USC Football: Way-Too-Early Game-by-Game Preview for 2014 Trojans
The Pac-12 released its 2014 football schedule on Wednesday, including that of USC. Unless the NCAA vacates the Trojans from conference play, this slate of games is prime for another 10-plus victories.
Last year, USC overcame three head coaches, offensive ambiguity and a depth chart stricken by injuries and sanctions (respectively reported by the Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein). The reward is an uplifting 10-4 record, a resounding Las Vegas Bowl blowout and a No. 19 ranking in both the AP and USA Today football coaches polls. This season appears at least as favorable.
Though avoiding Oregon and Washington in the rotation again, it revisits every 2013 opponent minus Hawaii and Utah State. Of course, the pressure to excel remains.
Can Cody Kessler avenge losses to Washington State, Arizona State, Notre Dame and UCLA? Are draining triumphs against Boston College, Arizona and Stanford each too strenuous to now duplicate on the road? Will Steve Sarkisian and another overturned coaching staff compensate for six departing starters and avoid the classic USC letdown?
Rather than pretending to mourn the death of the BCS in search of reinstated scholarships, let's use last season's schedule to prematurely assess the outlook of this one.
Aug. 30: Fresno State
As reiterated by Klein: "This will mark the first time since the 1916 finale and the 1917 opener that USC will play the same team consecutively, USC said."
The rivalry as depicted on mcubed.net verifies that USC won the former 20-7 and the latter 31-6 against Arizona. It bodes well for the Trojans in this Las Vegas rematch with Fresno State.
The Trojans hope to employ their Coliseum advantage after dropping both 2013's home opener and finale, but beware of intruding, vindictive Bulldogs. Although, without two of Fresno's signature players, all momentum rests squarely on USC's shoulder pads.
Fresno State reeked of BCS-busting blood before succumbing to Clancy Pendergast's 5-2 defense in the bowl matchup. The nation's leading passer, Derek Carr (29-of-54, 216 YDS, 2 TDS, 1 INT), and second-leading receiver, Davante Adams (9 REC, 73 YDS, 1 TD), put forth average performances in the box score. Truthfully, though, the pair felt stifled all day by a relentless pass rush and Josh Shaw's near-perfect coverage.
The tandem since declared for the NFL, making defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's job that much easier.
Wilcox's "hybrid of the 4-3 and 3-4" (according to Reign of Troy's Alicia de Artola) looks to confuse Fresno State's spring victor with more coverages and base blitzes. The transition, along with Sark's newer uptempo spread, should naturally experience early growing pains.
Still, Fresno State's on-field roster turnover outweighs USC's off-field overhaul.
Remember that the Trojans got by just fine in December by relying on the running game (154 yards to the Bulldogs' 37 yards), time of possession (41:27) and third-down battle (6-of-13 to 2-of-14). Those stats are a nearby crutch if need be.
Prediction: USC 41, Fresno State 19
Sept. 6: At Stanford
There will be no Cardinal and Gold fans storming the field or quick slants to Marqise Lee on 4th-and-2. That being said, the stakes remains astronomical for USC in this early Pac-12 test.
Despite a mediocre 23 rushing yards on 27 carries, the passing game unearthed balance and creativity in the Trojans' upset of the No. 4 team. Kessler connected with eight different receivers (including fullback Soma Vainuku from the flat into the end zone) while Clay Helton's sharp, gutsy play-calling moved the chains whenever absolutely crucial.
According to Teddy Mitrosilis of Fox Sports, Helton's 6.42 yards per play by that point exceeded the potent attacks of Oregon and Clemson in that category. It's unknown if Lane Kiffin even remembered his name.
Unfortunately, this round is on Stanford's turf, where senior starting quarterback Kevin Hogan is undefeated. SFGate's Tom FitzGerald anticipates a stouter Cardinal offense thanks to an intact receiving corps led by the electrifying Ty Montgomery.
Stanford survived 489 total yards against an unbeaten Washington in the meat of its rhythm last season. Even sans Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, David Shaw's defense is built to withstand such productivity yet again. They're better advised to force Kessler to beat them with another 288 yards through the air.
This presents the innards of a prototypically physical bloodbath. Whether the first weekend of September leaves enough time to shake the dust off of the new no-huddle regime remains to be seen. Stanford's veteran special teams unit grows exponentially advantageous as the moments wane.
Prediction: Stanford 30, USC 27
Sept. 13: At Boston College
This potential trap is the most significantly underrated game on USC's schedule.
