Wednesday, June 11, 2008
As a younger Coug fan, I used to hate USC. I really did. Back in the mid-to-late 90's, they seemed to have a bunch of talented-yet-unmotivated kids who seemingly always underachieved on the field and loved to pop off about how great they were. But today, well, not so much. I'm not fair-weather, and I wouldn't count myself as an SC fan, but something is different about them. Maybe it's because I find it hard not to be in awe of what USC has going on. All those wins and Heisman trophies over the last several years, right the center of the celebrity universe that is LA. And maybe it's something about representing the Pac-10 on the national level and kicking the crap out of teams from all corners of the country, just to show that we can play this game out here?
I've got it. It must be Pete Carroll. Arrogant, sure. Emotional? Absolutely. A hell of a recruiter? Check. A guy that not only can recruit the five-star talent, but keep them hungry and motivated at the same time? A guy who keeps things loose with practical jokes, yet isn't afraid to have "open Wednesdays" where all starting positions are considered available for the taking at practice and the players go after it with all they've got? Somehow this guy gets the superstars to "buy in" to the USC way. And he has fun with the whole thing. I mean what other Pac-10 coach can go swimming with Will Ferrell?
That's Pete Carroll.
Oh by the way....beyond the glitz and the glamour and the bull that goes with being the head man in the biggest football show in town, Carroll is now an unreal 76-14 in 7 years at SC. We got excited about three straight 10-win seasons, and rightly so. But these guys have AVERAGED a 10-2 record under Pete Carroll over the last 7 years. That is unbelievable. "High School Harry", Carroll's nickname given to him by former players from his NFL days as being an emotional rah-rah guy, is just a perfect guy in the right situation.
Ok, so that's settled. I dig Pete Carroll. Now where was I? Oh yeah, spring football. On the field, a lot of NFL talent has fled LA-LA land after another 11-win, BCS bowl winning season in '07. What do they have left this year? Let's take a look at their post-spring state and see what's up.
2007: 11-2, Rose Bowl Champs featuring a 49-17 beat-down of Illinois. Ho-hum.
Offensive Scheme: Traditional in an NFL sense, they are very much a pro set/west coast offense hybrid. Lots of snaps under center by the QB and they often have two backs and a tight end on the field. Steve Sarkisian is the OC and has been in place since Norm Chow bolted for Tennessee (and now back to UCLA). Sarkisian is a hot head coaching candidate, and nearly had the Oakland Raiders job prior to 2007. But USC is still somewhat similar to the USC of old, where they were tailback-U. They were balanced last year, averaging almost 200 rushing yards per game (197) and 237 yards passing. The bad news in trojan-land is that only four starters are projected back for '08. The Trojans lose QB John David Booty, as well as tight-end Fred Davis and four-fifths of the starting O-line. Big shoes to fill, yes. But nobody reloads like these guys, where their depth are four-five star kids who have dreamed of playing in the Coliseum forever. It's not like they are everyone else in the conference (and particularly up here) where a few key injuries and you are toast. And about that O-line. Sure, four starters are gone. But that number is misleading to an extent. Several starters from USC's O-line last year missed time with injuries, so young linemen that are now atop the depth chart this season actually saw game action last year. So it's not exactly as dire as it might sound.
Top Offensive Player: Joe McKnight. The true sophomore had as much hype as any true frosh heading into last season, and McKnight was thought of as a comparable talent to Reggie Bush. In hindsight, it was a little too much. McKnight did show flashes of brilliance, and you can see why everyone was ga-ga for him coming out as the #1 or #2 running back in the nation in the '07 signing class. He did log 540 yards rushing and 3 TD's, not bad for a true frosh in a crowded backfield. And the kid absolutely DESTROYED Illinois in the Rose Bowl, racking up 206 total yards of offense alone. He's not exactly Reggie Bush, and he might not even have been the fastest frosh in the conference last year (Jahvid Best of Cal?). But he is pretty special and looks to have a monster year in '08.
Defensive Scheme: A fairly vanilla 4-3 under d-coordinator Nick Holt. But while Carroll may have the d-coordinator in Holt on the staff, his fingerprints are all over the defense. Carroll's bloodlines run deep with defense, and it shows with USC. They don't bring the house too often, because they really don't need to. Last year especially with D-tackle Sedrick Ellis and D-end Lawrence Jackson, as well as a ton of other depth up front, they got more than enough out of the D-line. They will blitz, but it isn't a staple of what they do.
