Call it the Pete Carroll bowl.
Lane Kiffin vs. Steve Sarkisian.
Once upon a time these two guys were wide eyed 20-something year old former college quarterbacks getting their big coaching breaks. Both would develop under the tutelage of Norm Chow. Both would eventually also have the USC offense all to themselves.
Most importantly, both Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian used to spend a considerable amount of time together researching and dissecting ways to systematically break down opposing defenses. Surely, they also discussed about where they wanted to end up eventually when they got their own head coaching gigs. When you’re on the more favorable side of 30 years old and a football genius on a nationally prominent program, only good things can happen, right?
Now, with the father figure coach in the NFL they are now his legacy in the Pac-10 Conference. Sarkisian in his second year at Washington, Lane Kiffin in his first at USC after spending a year at Tennessee last season, will clash on Saturday in what could turn into one of the better coaching rivalries in college football.
As if that weren't enough to get excited for this match-up, according to Kiffin, this is also one of the match-ups his players are particularly fired up for, having circled it on the calendar as payback for last year’s 16-13 upset at Husky Stadium, which sent USC spiraling to a rather mundane 8-4 record.
Maybe some of the Husky upperclassmen circled this trip as well considering the last time they were in this building they got shellacked 56-0.
Then again, Lane Kiffin was in Rocky Top when Sark defeated his mentor last year, and Sark was allied with the men of Troy the last time Washington walked into the coliseum.
But we can also be real here. As fun as subplots and story lines are, the most important thing is what is at stake in the here and now.
Washington is coming off of their most embarrassing loss since Sarkisian took the reins of the program; Jake Locker, the worst performance of his collegiate career. They limp into Los Angeles with a 1-2 record, and in the most disappointing fashion possible. Plain and simple, the Dawgs have to go 5-4 in conference to become bowl eligible. They went 4-5 in Pac-10 play last year. This game is important because a win against USC to go to 2-2(1-0) would once again be an amazing boost, as it was last year. To go 1-3(0-1) would put Sark in an antsy position due to the gauntlet of games against even more ranked conference foes that lies ahead.
Without further ado, let’s delve into the match-up for the Huskies
What to expect from USC: Lane Kiffin is a bread basket coach. He will go to what works, and he will keep using what works until it doesn’t work, and then he’ll do something else. Right now what works for Kiffin is running the football, and running the football a lot. In his running back by committee system the Trojans have averaged six yards a carry thus far this season with four different backs receiving at least 20 carries and individually averaging no worse than 4.9 yards a carry. Marc Tyler and Allen Bradford have been the two main backs in the system, with CJ Gable and the explosive Dillon Baxter working their way into the mix after. Stanley Havili also crashed the party last week in Pullman with five carries for 87 yards including a 59 yard touchdown. Quarterback Matt Barkley isn’t quite an afterthought in the offense, but has been relied on less than his freshman year, and is still a work in progress. Barkeley is still keen on going down the field, and not keen on the check down.
Defensively is where the Trojans aren’t as recognizable as they’ve been in years past. The bend but don’t break, Tampa Two, have a safety play Center Field just to make sure nothing gets deep, defense has been there all decade. The only difference is that the Trojans have had the talent, speed and athletes to be able to run that base defense and be able to make plays without necessarily having to bend. This year, they have. USC has surrendered 390 yards a game through four contests, including 282 in the air. What’s concerning for USC fans is the schedule they’ve played. Hawaii, Virginia, Minnesota and Washington State have all found success, moving the ball at least. USC’s scoring defense is still at only 21 a game, so it’s shown that they’ve been able to make plays when it matters the most and keep opponents who drive down the field to field goals instead of touchdowns.
What Washington needs to do to win: Possess the football. Not as if Locker’s performance two weeks ago at Husky Stadium wasn’t enough motivation for him to hold onto the football. Washington should be afraid of USC’s running game, and should be afraid of how they will get the football back whenever USC has it. It could either be big running plays like Nebraska had a few weeks ago, or a methodical drive that eats time off the clock. Basically, USC is going to score when they get the ball , so the less possessions the Trojans get, the better for UW. The best counter is for Washington to keep that offense on the sidelines. Chris Polk has been a consistent inside and out runner and should be able to steadily gain four or five yards a carry, while Locker is too good a player to have two straight performances as bad as his last game. Locker needs to be patient and scan the field, taking what the defense is giving him, and that includes tucking it when it’s there, even for marginal four or five yard gains. His problem against Nebraska was forcing it. One read, and the ball was out of his hands. Especially the first interception on a play action deep route. Locker knew where the ball was going before he even faked the hand off. That kind of impulsive passing will get him in trouble in Los Angeles. Defensively the Huskies will be over matched, but making fundamental tackles and preventing demoralizing big plays will be the most important. The Trojans have given the ball away eight times this season, including twice last week, so by preventing big plays, Washington will be giving themselves a chance at maybe getting some big take aways.
Final analysis: Washington probably has the best set of skill position players that USC has seen all year, and Jake Locker is certainly the best quarterback that USC has seen thus far this season. Add that into the fact that USC has yet to get on track defensively, it seems like the perfect situation for Locker, especially coming off of a bye, to turn a lot of his doubters back into believers and get back into a comfort zone passing the football. How Washington chooses to play offensively will also tell us a lot about Steve Sarkisian. Stubborn and Conservative to a fault, he has to realize that a loss would be crippling and that nothing less than desperate football needs to be played by Washington. Even, wreck less football. What better quarterback to have for that kind of football than the one he has under center right now.
Prediction: USC 31 Washington 23 – Washington will play their best game of the year, but, it won’t be enough as talent will win out. USC has Washington where they want them in the trenches, and when push comes to shove the Huskies won’t be able to get critical stops, while USC’s defense will stand firm in critical situations forcing Washington into FG situations instead of TD drives.
For Washington Huskies coverage all year, including reactions to this game, go to http://www.nasorb.com/
Also check out how I previewed Washington's victory over Syracuse