Escaping Stanford with a victory requires every ounce of exhausting emotion. Conversely, a blemished loss column unseasonably weakens the Trojans' conference and championship prospects.
Regardless, USC is traveling for the second consecutive week—to the opposite coast and into an environment increasing with confidence—with its head creeping off the swivel.
The Trojans' most recent trip to the East Coast pitted them against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium. The L.A. Times' Klein reminds us that in the 42-29 victory, USC only led by a pedestrian five points as late as the fourth quarter. Matt Barkley's 187 yards versus an inferior opponent are more indicative than his six touchdowns.
An offense minus four-year starter Chase Rettig and Heisman candidate Andre Williams doesn't seem imposing on paper. Nevertheless, The Boston Globe's Michael Vega claims Steve Addazio is enhancing the winning culture with his recruiting and overall charisma. After 18 losses the two seasons prior, the transformation translated to a 7-6 campaign and subsequent bowl bid; the Eagles shall not be taken lightly.
USC's perpetual commitment to the running game should defuse upset murmurs and calm everyone down. Last September, Williams hit a wall of USC defenders (2.2 yards per carry) while Tre Madden topped 100 yards for the third straight week. The cushioning released Lee for an 80-yard scoring bomb and Kessler maintained efficiency (15-of-17 for 237 yards) in his first outing as an unthreatened starting quarterback.
External factors keep this game excruciatingly close. During the bye week, Sark borrows aluminum foil from Tommy Trojan and rectifies team focus in hiding.
Prediction: USC 24, Boston College 23
Sept. 27: Oregon State
Bye weeks allow teams to either refresh or regress, depending on how they're spent. After two 13-game seasons, USC cherishes the awarded downtime.
The Trojans will march onto the Coliseum grounds replenished and ready to make a run toward the Pac-12 South title.
With Biletnikoff winner Brandin Cooks on the field last year (6 REC, 88 YDS, 1 TD), the nation's second-most prolific passer, Sean Mannion, squandered his wideout's efforts and surrendered three interceptions. With Cooks now in the pros, eyes are on the senior quarterback to master this hungry secondary featuring Su'a Cravens and talented underclassmen.
The extra opportunities consequently give way for Javorius "Buck" Allen (16 CAR, 133 YDS, 3 TDS) and Nelson Agholor (2 REC, 73 YDS) to manipulate the contest.
Prediction: USC 45, Oregon State 24
Oct. 4: Arizona State
If USC acquiesces 62 points again, Pat Haden shall relocate to Alaska.
Especially at home, here is as good a place as any for Wilcox to endorse his bend-but-not-break defense.
The Sun Devils accumulated 612 yards from scrimmage, with dual-threat Taylor Kelly accounting for 351 passing and 79 on the ground. Those numbers would mean nothing, though, if the offense merely attempted field goals instead of repetitively crossing the goal line.
As the Huskies did to Taysom Hill and BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl, the Trojans will hope to keep Kelly's 40-yard scrambles to a minimum.
Without touchdown machine Marion Grice and his four scores from a year ago, Kelly is forced to feed into USC's newfound elasticity. Judging by the 2013 sack totals of USC (35) and Washington (41), Leonard Williams and a healthy rotation are aiming for red-zone stops and Kelly-shaped snow angels...most likely bereft of snow.
On the other side, Arizona State is replacing eight defensive starters, according to Fox Sports' Tyler Lockman. If nothing else, Kessler will be determined to reach 100 points first.
Prediction: USC 48, Arizona State 16
Oct. 11: At Arizona
According to B/R's Kyle Kensing, only two Pac-12 schools are filling voids at the quarterback position. One of them is Arizona.
B.J. Denker graduated, and running back stud Ka'Deem Carey's NFL bags are essentially packed, as well. That's 497 of Arizona's 508 total yards versus USC last October (97.8 percent of its production).
Adrenaline surrounding Ed Orgeron's interim debut (encapsulated by Kessler and Agholor's 62-yard scoring hookup on the opening drive) overwhelmed the Wildcats, who did rally in the second half. With stability and poise now on the side of Kessler and the defense, USC's own offensive fertility (546 yards from scrimmage) would come as downright luxury.
Pending rapid elevation on the part of Arizona's successors at key positions, USC should be in the thick of its groove halfway through the schedule.