But oh, what a defense. Number-two in the nation in both scoring defense and total defense last year. And their linebackers? Unbelievably good, with all-everything candidates in Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing. Both guys have Rose Bowl defensive MVP awards under their belts. But the linebackers might not even be the best unit on the defense. The secondary is lights-out, led by Taylor Mays at free safety, a 6-4, 225 lb freak who looks like an NFL outside linebacker. Coming into '08, as a unit they look to be as big, physical and as talented as any group you can find, this year or any other year for that matter. The secondary only gave up nine TD passes on the season, tops in the conference and almost half of what the number-two defense gave up through the air last year. That's simply dominant.
Top Defensive Player: You could probably argue this one, but I'm going with the absolute monster in the middle, Rey Maualuga. 6-3, 250, eats lightning, craps thunder, your basic nightmare. He led a deep defense last year with 79 tackles, 10.5 for loss, with six sacks. And a TON of frightening hits over the last couple of years. Yeah, you basically don't "F" with Rey.
Gary Rogers, if you see #58 coming at you with a full head of steam, get the heck out of the way ASAP. You don't want to join the "hit list".
Top Spring Questions:
1) The offense only has four starters back, and they lose Booty. Will the new QB, whoever that is, be good enough?
While there was a competition to replace Booty, the leader coming into the spring was the leader coming out of the spring. Mark Sanchez (pictured) will be the starter, holding off Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain for the starting gig. Sanchez actually played a few games last year as Booty went down with a broken finger, and did OK. Not great, but not terrible. He did complete over 60% of his passes with 7 TD's against 5 INT's. But this year is a whole new deal. It will be interesting to see how long a leash Sarkisian and Carroll have for Sanchez. Carroll especially isn't one that will hide from an obvious QB controversy, so if Sanchez gets off to a slow start, you can bet Mustain will get a legit chance to play.
2) The defense sounds great, but can they really fill the shoes of the stars they lost?
That's the one thing. Sure, they have 7 starters back, and they look like they will be a great defense. But they did lose some real leadership in Sedrick Ellis, Lawrence Jackson and Keith Rivers, all three guys first-day NFL draft picks. Jackson was really special last year, with 17 tackles-for-loss last year including 10.5 sacks, and character that was off-the-charts. You usually don't see Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell making trades to get a player unless it's a guy like Jackson. Ellis was pretty amazing himself as a d-tackle, with 12.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. That's a lot of production to lose off your d-line. But if any team can deal with it, it's USC. They will look more to heralded sophomore Everson Griffen to replace Jackson off the edge, and hyped senior d-tackle Fili Moala will need to step up his game to offset the loss of Ellis inside. That said, when you have so much coming back at all the other spots on defense, you know that they'll figure something out!
WSU Football Blog Says: USC is playing their usual tough schedule, opening up at Virginia before hosting Ohio State on 9/13 in what will be billed as the top out-of-conference game in the nation in '08. Whoever wins that one will likely be looked upon as having a major edge in the race to the Orange Bowl, this year's BCS title game. But beyond Ohio State, the early schedule is a little prickly to say the least. After the Buckeyes, they must go to Corvallis on 9/25, then they host Oregon on 10/4 and ASU on 10/11 before they make the trek to Pullman on 10/18. You can easily argue that Oregon and ASU will be upper-division Pac-10 teams this year, and Oregon State will at least flirt with bowl-eligibility. New QB Sanchez is getting tossed right into the deep end of the pool, so we will find out quickly what he's got.
On the bright side, our recent history isn't all too shabby in Pullman vs. these guys. In '06 we played them tough until we forgot to cover Steve Smith on pretty much every 3rd down(!), losing 28-22. In '04 we were blown out in that horrible sleet/rain/snow game that saw Doba order an onside kick to start the game, only to see it sail about 15 yards out of bounds. Reggie Bush took one to the house a few plays later and that baby was bathed, diapered and put to bed about 3 minutes into the first quarter. But we all will remember that 2002 classic, the game that ultimately decided the Pac-10 title. Remember Rien Long?
He might have clinched the Outland trophy on that game alone. Or Gesser throwing for all those yards despite being under pressure the entire game? Or Carson Palmer hitting Mike Williams over a lunging Marcus Trufant on a deep TD with a few minutes to go in a moment that seemed to suck the life out of Martin Stadium? Or Drew Dunning having the late field goal partially blocked, only to somehow have the football "gods" blow that thing back between the uprights?? On that kick, I still remember some of the USC players briefly celebrating after the thud of someone getting a hand on the ball, thinking the kick wasn't going to make it. But somehow, it squirted through. But most of all, I will always remember Long in that game. He absolutely blew up the Trojans in that OT session, where he had a tackle-for-loss and a sack, single-handedly knocking USC out of field goal range. God Bless you, Captain Caveman!
It will be a tall task this year, obviously. But here's hoping for a mid-October classic in Pullman.