The popular sentiment across the college football landscape celebrates the purported demise of the USC Trojans. With the USC defense exposed as vulnerable last week in a win against Hawaii, the AP Poll dropped the Trojans two spots to No. 16.
While many experts predict for the Trojans a difficult game this week against the Virginia Cavaliers, five factors point to the opposite result – a dominating win by USC.
Home, Sweet Home
After the long, rough trip to Hawaii, the USC Trojans return to the welcoming confines of the Coliseum. While, last season, USC stumbled badly a few times in the Coliseum, over the past eight years, the Trojans have dominated home openers.
Since 2002, USC has opened its home season with an average margin of victory of nearly 32 points.
And the victories have come against both the great and the small, with four victories over BCS conference opponents, including two against the SEC, one against the Big 12 and one against the Big 10.
The highlights include a 35-3 drubbing of Ohio State, a convincing 28-10 victory over Nebraska, and a 70-17 massacre of Arkansas.
Only three times in the last eight home openers have the Trojans failed to win by at least three touchdowns – with two of those games coming against ranked opponents.
For whatever reason, the Trojans of recent history have brought their best effort to the home opener. This year should remain the same.
In a season where the whole sporting world seems to wish USC ill, the Trojans will find a large supportive crowd, eager to root for its team. If recent trends continue, expect USC to beat Virginia handily.
Return of two defensive starters – TJ Bryant & Nick Perry
Prior to the Hawaii game, commentators expected the USC defense to dominate. While the Trojan secondary lacked experience, it did not lack talent, and the USC front seven appeared poised to impose its will on opposing teams.
Meanwhile the offense remained a morass of questions – how would Barkley develop; who would emerge at running back to carry the load; could any receiver step up to carry the mantle of Williams, Jarrett and Smith?
While the offense answered these questions and more, the defense looked nothing like the unit that dominated preseason practices.
Hawaii moved the ball at will thru the air and on the ground. When asked to identify a defensive player who played well against Hawaii, Kiffin cited only one: Jurrell Casey.
This week, however, two talented and experienced players rejoin the squad after sitting out the season opener with injuries.
TJ Bryant, who started last year as the nickel back and was out with a fractured cheek bone, adds experience and athleticism to a shaky and thin secondary.
Against Hawaii, freshman Nickell Robey played “close to 95” plays on defense and special teams. This heavy workload, placed on a true freshman in his first college football game, partly explains the ease with which Hawaii beat the Trojan secondary late in the game. Tired players make mistakes.
With Bryant back on the field, the secondary will play smarter, faster and fresher.
Also rejoining the team, Nick Perry should bolster a pass rush that failed to consistently pressure the Hawaii quarterbacks.
Last year, Perry led the Trojans in sacks, recording eight, despite playing as a redshirt freshman back-up. In his absence, true freshman Christian Thomas saw about 15 snaps, but like most of the D-line failed to make an impact.
Armond Armstead Returns Inside
With the return of Perry, Armstead can return to the tackle spot he played last year. Armstead displayed so much quickness and burst in preseason practice, that coaches experimented with moving the 295-pounder outside to a defensive end spot.
With the emergence of DaJohn Harris at tackle, the move seemed to promise a defensive line loaded with size and speed.
But against Hawaii, Harris failed to impress. Hawaii running backs Green and Dimude averaged 7.3 and 10.2 yards per carry, respectively, and quarterbacks Moniz and Austin seemed to have an eternity to find open receivers.
Moved inside, Armstead’s strength and athleticism should allow the USC defense to more effectively control the line at the point of attack, as well as bolster the pass rush.
The move also reinforces the Trojan mantra of competition. Harris won the starting spot in the preseason, and now has lost it due to a poor performance. If he wants it back, he’ll have to earn it.
Compared to Hawaii, Virginia Employs a Traditional Offense More Suited to the Trojan Defense
Last week, against Richmond, the Cavaliers carried the ball 35 times and threw the ball 35 times, a balanced attack that features Keith Payne, a bruising 255-pound running back, and Marc Verica, a pro-style pocket passer. On the whole, Virginia gained nearly 500 yards and scored 34 points.
But despite an impressive performance against Richmond, the Virginia offense does not do the things that caused USC so much trouble against Hawaii.
Hawaii created problems in space for USC by spreading the field with four and five receiver sets, attacking an inexperienced USC secondary. With the Trojans on their heels and lined up so deep, Hawaii found opportunities for the occasionally effective run play. Seemingly, any run that got past the line was good for a big chunk of yardage.
In addition, quarterback Bryant Moniz repeatedly neutralized pressure with his superior mobility, scrambling for a gain or finding open targets in situations where less mobile QBs might have dumped the ball or taken a sack.
The Virginia offense, however, starts with the run and USC will key on it.
Against Hawaii, linebackers Devon Kennard and Chris Galippo often found themselves awkwardly covering receivers down field. However, against the Virginia “run-first” offense, the pair will use their speed and size to attack the run with aggression.
And since QB Verica lacks the mobility of Moniz, expect the revamped and replenished USC D-line to reach him early and often. In 2008, Verica took twelve sacks in nine starts. He also threw 16 interceptions against just eight touchdowns, so if USC can pressure Verica, expect the maligned Trojan secondary to pick the ball.
The USC offense doesn’t need any more weapons – but they will get one, nonetheless, and a great one.
Despite the tremendous performances of Matt Barkley, Marc Tyler and Ronald Johnson against Hawaii, head coach Lane Kiffin reiterated this week that Dillon Baxter might be the best player on the team.
Baxter, like Reggie Bush before him, presents a challenge that teams cannot game plan against. He can run, catch and throw. And when he gets the ball and is streaking down field, defenders often find themselves grasping at air.
Just as important, having never seen Baxter implemented in the Trojan offense, how can the Cavaliers prepare to defend him? After all, we’re talking about a running back who played quarterback as a senior in high school and threw 25 TDs against only seven picks.
And how hard do you think the other Trojan running backs will run knowing that Baxter can break any play for a touchdown? Do you think that Marc Tyler might run even harder to hold off the freshman?
With Baxter joining an already powerful Trojan offense, expect USC to score a bundle against the Virginia Cavaliers.