Prediction: USC 38, Arizona 10
Oct. 18: Colorado
Colorado is slowly ascending from the basement, quadrupling its win total from 2012. The Buffaloes are no longer the Pac-12 pushover they've been branded as since joining the conference.
Even so, USC treated them as such in its 47-29 tune-up en route to UCLA.
USC packed in a 37-7 third-quarter lead and daydreamed about the Victory Bell until Colorado knocked on the door with a 22-3 fourth-quarter run. The comeback was possibly cultivated too late, but the Trojans need to be wary of mental lapses (or arrogance). They certainly aren't immune to inexplicable clunkers this century (see UCLA, Stanford and Oregon State).
USC must stay attuned to midseason flow but should incorporate supporting players in order to do so.
Kessler's leading receivers in last year's matchup were Darreus Rogers (three catches for 56 yards and moving into the No. 2 slot) and NFL-bound tight end Xavier Grimble (six catches for 46 yards—targets now available for Randall Telfer to snag). Vainuku actually rescued the victory with a Stanley Havili-esque 52-yard rumble into the end zone with 2:19 remaining.
Spare the porcelain health of the depth chart, but don't unravel the rhythm of the football team.
It's as easy said as done without Colorado's Paul Richardson to strategize against. With eight receptions for 88 yards and a score in last November's meeting, the Buffaloes' offensive identity is entering the draft early, based on CBSSports' Chip Patterson's report.
Prediction: USC 45, Colorado 13
Oct. 25: At Utah
If you're looking for that inexplicable USC clunker rich in sodium, it's located in Salt Lake City.
Courtesy of mcubed.net, the average score in this young Pac-12 rivalry is 25.7-11.0 in favor of USC. Albeit one-sided and small in sample size, this series is particularly hard-fought and defensively rooted regardless of names.
Stinginess and retained experience suddenly matter considerably more.
Utah backup quarterback Adam Schulz substituted for an ineffective Travis Wilson and did little to justify the decision (7-of-17, 79 YDS, 1 INT). However, his accumulated playing time and the perception of USC's defense invaluably cooperates with Schulz's maturation this time around.
The Salt Lake Tribune suggests Schulz will compete for the full-time starting role, considering Wilson's possibly career-ending injury and Wyoming transfer Jason Thompson's ineligibility.
Another cleanly executed football game (zero turnovers to Utah's four) and the Trojans are staring 7-1 in the face. However, if caught peeking at the final third of their schedule, Andre Heidari's four field goals won't be enough to bail them out. After all, Utah boasts a Stanford shocker on its resume as well.
Trousdale Parkway is covered with black veils for the student body's annual catharsis.
Prediction: Utah 26, USC 11
Nov. 1: At Washington State
Motivation to dominate is fresh in lieu of lying down post-upset. USC hardly needs it in these remaining momentous games of 2014.
The same way Trojan Pride won't stand for another 62-spot at the mercy of Arizona State, a single digit at Washington State would be unacceptable. So long as the running game and defense participate, this game is vulnerable to concluding in the first quarter—more so than any other on the schedule.
The Cougars defense isn't completely guiltless in shutting down USC. Seeing, though, how much Cody Kessler AND Max Wittek struggled, 139 rushing yards is a lot to relinquish knowing it singlehandedly kept the Trojans alive.
Conversely, Connor Halliday's 215 passing yards feel like 715 next to Washington State's anemic seven yards on the ground.
Kessler only thrived in 2013 once the coaching staff handed him the reins and a full vote of confidence (or the ballot was rigged by default). One season later, he's evolved profoundly from 8-of-13, 41 yards and an interception.
In the eyes of B/R's Rick McMahan: "It is his leadership that has helped Kessler become the MVP of the resurgent Trojans." That all started after Washington State.
The Cougars should be equally driven to remain relevant, especially after its Coug job in New Mexico. Nevertheless, attention shall be paid to every detail from kick returns to ball-handling.
There's an obnoxious circle encompassing November 1 on USC's calendar in cardinal marker.
Prediction: USC 62, Washington State 7
Nov. 13: California
McCarthy Quad hosts a Thursday night football game for the second year in a row. USC benefited greatly from the extra time granted to inaugurate Orgeron as substitute head coach.
With Sark's contract unofficially guaranteed through December, the Trojans can now focus on staying in the moment.
Sixty-two points in the previous rout of the Bears was USC's highest scoring output of the season. Surprisingly, it was the only instance where time of possession (26:57) clocked in under 30 minutes.
