USC vs. Fresno State Complete Game Preview
WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 30, 7:30 p.m. ET
WHERE: Los Angeles Coliseum
The long-awaited arrival of a new era in USC football kicks off Saturday. Steve Sarkisian's first game as Trojans head coach pits him against the Fresno State Bulldogs, defending champions of the Mountain West and USC's last opponent in the 2013 season.
The Trojans blasted the Bulldogs in a 45-20 Las Vegas Bowl rout to cap last campaign. Duplicating that result would certainly be a resounding start to the new era.
Featuring a new offensive style and one of the most highly regarded defenses in the country, the Associated Press Top 25 Poll's No. 15-ranked team has plenty to prove in Week 1.
USC Keys to Victory
Be Quick, but Don't Hurry
USC fans may recoil at the invoking of a UCLA Bruin, John Wooden, but one of the the legendary basketball coach's most recited principles fits the Trojans' first foray into the hurry-up offense nicely.
One of the challenges USC faces in introducing this concept is that, with limited roster numbers, the Trojans can only go so far into the depth chart. The no-huddle offense guarantees that the defense will spend more time than the 26 minutes, 57 seconds it averaged on the field a year ago.
If all goes according to plan, the offense will have shorter possessions but more of them. The key is maximizing on each opportunity by putting points on the board. A defense that's thinner on numbers than every opponent it faces is seeing a heavier workload, but its job is considerably easier when playing with a lead.
Quarterback Cody Kessler perhaps summarized the strategy best at Pac-12 media days.
"My job is to get them [skill-position players] the ball in space, give them the chance to make plays," he said.
USC Starts with D
Much of the attention in this offseason was paid to Sarkisian's introduction of a no-huddle offense. However, USC remains a team that, as its defense goes, so goes its chances for victory.
The Trojans defense overwhelmed Fresno State in the first half of last December's Las Vegas Bowl, limiting it to just one score in the first half. No other opponent had been able to so effectively contain the Bulldogs' potent spread attack.
At Pac-12 media days, Sarkisian called the defense—specifically its front seven—"the strength of our football team."
Saturday's result may be dependent on the Trojans reaffirming that.
Fresno State Keys to Victory
USC effectively took the wind out in the Las Vegas Bowl, rolling off four unanswered touchdowns in the first half to build a 35-6 lead.
The Bulldogs cannot afford to fall behind big early, particularly with quarterback Derek Carr and two 1,000-yard receivers from last year's team gone to the NFL. What's more, they are introducing new elements to offensive coordinator Dave Schramm's spread scheme.
Digging a deep hole is an effective way to rattle a made-over offense, but the opposite side of that coin is that the designed quarterback runs being integrated into the system could keep USC on its toes.
Don't Get Beat by the Big Play
Few things are as demoralizing to a defense facing a no-huddle offense as surrendering a quick score. It plays directly into what the opponent wants to do with its heightened tempo and sends the offense back on the field after a short break with ground to make up.
USC's big, early lead in the Las Vegas was the result of several Trojans haymakers. USC had three touchdowns of plays of 24 yards or more, including on a pair of 40-yard Kessler touchdown passes.
Kessler punished Fresno State's defense for selling out on stopping the run a season ago, going to play action and exploiting one-on-one matchups. The result were career highs in passing yards with 345 and touchdowns with four.
Kessler is taking over a new offense Saturday, and as such, could face some growing pains, but it's up to the Bulldogs pass-rushing defense to make him feel those growing pains. Linebacker Ejiro Ederaine, Fresno State's leading sack-producer, must find ways to get to the quarterback.
However, part of that is contingent on the Bulldogs containing USC's potent run game.
Test a Young Offensive Line
As expected, USC's initial depth chart, released Sunday via USC Athletics' official Twitter account, features two true freshmen starting at guard: Damien Mama and Toa Lobendahn. The third member on the interior of the offensive line is veteran Max Tuerk, making the move from guard to center.
The collective inexperience could be a veteran Fresno State defense's ticket to containing a dynamic USC backfield. Fresno State must find ways to attack up front and limit the one-two rushing punch of running backs Javorius "Buck" Allen and Justin Davis.
That starts with winning the battle up front.
USC Players to Watch
WR Nelson Agholor
Nelson Agholor embarks on a dark-horse Heisman campaign Saturday against a team he burned for 94 yards and two touchdowns a season ago.
The new offensive philosophy seemingly fits Agholor's strengths. He has breakaway speed and the ability to make defenders miss in space, two assets that will likely be cornerstones of the Trojans offense.
A big year should propel Agholor into the first round of next May's NFL draft. NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks ranks Agholor the No. 2 wide receiver to watch in all of college football this season.
RB Justin Davis
Sophomore Justin Davis demonstrated impressive breakaway speed in his freshman campaign, but a foot injury sidelined him midway through.
