USC Football 2011: Previewing the Minnesota Golden Gophers Game
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The USC Trojans, ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press (AP) poll, kick off their season with the Big Ten’s Minnesota Golden Gophers on September 3 at 12:30 p.m. in the L.A. Coliseum. Yes, fans, the college football season is finally here.
As a warm-up to this game, let’s review the strengths and weaknesses of each team’s offense, defense and special teams. Then we can predict the final score.
Minnesota has a new head football coach and his longtime staff. Head coach Jerry Kill was very successful at Northern Illinois.
Kill had his fair share of upsets and played the big boys tough with a lot less than he will have at Minnesota, including a $300M stadium to sell to recruits. However, coming off a 3-9 year, the new coaches have their work cut out for them.
USC’s coaching staff is in their second year except for the addition of WR coach Ted Gilmore from Nebraska this year.
Last season was pretty crazy for the Trojans with the NCAA sanctions, new coaching staff, shortage of scholarship players and an 8-5 record that was nine seconds from 11-2.
However, Trojan fans expect an improved team and anything less than a 9-3 record will be a disappointment even though the schedule is difficult. The team wants to win every game, one at a time.
First games are difficult to predict because it is hard to simulate game speed in practice, and USC has not practiced much against a spread offense.
Here are both team's strengths and weaknesses, and the game prediction.
Receiver now QB MarQueis Gray scores TD in 2010
Minnesota returns six starters from last year’s offense that ranked 89th in the nation in scoring and 10th in overall offense in the Big Ten.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover is one of seven assistants who have spent 10 years or more on Kill's staff. Limegrover believes in a physical, run-first style at every stop. But, Minnesota appears ready to run a similar offense to the varied, multiple-set look that Northern Illinois did a season ago.
The Golden Gophers offense will depend on the development of new QB MarQueis Gray, who was a receiver last season with 42 catches for 587 yards and five TDs. He is a gifted athlete and USC has had a difficult time with this type of QB in the past.
Minnesota will play a spread option, which is something that USC has not practiced against in either the spring or fall camp except very recently.
WR Da’Jon McNight has the talent to be an All-Big Ten receiver if he can get the ball consistently. Brandon Green also returns this season and could do some damage if McNight is covered.
Coach Kill will likely rely on Gray’s ability to run the football together with preseason Doak Walker Award watch list RB Duane Bennett to take some pressure off the passing game.
However, the OL only returns two starters. So the coaching staff may believe that Gray gives them the best chance to escape bad situations and maybe break a few plays.
During the Golden Gophers' first scrimmage on August 20 there were a lot of turnovers. That could be a big problem for them if not corrected, especially from an aggressive defense like the one the Trojans will bring.
Junior third year starting QB Matt Barkley leads the USC offense
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USC returns six starters, although senior RB Marc Tyler is suspended for at least the first game. Last year the Trojans were 41st in passing yards, 25th in rushing and 37th in points scored after falling off later in the season due to depth issues.
However, there is a lot more talent as discussed in the predicted starting offense.
The Trojans have so many good RBs that Lane Kiffin is having trouble creating a depth chart. Besides Tyler, these include sophomore Dillon Baxter, freshman Amir Carlisle, redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan and redshirt junior Curtis McNeal.
Any team would love to have the USC receivers. Besides Freshman All-American Woods and TE/FB Ellison, redshirt senior Brandon Carswell and fall camp breakout freshman Marqise Lee are outstanding. Less consistent but very talented redshirt freshmen 6’5” Kyle Prater and 6’4” junior Brice Butler add depth to the receiving corps and give Kiffin many options.
The offensive line is rebuilding but Kalil, Holmes and Kevin Graf are very good. It appears that John Martinez has won the right guard position, but left guard has not been settled because Abe Markowitz has a foot injury and no one else has stepped up yet.
Barkley is one of the best QBs in the nation and is looking for a better junior year consistent with his Top 10 NFL pre-draft rankings. The only thing that may hold him back is the OL helping to establish the running game and giving him enough time to find the talented receivers.
USC has a huge offensive advantage over Minnesota.
Minnesota DE D. L. Wilhite tackles Ohio State Terrell Pryor in 2010
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The Gophers were 98th in scoring defense, 98th against the run and 76th overall in stopping people last season.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys brings an attacking style with him. The defense returns six of their front seven starters. Claeys is looking to make the biggest impact is at Minnesota's deepest position, linebacker. All eight linebackers who recorded a tackle in 2010 are back.
Junior DE D. L. Wilhite must have a breakout year to put pressure on the passing game, and former Florida Gator MLB Brendan Beal may be the best backer along with last season’s leading tackler LB Gary Tinsley. Both LBs will need to blitz a lot more.
If the DL does not play better than last season, there is no hope for the Golden Gophers' season.