Merely seven touches by Buck Allen developed into 192 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. Then-freshman change-of-pace back Ty Isaac additionally delivered career highs (11 CAR, 87 YDS, 2 TDS).
Expectedly, USC's challenge is to not let up on defense, no matter the score. Sophomore quarterback Jared Goff's stat line (35-of-49, 260 YDS, 3 TDS, zero turnovers) deservedly exudes confidence in this sequel. The defense should want to (legally) make target practice out of Goff—in preparation for UCLA and Notre Dame without consciously thinking about UCLA and Notre Dame.
At 1-11, Cal ended up on the bottom of the Pac-12 and shouldn't climb much higher in 2014. Of course, some sustained drives would aid the fine-tuning process, but the Trojans cannot toy with this outcome. They have to worry about Cal and nothing else.
Prediction: USC 55, California 14
Nov. 22: At UCLA
The Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke stated how "Haden surely will officially open up a national search to find the next USC coach" following Coach O's UCLA debacle. Apparently no 10-4 Cinderella story signifies anything if USC cannot best its hated rivals.
Both a prolonged losing streak and ownership of Los Angeles hang in the balance, and Brett Hundley returns for one last wound-stabbing hurrah.
The screenplay practically writes itself upon the welcoming MS Word document.
The key to slowing down Hundley is eradicating his capability to run free, making him one-dimensional. In two of UCLA's three losses last season (appropriately against the Pac-12's division winners), Hundley failed to eclipse 30 rushing yards. According to ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne, disruption of the pocket additionally aided in his dismantled composure versus Stanford.
At Washington, Wilcox actually managed to do the same (15 yards on eight carries), but never saw LB-RB hybrid Myles Jack and his four touchdowns coming.
The tempo and trenches can't be regulated by the Bruins, or else their freakish athleticism will unleash itself.
Correspondingly, this is Tim Drevno's retooled offensive line's cue to shine. Kessler's six rushes for a negative gain of 43 yards weren't the result of Bambi just being born without ever learning how to run the football. Aundrey Walker and the incoming recruits' protection of Kessler helps prevent the Trojans from abandoning the ground game and losing the turnover battle.
Anthony Barr-ing an unprecedented visit from a certain psyche-killing linebacker, the stage is set for USC to resume control. The "50-0" prediction's luster expired, but here's to a wild one in Pasadena.
Prediction: USC 50, UCLA 40
Nov. 29: Notre Dame
What goes up must come crashing down through the roofs of university housing.
USC expends an overabundance of fuel at UCLA. If a heartbreaking Stanford defeat is followed up by a sluggish Boston College victory, then romanticized logic must validate the gravitational inverse.
The Trojans recently played well enough to win in South Bend. Had they converted a third or fourth down (2-of-13 and 0-of-2, respectively) or not committed 11 penalties for 95 yards, Orgeron would have at least been interviewed.
Notre Dame, however, receives a unique care package come 2014: Everett Golson.
Following the Irish's reinstatement of the suspended quarterback, Golson aspires for reattained championship-caliber form. B/R's Amy Daughters depicts how, through spelling snaps with Tommy Rees in 2012, Golson's protection of the football (only six interceptions to Rees' 13) and threat of mobility (94 CAR, 298 YDS, 6 TDS) tremendously fed Notre Dame's BCS National Championship run.
Whether he earns the starting gig or shares drives with future phenom Malik Zaire, Golson's presence will presumably be polished by the season finale. He's an extra weapon USC now has to worry about.
Prediction: Notre Dame 24, USC 21
An undefeated 2014 simply doesn't exist in the schedule for the told-you-so mentality of Sarkisian and Haden. A 9-3 record and flip-flopped Stanford-UCLA results aren't hard to live with, though.
With a sweep of Pac-12 South mates UCLA and Arizona State, a berth in the Dec. 5 Pac-12 Championship Game isn't impossible if the rest of the conference mangles one another. A 7-2 mark and rematch with Stanford seems predestined.
Of course, as the Sun Devils land the Bruins and Cardinal at home, Arizona State's predicted 8-1 (the loss ironically originating from USC) punctures those dreams with...that trident thingy.
Should the Trojans finish fourth in the Pac-12 pecking order, a Fight Hunger Bowl bid versus (let's say) Michigan is the prize in Year 1 of the Sark Era.
USC shouldn't want any part of the College Football Playoff anyway. Give 2015 a chipped shoulder and something to fight on toward.