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September 18, 2009

Game 3: Smells Like Team Spirit

Game 3: Smells Like 'Team' Spirit

USC opens Pac-10 play in Seattle, where an old friend has pumped some life into a once-moribund Husky program.

The consensus No. 3 USC Trojans (2-0) open their 2009 Pac-10 Conference schedule on Saturday, September 19, against the Washington Huskies (1-1) at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) in Seattle's Husky Stadium and in front of a regional ABC television audience. It is the 80th meeting between the schools, with USC leading the series, 49-26-4. A season ago, USC throttled the winless Huskies, 56-0, at the Coliseum - the Trojans' seventh consecutive victory over UW. USC's last visit to Seattle, in 2007, was a much closer call, as Troy edged a game Husky squad, 27-24.

A week ago, the Trojans added another classic moment to the program's storied annals, stunning then-No. 8 Ohio State, 18-15, in front of an Ohio Stadium-record crowd of 106,033. True freshman quarterback Matt Barkley and running back Joe McKnight led a 14-play, 86-yard drive that ended with a game-deciding 2-yard Stafon Johnson touchdown run with 1:05 to play. Meanwhile, the Huskies broke a school-record 15-game losing streak, defeating Idaho, 42-23, in Seattle. Junior quarterback Jake Locker threw three touchdown passes and added a rushing score for Washington.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his ninth season at USC (90-15 overall, 58-10 in the Pac-10) having led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Washington headman Steve Sarkisian - the former USC offensive coordinator, who spent a total of seven years on the Trojan staff - is in just his third game at the helm of the Huskies.

The Washington program bottomed out in 2008 under Tyrone Willingham, suffering a brutal 0-12 season that was marred by the loss of the multi-talented Locker to a September injury. Sarkisian and his Trojan-bred staff (there are five UW coaches/staffers with Trojan ties) were brought in to breathe new life into the program and, through two games, there's no question that the staff's energy has rubbed off on the Huskies, who hung close with LSU in the opener before drubbing Idaho. With Locker back running the offense and a new confidence about the program, Washington is looking to make this a very interesting conference opener.

Washington Offense
While much of the buzz about the Huskies' early season improvement has been about the change of mindset instilled by the coaching staff, the return to health of Locker has likely made a bigger on-field impact in the Husky attack. Certainly, Sarkisian and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier knew when they arrived in Seattle that, with Locker, they were taking over an offense that was much more capable than the one that closed out 2008. Still, in installing an offense more akin to USC's pro-style attack, the new UW brain trust was taking a risk. Locker has always been a fast and physical runner from the QB spot, and has a very strong arm - but touch and accuracy have always been a question. Locker appears improved thus far, completing 60 percent of his passes, with five TDs and just a single interception. At the same time, his situational running has been solid, and he's averaging just less than four yards per carry on an average of nine attempts per game. Locker makes the Husky offense go, and containing him will be job No. 1 for USC Saturday.

Redshirt freshman running back Chris Polk, a one-time USC recruit, has wasted no time in staking claim as the second option in the new Husky attack. With 170 yards in his first two games - including an impressive 90-yard performance against LSU - he's showcased both speed and physicality. He's the clear man atop the depth chart, while sophomore Johri Fogerson (a converted safety) and sophomore Curtis Shaw spell him for a carry here or there. Senior Paul Homer is an excellent blocker, who sees the rare pass thrown his way. Both Polk and Fogerson are also receiving threats.

Another freshman is off to a stellar start in the Husky receiving corps, as James Johnson leads UW with nine grabs so far, two for scores. He, too, was especially impressive against LSU. Locker, though, has been spreading the love. Tight end Kavario Middleton, a sophomore, has been a great possession option so far, with seven grabs. Three other wideouts - junior D'Andre Goodwin and sophomores Devin Aguilar and Jermaine Kearse - have at least five catches in the first two games.

The Husky front five has also shown improvement so far, allowing just two sacks and clearing the way for a once-anemic rushing attack that is now averaging just a tick below four yards per carry. There is a little more experience in this group than the other positions, with senior LT Ben Ossai leading the way and juniors Ryan Tolar (C) and Cody Habben (RT) each having started at least 17 games for UW. Former walk-on Gregory Christine (LG) has worked his way into starting position, while RG Senio Kelemete has adapted well in transition from defensive tackle. Quality, experienced depth remains an issue here.

Washington Defense
Former USC defensive coordinator Nick Holt, now on the job in Seattle, also had some decent pieces returning to what had been a decimated Husky defense by the end of 2008. With a 4-3 design quite similar to USC's base defense (stunning, I know), the Huskies do have some experience in the front seven, but have been unable to consistently pressure quarterbacks without relying on the blitz - which has left their young secondary vulnerable to big plays. The Huskies are allowing 106 yards rushing per game (but at 4.1 yards per carry), and a troubling 260.5 yards passing, including 349 yards through the air to Idaho.

A starter since day one of his career, rangy senior DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim is the Husky leader up front. A second-team All-Pac-10 choice a year ago, he's had a total of 16.5 sacks the past two seasons and has added one so far in 2009. At the other end spot, senior Darrion Jones returns to the starting lineup this week, but sophomore Kalani Aldrich will also see time. Giant sophomore Alameda Ta'amu (all 6-foot-3, 348 pounds of him) is expected to be a run stuffer, but has struggled so far. Junior Cameron Elisara has been the leading tackler among the group so far, with six, from the other tackle spot.