You can expect Minnesota to blitz, blitz, and likely blitz some more to try to stop Matt Barkley's passing attack. They coaches will likely be sending players from all over the field in hopes of putting Barkley on his back. The linebacker corps all have very good speed and should spend some time in the backfield and several d-backs may blitz also.
USC Safety T. J. McDonald is a leader of the defense and stops Minnesota RB in 2010 game
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USC’s defense was an embarrassment last season and the worst in memory. Lack of depth was a huge problem and the defense typically wore down in the late third and fourth quarters.
Assistant head coach Monte Kiffin’s complicated defensive schemes created problems, but he has simplified them for this season and the Trojan defense seemed much faster in fall camp.
USC returns seven starters, however several players have changed positions or may not start in 2011. The USC defense two-deep is significantly improved this year in all positions as discussed in the predicted defense starting lineup.
The USC defense is led by redshirt junior DE Nick Perry, redshirt junior DE Wes Horton, junior DE Devon Kennard, redshirt senior DT Christian Tupou, senior DT DaJohn Harris, senior MLB Chris Galippo (sprained shoulder so freshman Lamar Dawson may start), sophomore CB Nickell Robey and junior safety T.J. McDonald.
Senior DT Armond Armstead, a starter last season, may receive medical clearance this week and that makes the DL even better and deeper.
Unlike 2010, the Trojans will be able to platoon their defensive linemen and defensive backs to keep them from tiring towards the end of the game. The USC defense is determined not to give up points from two minute drills or in the fourth quarter like last year.
USC may have some initial difficulties with the spread offense, but the Trojans' speed and aggressiveness including potential for turnovers will soon compensate and shut down the Golden Gophers' offense.
As long as the DL can keep relentless pressure while maintaining containment, the spread can be neutralized as B/R Contributor Michael Tierney discussed in USC Football: A Primer on How They Should Defend vs. Minnesota's Spread Option.
The only real weakness in the Trojan defense is lack of experience by some players, and perhaps the injury to senior Galippo at MLB although freshman Dawson is very good, just inexperienced.
Dawson was awarded the revered No. 55 (worn by former Trojan Junior Seau, Chris Claiborne, Willie McGinnest and Keith Rivers) before his arrival this summer and has done nothing to disappoint. It is a lot to ask of a true freshman but the coaches believe he can do it. We may get to see him on September 3, although Galippo returned to practice today and said he was ready to go.
USC has a huge defensive advantage over Minnesota.
Minnesota Special Teams
The dazzling 5-10, 195-pound cornerback-special teams whiz Troy Soudemire needs just 190 more yards to break the NCAA career kick-return record of 3,118. Last year he had a 90-yarder against Illinois.
Minnesota has to improve in special teams which played poorly in 2010.
Kicker Chris Hawthorne transferred from NC State and should be an improvement.
Returning punter Dan Oreske averaged just 36.1 yards per boot in 2010. He did drop 15 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard-line. He has a strong leg and needs to be coached up.
Troy Stoudemire is excellent at kick returns and needs just 190 more yards to break the NCAA career kick-return record of 3,118 yards.
USC Special Teams
USC WR Robert Woods scores 97-yard kickoff TD against Minnesota in 2010
USC has a better special teams group in 2011 even though 2010 was also excellent except for FG distance kicking. The Trojans have perhaps the best special teams coach in the country in Assistant Head Coach John Baxter.
Redshirt junior transfer walk-on punter Kyle Negrete won a spirited punting competition with freshman Kris Albarado. Both kicked very well but the nod went to the more senior player to allow Albarado to redshirt and give USC outstanding punting for five years.
Freshman Andre Heidari is the placekicker who will also handle kickoffs. He did outstanding during fall camp hitting a 48 and two 46-yard FGs in scrimmages and making all other attempts.
USC has a significant special teams advantage over Minnesota.
Los Angeles Coliseum, home of the USC Trojans
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The current betting shows USC is a 21-point favorite with an over/under of 51. That means the betting community expects a score of 36-15.
Both teams have so many unknowns that it is hard to predict the final score; however the Trojans are playing at the Coliseum with a lot to prove this season.
Fellow B/R Featured Columnist Rick McMahan wrote an excellent article about the 10 things you need to know about Minnesota earlier today.
The Golden Gophers can play jacked up and keep it close early. But at some point Woods, Butler, Lee, etc. are going to be wide open. If any of those guys get the ball in the open field it is a potential 50-yard play.
Turnovers and penalties kept last season's meeting close into the fourth quarter. If USC avoids them and forces Gray into a situation where he has to throw the ball downfield earlier and more often, the Gophers will not be close late in the game again.
This may be a good game to bet on because the Trojans should beat the odds. Expect USC to score big and play good defense.
Final Score: USC 45 - Minnesota 14
P.S. Congratulations to junior quarterback Matt Barkley, senior tight end Rhett Ellison, senior defensive tackle Christian Tupou and junior safety T.J. McDonald for being selected team captains today by the other players.