in 2009. Sophomore defensive end Travis Long, who started every game as a true freshman a season ago, looks to be a player. He leads the line with 13 tackles, four for loss, and a sack. Senior Bernard Wolfgramm shares one inside spot with redshirt freshman Justin Clayton, who has been impressive - if remaining a touch undersized. Junior Brandon Rankin is at the other tackle spot, while Kevin Kooyman has been impressive in a return from an injury redshirt season in 2009.

Weakside linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, a junior, was the leading tackler for Wazzu while playing MLB in 2009. So far, the heart of the defense has taken well to the outside, becoming a very solid pass defender, and leading the club with 18 stops. On the strongside, converted safety Myron Beck has 17 tackles and an interception. Junior Mike Ledgerwood and senior Hallston Higgins have split time in the middle - though with Ledgerwood missing the Montana State game, C.J. Mizell stepped up big in sharing time with Higgins.

The injury to Daniels pushed sophomore Tyree Toomer into the starting lineup at free safety and he's made the most of it with 18 tackles in two games, to become the team's co-leader. He's got a good chaperone to learn from, as senior strong safety Chima Nwachukwu is a three-year starter and true leader who is also capable of playing cornerback (he missed the SMU game with a neck injury, but is expected back on Saturday (freshman Deone Bucannon filled in).Youth is a big issue at cornerback where a sophomore (Daniel Simmons) and three freshmen Nolan Washington, Anthony Carpenter and Damante Horton) round out the two-deep. Simmons and Washington are the starters.

Washington State Special Teams
Senior placekicker Nico Grasu is responsible for the Cougars' last three victories, nailing game-winning field goals against Washington (2008), SMU (2009) and Montana State two weeks ago. Still, he's only eight-of-13 the past two seasons, and his range is questionable. Senior punter Reid Forrest is well on his way to breaking the WSU career record for total punts - kind of an ignominious stat. Still, he's a solid punter, averaging nearly 45 yards per boot. Leon Brooks and cornerback Washington share punt return duties, while Staden, Barton and Carl Winston are the kick returners.

USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojan offense again suffered through and up-and-down performance in Minnesota last Saturday, struggling through penalties and turnovers. However, a series of big plays and the reemergence of tailback Allen Bradford, whose thunderous runs deflated a game Gopher defense, helped USC pull away late. Sophomore QB Matt Barkley threw his first two interceptions of 2010, but also had a pair of nice touchdown tosses (to Ronald Johnson and David Ausberry).

Bradford's performance once again put him front and center in the Trojan tailback race. Marc Tyler and Dillon Baxter will also continue to see touches, but when Bradford performs like that, there's really no doubt who USC's best tailback is. USC did clean up its penalties in the second half against Minnesota, and it was no surprise that the Trojans moved the ball more consistently when not setting themselves back with mistakes. If Troy hopes to continue gaining that consistency, it must minimize such mistakes.

A green Cougar secondary is probably Washington State's biggest problem. The Cougars' pass rush has improved some from 2009 (witness the four sacks last weekend), but Wazzu's pass defense is still struggling mightily. The USC offensive line should be able to protect Barkley, and USC's receiving corps should expect to see the ball early and often. That's not to say the Trojans won't run the football. USC has manhandled the Cougar front seven in recent seasons. Though WSU is improved (if slightly), the Trojans should maintain that advantage.

USC Defensive Gameplan
The USC defensive line was challenged by Ed Orgeron last week to, essentially, man up. And, from the very first play in Minneapolis, they did so. Minnesota's ground attack stalled from the start as the Trojan front four played tough, physical football for seemingly the first time in 2010. That kind of play should make all the difference USC needs this weekend, as the Cougar offensive line has struggled to protect Tuel, allowing 10 sacks in three games, as well as to open holes for the running game.

At the same time, T.J. McDonald is fast becoming a star, both in pass defense and run support. USC's secondary is maturing and though there are still some moments of confusion, the back four have played better and better in the past two weeks. That improvement must continue against a Washington State attack that has added the athleticism of Wilson to the reliability of Karstetter to finally pose some sort of threat in the passing game.

Still, this is likely the least accomplished offensive unit USC has seen to date. The Trojans should be able to slow the Cougars rushing attack without much support from the secondary, and the USC defensive line needs to put the pressure on Tuel. There may be a big play or two from the Cougs, but USC should be able to handle the Wazzu offense out of its base defense, based on size, speed and talent alone.

The Pick
USC's struggles in conference road openers under Carroll were nearly the stuff of anti-legend. The Kiffin regime, though, gets a break by opening against the conference's bottom feeder for the past three seasons in front of fans simply waiting for the first thing to go wrong. Seems like a recipe for success, no?

Still, much like a week ago - when the Trojans had to be mentally prepared to face a team coming off an embarrassing loss - USC must come out ready to play. The Cougars are hungry to start the conference season off on the right foot for the first time in a long time and are likely motivated by a reasonably solid - from recent standards - road loss to SMU a week ago. Washington State will not roll over that easily this early in the season - there's still some hope on the Palouse in late September.

However, USC simply has too much talent on both sides of the ball to expect the Cougars to stay competitive for long. Look for Barkley to have a big day and the Trojan defense to pressure Tuel and force some timely WSU turnovers. If this game is even remotely close past the early third quarter, the Trojans will have plenty of questions to answer as they head into October.

USC 42, Washington State 10

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 thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.



 

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