The biggest addition to the Washington defense this season has to be senior weakside linebacker E.J. Savannah. He had 111 tackles (including 14 for loss) in 2007, before missing last season with a series of off-field issues. Reinstated by the new staff, Savannah leads the Huskies with 19 tackles so far and is a playmaker on a defense in dire need of more. The Huskies also have plenty of experience at the other two spots, as junior Mason Foster mans the strong side, while senior Donald Butler is in the middle. Foster was the Huskies' defensive MVP a season ago, while Butler is second on the team in tackles so far, with 14. Quality depth is a recurring issue for the Huskies, and it's no different with this group.

In the secondary, the Huskies feature junior strong safety Nate Williams, who is being pushed for time by classmate Victor Aiyewa. The duo has 15 tackles combined. Redshirt freshmen Justin Glenn and Greg Walker are also splitting time at free safety, with Glenn the nominal starter. Their inexperience has been exploited early in the season. Sophomore Quinton Richardson and junior Vonzell McDowell Jr. are the returnees at cornerback, though true freshman Desmond Trufant has played his way into the rotation. This young group really needs to step its game up.

Washington Special Teams
Sophomore Erik Folk, a highly regarded high school kicker a couple years back has finally taken over full-time duties for the Huskies after battling injuries. He's three-of-four so far on FGs and perfect on PATs. He's also been instrumental in the Huskies holding kickoff returners to an average of less than 14 yards per opportunity. JC transfer Will Mahan is averaging nearly 45 yards per boot through two games as UW's new punter. Fogerson is handling punt returns, and has looked explosive, averaging 18.5 yards per chance. Sophomore receiver Jordan Polk and Richardson are splitting kick return duties.

USC Offensive Gameplan
Normally, after taking things slow with Barkley through the opener and an extremely difficult road debut at Ohio State, one would imagine that the Trojans' offensive brain trust would be ready to open things up against a Husky defense that looks especially questionable in the secondary. However, with rain forecast for Saturday and - more importantly - USC's starting quarterback situation again in flux thanks to a bruised shoulder suffered by Barkley at Ohio State, things may continue to be a little more conservative for the Trojan offense.

Though Barkley threw lightly in practice for the first time this week on Thursday, and reserve quarterback Aaron Corp has looked sharp taking first-string reps (as well as looking fully recovered from a leg fracture suffered in early August), Carroll, offensive coordinator John Morton and playcaller Jeremy Bates have - to this point - refused to anoint a starter for Saturday's game. Should it be Barkley, would his shoulder limit USC's downfield passing? If Corp gets the nod, do the Trojans go back to vanilla since it would be his first start, and in a reasonably hostile environment at that?

Let's be honest, though. Washington - though clearly improved - is not a defensive juggernaut. No matter who lines up under center, the Trojans should be able to move the ball against the Husky defense. Washington has not gotten much pressure on quarterbacks without risky blitzing, and the UW linebackers have been forced to make up for so-so front line play against the rush. If McKnight is able to go after suffering flu symptoms throughout the week, he should be able to put the Trojans into some mismatch situations. At the same time, this week should be a coming out party for USC's receiving corps against a young and questionable UW secondary.

USC Defensive Gameplan
Outside of one misread by Taylor Mays and a perfect throw by Terrelle Pryor on a play where Mays was sidelined by a knee injury, the USC defense dominated Ohio State. The Buckeyes totaled 10 first downs and just 88 yards rushing. In fact, outside of the Buckeyes' first-quarter touchdown drive, the Ohio State offense managed two field goals in the final 45 minutes - the same time span in which it gained a mere 120 yards. If anyone out there is not yet a believer in the Trojans' young defense, I'm wondering what exactly you're looking for?

They will, however, face a new test against Locker and Polk. At this point in their careers, Locker is a better player than Pryor. He looks to have settled into Sarkisian's system. Unlike Ohio State, where Pryor was given a number of designed running plays, Locker's designed runs seem more limited under the Huskies' new regime. However, this presents a bigger dilemma - reining in Locker's effectiveness as a scrambler. Yes, the Trojans would rather see him throwing under pressure, rather than escaping into a broken field. Because of this, I don't expect a ton of sack opportunities for USC's front seven this weekend, while the Trojans try to urge Locker to throw the ball to more containable check-down receivers.

Polk adds another dimension to the Washington attack. If he's able to get off early, he clearly makes the Huskies - and Locker - that much more dangerous. However, though the UW offensive line has performed fairly well in the Huskies' first two games, they have yet to face a front seven with the versatility and speed of USC's. How the Trojans handle Polk and contain Locker's escapability will decide just how effective the UW offense can be.

The Pick
It's Pac-10 time, always a key moment for USC's "Win Forever" mantra. However, the Trojans have struggled mightily in conference road openers under Carroll, going 4-4 - including last season's loss at Oregon State. Two years ago, a heavily favored USC team eked out a three-point win in Seattle in the Pac-10 road opener. Simply put, it just hasn't been easy for USC in these games.

Tack on the intrigue of the mentor-student angle, a resuscitated Husky program coming off a win for the first time in nearly two calendar years and questions about the health of three of USC's top players (Barkley, McKnight and Mays), and you can see how there is some trepidation among Trojan followers heading into Saturday.

Rain or shine, however, the Trojans should be able to physically overpower the Huskies. The Dawgs just don't yet have the horses to stay with USC for an entire game without a series of breaks. While Locker and Polk will make some noise early on - the one thing you can count on under Carroll is USC allowing early points before usually shutting teams off like a water spigot - expect the Trojans to impose their physical will on both sides of the ball, allowing them to eventually taking advantage of the Huskies' thin secondary. Whether it's Corp or Barkley at the helm, USC should have its biggest passing day of the young season on Saturday and pull away for its eighth consecutive victory over UW.

USC 34, Washington 14

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine 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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