Idaho kicks off the 2015 season at home in the Kibbie Dome against Ohio University on Thursday, September 3rd (6:00pm Pacific kickoff). It will be the first trip to Moscow for the Bobcats in over 40 years, with the last meeting on the Palouse taking place September 16th, 1972 -- a game the Vandals won 17-14. Ohio has won the last two meetings, both in Athens, Ohio, including 2014's 36-24 Idaho loss to the Bobcats.
But we'll touch on that game more in the weeks ahead. For now the focus is on Idaho's trip to Los Angeles in the second game of the season (September 12th), a road trip at USC of the Pac-12 Conference.
The Trojan football team is loaded, with a Heisman Trophy candidate under center in Cody Kessler and volumes of talent surrounding him and on both sides of the ball. Idaho senior defensive end Quinton Bradley and the rest of the Vandal defense - undergoing a massive overhaul this off-season - will have their hands full trying to contain one of the most explosive offenses in the country.
To learn more about this Trojan team we connected with USC beat writer Michael Lev of the Orange County Register to get an insider's view into the team the Trojans will be fielding this fall. To read more of Michael's excellent work at the OC Register CLICK HERE to check out his USC blog.
We asked Michael five questions about this year's Trojan team, and he provided some insight into what to expect when the Vandals take the field at USC.
1) Senior Cody Kessler is Phil Steele’s chic pick to make a run at the Heisman this fall. Do you expect Kessler to be in the Heisman talks at the end of the season, and what are some of his strengths and weaknesses as a field general?
I do expect him to be in that conversation - if USC is in the College Football Playoff conversation. One won't happen without the other. You would have to have a ridiculously exceptional statistical season to stand out on a non-contending team, and it's especially difficult to do that with the monster numbers so many quarterbacks are posting these days. The top Heisman candidates invariably play for the top-ranked teams. If USC can sustain its preseason ranking (probably around No. 5) and Kessler stays healthy, he could be headed to New York in December.
As far as his strengths and weaknesses, he has decent size (he's actually taller than his listed 6-1) and above-average athletic ability. He does a very nice job of handling the ball in USC's offensive system, which, like so many others, features a lot of play-action and quick throws where you don't always have time to find the laces. Kessler improved his foot quickness and arm strength in spring. He doesn't have a howitzer, but his arm is good enough to make all the throws required of him. The coaches would like to see him make more anticipatory throws and take more chances down the field, especially when his receivers are in single-coverage situations.
2) Head coach Steve Sarkisian is entering his second season at the helm at USC. Do you like the direction he has the program headed, or are there still too many question marks about the program at this point? Will his team be motivated in a game against Idaho where the Trojans will be heavy favorites?
Unlike much of the fan base, which afforded Sarkisian absolutely zero margin for error, I think he was a good choice for this program. Sarkisian was here for much of the Pete Carroll glory days. Sark knows how to coach quarterbacks, and he knows how to recruit Southern California, which, as we all know, is among the most fertile recruiting ground in America. The question is how good of a coach he is on Saturdays. He had some good moments last year but also some bad ones, including come-from-ahead, fourth-quarter losses to Arizona State and Utah. He also got schooled by UCLA's Jim Mora. So there's still a lot to prove here.
I don't see motivation being a huge issue for the Idaho game. Sarkisian uses the Carroll philosophy that every week is a championship week. The narrative heading into the Idaho game will be all about the Trojans - how they can improve upon Week 1.
3) USC routinely hauls in recruiting classes ranked among the best in the nation. Who are some freshmen that are expected to come in and make some noise this fall?
Several experts proclaimed USC's 2015 class as the best in the nation. I think the most immediate impact will be felt in the secondary. Iman "Biggie" Marshall is expected to contribute immediately at cornerback. The long, rangy freshman should ascend to the No. 3 CB spot sooner than later, which could enable USC to move All-America candidate Adoree' Jackson to nickel in five-DB alignments. Freshman safeties Ykili Ross and Marvell Tell also will push for playing time at a position where there's really only one sure thing in sophomore John Plattenburg. I also expect two highly rated linebackers, Porter Gustin and Osa Masina, to have meaty roles as rotational defenders and special-teamers.
Two more newcomers to keep an eye on aren't freshmen but JC transfers. Receivers Isaac Whitney and De'Quan Hampton both stand around 6-foot-4, and they potentially give the USC offense a jump-ball, post-up dimension it has lacked in recent seasons.
4) USC loses some exceptional defensive talent with the losses of Leonard Williams, Hayes Pullard, and J.R. Tavai. Will the Trojan D need some time to fill the shoes of those three, or is the depth there for the defense to elevate itself immediately?
As strange as it sounds, I think USC's defense actually will be better despite the loss of Williams and the others you mentioned. Williams was a generational talent, and no single player can replace him. But the Trojans should have better depth in their front seven, enbabling them to use a committee approach to make up for Williams' absence. But the biggest reason I project improvement is that the players will be more familiar with defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's scheme. The defense seemed to play faster this spring after some major hiccups last year - in particular the poor communication that allowed ASU to beat USC on a game-ending Hail Mary.
The star of the defense is junior linebacker Su'a Cravens, who's essentially a safety-linebacker hyrbid. He lines up outside the tackle or in the slot and can be extremely disruptive penetrating the backfield or dropping into coverage. The aforementioned Jackson has first-round potential, and senior CB Kevon Seymour is just as good. Look for USC to play more man coverage this year as part of the overall effort to play faster and more aggressively.
5) Who do you see making headlines through the air and on the ground for the Trojans this fall? Are there up-and-comers in the program that will be new to the spotlight this fall? We’ve also heard the Trojans are loaded across the offensive line … are they vulnerable anywhere on this side of the ball?
There's really no reason, aside from injuries, that USC's offense won't be good. We've already mentioned Kessler. The entire offensive line returns intact, including, hopefully, left tackle Chad Wheeler, who's progressing well after missing the second half of last season because of a knee injury. Despite losing Nelson Agholor and George Farmer, the WR corps is loaded with rising sophomore Juju Smith and potential breakout star Steven Mitchell, a slippery redshirt-sophomore slot receiver. Buck Allen left big cleats to fill at running back, but junior Justin Davis is more than capable, and he'll have help from bruising senior Tre Madden (assuming he can stay healthy) and three incoming freshmen.
The only problem area is tight end, where USC lost promising downfield threat Bryce Dixon to off-the-field issues. Junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick was the only scholarship tight end in spring, and he's been dealing with academic and personal issues (he was academically ineligible last season). It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the top two tight ends at the end of training camp are incoming transfer Taylor McNamara (via Oklahoma) and freshman Tyler Petite. If he isn't getting what he wants from his tight ends, look for Sark to use more four-wide sets as an alternative.