Know Your Foe: USC

USC may have entered the season with some question marks but thus far in the 2011 season are undefeated. Are the Trojans as good as the 3-0 record indicates? What are some the strengths and weaknesses of this squad? Devils Digest invited SCPlaybook.com Publisher Dan Greenspan to answer those questions and others by ASU fans on the Sun Devils' next opponent.

The first two wins for USC were very close affairs, but the Syracuse win was obviously a different story. Is the feeling among the Trojans that the team has really cleaned up its early season issues and now is truly playing at a high level or will the ASU game really prove that theory?

After so many last-second defeats a year ago, USC is ecstatic to take any win it can get in those situations. But the energy is definitely more upbeat coming off a thrashing of the Orange, with so many freshmen and redshirt freshmen contributing at a high level.

That would lead one to presume they are hitting their stride, but those same newcomers have yet to face the rigors of playing on the road. How will the offensive line handle crowd noise? Can the defensive back seven handle a prolific spread offense?

Much as it is for Arizona State, the Trojans will see for the first time where they truly fit into the conference hierarchy. Win in Tempe and head coach Lane Kiffin will have defeated two of their three top challengers in the Pac-12 South and host the other in Arizona the following week. Lose and run the risk of losing motivation without a bowl game, staring at another mediocre 8-4 season.

Can you talk about the play of QB Matt Barkley and his development from last year?

Matt Barkley is coming off the best three-game stretch in his college career, completing 69 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns against one interception. His deep ball more accurate and he is no longer phased as a third-year starter, but the biggest difference is in his decision-making.

Whereas in years past he might have forced balls recklessly into coverage resulting in interceptions, now he is taking what defenses are giving him. With Robert Woods dictating coverage, there is plenty for Barkley to take.

Go one-on-one with Woods, Barkley has no problem throwing to him time and again. The sophomore receiver has 33 receptions through three games, best in the nation.

Use a safety to double-team Woods as Syracuse did, Barkley spreads the ball around to seven other receivers.

If USC returns to the elite this season with double-digit wins, it will be because Barkley has turned in a season on par with his remarkable predecessors Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez.

Robert Woods is probably the best WR in the conference. What in your opinion makes him so special?

For all his athletic gifts, what sets Robert Woods apart from a tremendous crop of wide receivers in the Pac-12 is his unparalleled work ethic. Doesn't matter if he has a sprained ankle or swollen elbow, he gives his all every day in practice. He worked intently with Matt Barkley in the summer to improve their timing.

His route running is even more precise than it was a year ago, but when in doubt he can flat out outrun people. Woods might not put up the gaudy numbers of a Mike Williams or Dwayne Jarrett, but he is the best receiver the Trojans have had since their renaissance began in 2002.

With such an inexperienced OL has this group played as well as people expected them too? Do you feel that the first road game of the year may truly test this unit more than any other USC unit?

The outcome of Saturday's game will almost certainly hinge on the performance of the offensive line. They struggled out of the gate with the running game only getting on track after redshirt senior running back Marc Tyler returned from suspension with 113 yards against Utah. Syracuse kept the ground attack bottled up for three quarters, but the protection for Matt Barkley has been terrific. He has only been sacked twice in three games, one coming in the final moments against the Orange amid complete confusion regarding the call.

Both tackles are solid, with future high first-round pick Matt Kalil anchoring the left side, but the interior is inexperienced and will be challenged. Freshman Marcus Martin from nearby Los Angeles (Calif.) Crenshaw is expected to start for the second straight week.

It appears that the defense has been very consistent thus far for USC. Can you talk about the strengths of this group and some of its key players?

Through the first quarter of the season, the USC defense has been solid. The criticism is the lack of game-changing plays, fumbles and interceptions, even with a pass rush generating three sacks per game.

The front seven has been terrific, starting in the trenches with defensive tackle DaJohn Harris. Hardly mentioned during fall camp, the redshirt senior has 3.5 tackles for loss, half a sack and three passes broken up as part of a sound three-man rotation. Defensive end Nick Perry might be the best athlete USC has regardless of position and looks like a future first-round draft pick.