"My main goal is to come in and pick up where I left off," Davis told Jagdip Dhillon of the Stockton Record. At the time of the injury, I was getting into my groove.”
Saturday is his first game in more than 10 months. Coming off an impressive fall camp, Davis will be itching to leave a big impression in his return.
He'll get the opportunity to do so, too. With Tre Madden sidelined by turf toe, Davis is the No. 2 running back on USC's initial depth chart.
CB Chris Hawkins
One of USC's breakout performers of fall camp and a new face in the Trojans secondary gets to put his preseason accolades to the test against the nation's No. 1 passing offense of a season ago.
Fresno State may not sling the ball 52 times per game now that Carr has moved on, but Chris Hawkins should see a considerable workload in his collegiate debut.
S Su'a Cravens
Freshman All-American safety Su'a Cravens is a cornerstone of the USC secondary. However, with Jabari Ruffin lost for the year to an ACL tear, Cravens could see action at linebacker.
Cravens' versatility could help USC weather the departure of Dion Bailey, a key cog in the 2014 defense.
Bailey thrived in a hybrid role, intercepting five passes and recording 62 tackles. Cravens could have similar impact both in pass coverage and stopping the run.
Fresno State Players to Watch
WR Josh Harper
Gone from last year's potent passing attack are leading wide receivers Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse, but top returner Josh Harper is coming off a campaign of 1,011 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Harper will key the Bulldogs' aerial assault this season. The question of who will be throwing to Harper and the rest of the Fresno State pass-catchers has been one of the hottest topics of the Bulldogs' offseason.
QB Brian Burrell and Brandon Connette
Either Brian Burrell or Duke transfer Brandon Connette must fill some very big shoes. Carr left the program setting numerous records and was Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year twice. Both times he earned that honor, the Bulldogs won at least a share of the conference championship.
Head coach Tim DeRuyter has yet to name either the Week 1 starting quarterback. But when he does choose a successor to Carr, that player will have an opportunity to carve out his own niche.
Both are mobile, which adds a different dimension to the Fresno State offseason. And, since mobile quarterbacks have given USC defenses problems in the past, either could make Saturday's affair very interesting.
LB Ejiro Ederaine
Ederaine can be a headache for opposing offensive linemen. Last season, he racked up 10 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss to key Fresno State's rush defense.
"My mindset really didn't change, but I do notice a difference in how it's easier being the hammer when you're 220 instead of 205," he said.
CB Derron Smith
Derron Smith should be familiar to the Trojans. Last year in the Las Vegas Bowl, the 2014 Mountain West preseason Defensive Player of the Year returned an interception of Kessler 41 yards for a touchdown.
In July 2013, Smith told me about the mentality that goes into his ball-hawking style.
"Get the ball back: That’s our main focus," he said. "If we get the ball back to our offense, with how potent our offense is, that’s how we get Ws."
What They're Saying
"He picked it up really well...He studied and worked at this thing,"—Sarkisian on freshman wide receiver Ajene Harris, via Lindsey Thiry of the Los Angeles Times. Harris is listed as a start on USC's initial depth chart.
“Unfortunately, Coach MacIntyre didn’t let me come to practice for the last 30 days, so I don’t exactly know,”—Sarkisian, in reference to preparation for Fresno State, via Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News, though the Bulldogs' head coach is named DeRuyter.
"What he can do kind of dictates some of the coverages you can play," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox on defensive lineman Leonard Williams, via Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. Williams is making his return from offseason shoulder surgery and could be the nation's top player up front in 2014.
"We feel really confident about both of those quarterbacks and we don't want to tip our hand on who is going to be our starter because we have some different packages for both of them,"—DeRuyter on Fresno State quarterbacks Brian Burrell and Brandon Connette, per Robert Kuwada of the Fresno Bee. DeRuyter has yet to name a Week 1 starter.
"I feel that we’re doing pretty good, but we still have some improvements to [make]. We’re a week out and right now we’re still trying to fix some things so we can be ready by the time game day comes,"—Harper discussing the Bulldogs' new-look wide receiving corps with Daniel Leon of The Collegian.
Talking with Kuwada, linebacker Karl Mickelsen said the Bulldogs defense has taken considerable strides since it last met USC in December:
"I feel like this defense, we grew, we've clicked more than how we were last year because a lot of guys picked up the playbook, everybody knows what they're doing. Nobody is running around not knowing what they're doing."
Some faces are familiar, others are new, but the result Saturday should look an awful lot like the Las Vegas Bowl.
Sarkisian's tweaks may require some ironing out. Fortunately, Fresno State has its own changes being implemented in this first week.
And with this being Week 1, the Trojans are collectively the most fresh they will be all season. Few teams boast as much talent in their starting 11, whether on offense or defense. That talent disparity should be plainly evident Saturday.
Look for USC to jump ahead early and cruise to a lopsided win in Sarkisian's debut.
Prediction: USC 48, Fresno State 24
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com.