At linebacker, a pair of redshirt freshmen, Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey, has been a revelation. Bailey is a converted safety and hasn't yet had the chance to show off his athleticism in space. That should change against the Arizona State spread offense.

Can you talk about the reasons for the relative lack of offensive production in the 4th quarter and how much of a concern has it been this season?

With an inexperienced offensive line and young skill players aside from Robert Woods, much of that ineffective late-game play can be attributed to simple growing pains.

Unfortunately, those turnovers, penalties and breakdowns put the defense and special teams in positions where they had to make plays late against the Golden Gophers and Utes.

Lane Kiffin's hope is that by throwing the likes of freshman receiver Marqise Lee and redshirt freshmen tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer out there early, they will have worked through those mistakes by the time they hit the heart of the season. Given both teams' penchant for close games, it will be tested this week.

What aspect of ASU, on either side of the ball, is a cause of concern for USC?

Led by Brock Osweiler, the Arizona State passing offense will be the best the Trojans have faced this season by far. The secondary fared okay against the meager aerial attacks of Minnesota and Utah and eventually put the clamps on Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib.

Still, given the historically poor performance they turned in a year ago, until USC proves it can tackle and avoid giving up explosive plays to the elite offenses in the conference, their pass defense remains an unknown.

With the scholarship sanctions levied on USC some are baffled how they could sign 26 players in their 2011 recruiting class. What does that mean for the 2012 class and how many players can USC truly sign this cycle and still comply with the NCAA sanctions?

The Trojans actually added 29 players – they signed 31, but one did not qualify academically and another delayed enrollment after an injury – by exploiting a loophole to count mid-year enrollees against the previous recruiting class.

Given the early returns from wide receiver Marqise Lee, kicker Andre Heidari and offensive linemen Marcus Martin and Aundrey Walker and improved depth in practice, it looks like a gamble that has paid off.

USC is now limited to signing 15 players in each of the next three recruiting cycles and cannot have more than 75 players on scholarship in that span. However, with the usual attrition of transfers and players leaving for the NFL early, they should be able to sign a full class of 15 in 2012, as well as add another three players as early enrollees, the last time they can capitalize on that exception.

With all the talk over Texas and Oklahoma possibly joining the Pac-12 are USC and its fans worried about having two national powerhouses join their league?

Without knowing exactly how the Pac-14 (or 16) would be split, be it the old Pac-8 and everyone else or some sort of four-team pod system, USC fans seem excited by the prospect.

Obviously it creates more competition for Los Angeles recruits – Oklahoma struck gold with Encinitas (Calif.) La Costa Canyon wide receiver Kenny Stills and Chula Vista (Calif.) Eastlake safety Tony Jefferson – but USC will always be on the short list for those players.

There will be even more money and even more national exposure available to the Trojans. It seems like a win-win proposition.

If anything, schools like Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon State and Utah might be the ones with a vested interest in keeping the conference at 12 members.

What do you think are the keys for the Trojans to win on Saturday?

First and foremost, USC needs to protect Matt Barkley and give him time to make plays. The strength of this offense, and really this entire team, is his ability to distribute the ball to Robert Woods in single coverage and to everyone else when Woods draws double coverage.

Given that Arizona State is blitzing Vontaze Burfict more this season, right guard John Martinez and left guard Marcus Martin will be seriously tested. They must be at their best in their first road game as starters and center Khaled Holmes has to be on top of his calls and communicate well in a hostile environment.

On defense, the Trojans must force turnovers. They have just two fumble recoveries and one interception in three games. The challenge will be pressuring Brock Osweiler into mistakes and negating the quick passing game without blitzing, requiring standout performances from defensive ends Nick Perry, Wes Horton and Devon Kennard.

Finally, they must continue to excel on special teams. Former Fresno State assistant John Baxter has lived up to his billing as a guru, engineering one of the great turnarounds. Even after giving up a 100-yard kick return touchdown to LeQuan Lewis in last season's meeting, USC still came up with the critical play as first-round pick Tyron Smith blocked a late extra point and corner Torin Harris returned it the other way for two in a 34-33 win.

The Sun Devils were a mess against Illinois on special teams. Baxter needs to push the advantage again.


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