2005 Look Ahead: USC

Nobody talks about the Pac-10 these days without a deep discussion of the USC McTrojans. Like their fast food restaurant counterpart, the McTrojans have donned the same uniforms for years, are bad for you and are seemingly on the verge of taking over the world. USC seeks this fall to further their goal of hegemonic global domination with a bid for a third straight national championship.

Southern California Trojans

First Down: Quick Hitters

Stanford @ USC - November 19

Last Meeting: USC 31, Stanford 28 ('04)

Side-by-Side Stats: (USC/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 8/10
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game: 177/81
2004 Passing Yards Per Game: 272/246
Returning Defensive Starters: 4/5
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 79/143
2004 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 200/249
2004 Record: 13-0/4-7
Vegas' Predicted 2005 Record: 11-1/4-7

Second Down: Offense

Talk of USC being vulnerable offensively with the departure of former offensive coordinator Norm Chow to the Tennessee Titans is absolutely laughable.  Consider: barring injury, the entire offensive starting 11 should be receiving paychecks from the NFL within the next few years.  The vast majority of those starters were top-10 recruits at their position out of high school, and they have all produced in college, providing head coach Pete Carroll with nearly 40 points per game over the last two seasons.  In fact, despite facing some of the toughest defenses in the country in its last 34 contests (Auburn, Virginia Tech, California, Michigan, Oklahoma), USC has scored at least 28 points in all but three of those games.  The scary part is that this year's offense looks to be Carroll's best yet.

Quarterback is a guy named Matt Leinart, last year's Heisman Trophy winner who turned down the millions of dollars as the NFL's #1 overall draft pick in order to return for his senior season (and coursework consisting entirely of a ballroom dancing class).  When Leinart is drafted by some 2-14 pro team next year, he will probably bemoan the lack of talent that surrounds him in San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit or Miami relative to what he has this season in L.A.

Leinart hands off to either Reggie Bush or LenDale White, who have combined for approximately 5,000 all-purpose yards in their careers as Trojans.  Last year, White typically ran over defenders while Bush ran around defenders as "thunder" and "lightning" complements.  Reports out of L.A. this summer state that White has slimmed down slightly while Bush has added bulk, perhaps to prove to the NFL that he can handle an every-down load.  Trojan fans hope that the duo's new bodies will allow them to continue excelling like they have in seasons past.

The receiving corps appeared to be the Trojans' weakness last season after Mike Williams' ill-fated early entry attempt to the NFL left him ineligible and the Trojans without a returning starter.  Enter Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett, who combined for 19 touchdowns and over 1,500 yards.  Bush has incredibly soft hands and wide receiver speed, and Carroll has often lined him up in the slot as a wide receiver to bust games open.  Bush scored all three Trojan touchdowns in a tough season opener versus Virginia Tech and finished the season with 509 receiving yards and 7 scores.  Dominique Byrd is one of the best tight ends in a conference loaded with All-American-caliber tight ends, and he returns for his senior season after nearly 400 receiving yards last year.

Providing the Trojans with enough time to ignite all their offensive fireworks is an offensive line that figures to improve immensely from last season.  After earning All-Pac-10 recognition in 2003, right tackle Winston Justice redshirted last season due to a team suspension.  Justice returns this year more focused upon football, and he looked as dominant as ever in fall ball.  Justice's return moves last year's left tackle Taitusi Lutui to left guard, which in turn means that every starter on the offensive line has already started a full season under Pete Carroll.  Offensive line is the position on the field where experience and familiarity with teammates matter the most, so with every starting lineman a returner, the Trojan front five should be simply phenomenal.

In fact, save left guard John Drake, almost every significant player on the offense returns from last year's squad that averaged 449 yards per game, 4.7 yards per carry and a 66% pass completion rate.  Sophomore Jeff Byers, who earned starts at guard as a true freshman in 2004, is the one unexpected loss this fall; he is out for the season following hip problems and surgery.  With no stellar defenses on the schedule, it's conceivable the Trojans could hit at least 35 or 40 points every game this season.

Third Down: Defense

Don't engrave the Rose Bowl trophy just yet.  While the defense is easily among the top five or 10 in the country, losses in the front seven could keep it from being the All-World force it has been the last three seasons.

In 1999-2001, the Trojans were the USC of old, faring a combined 18-19.  In 2002-2004, USC has transformed into a dynastic force, posting a 36-3 record.  In most categories, the statistics are remarkably comparable in the two different eras: passing and rushing yards have improved only slightly, turnovers are flat, and, if anything, the pass defense has actually weakened in recent years.  Above all else then, one area is responsible for USC's dominance, and no football fantatic will be shocked to learn USC's ability to stuff the run has propelled them to consecutive once-in-a-lifetime seasons.

In 1999-2001, USC allowed over 130 rushing yards per game, a solid but not spectacular number that prevented them from clawing their way to the top.  In the last three years, however, the Trojan defensive wall has allowed 74 yards per game, nearly a 200% improvement powered by the likes of Shaun Cody, Frostee Rucker and Mike Patterson in 2004.  Equally as important, USC's defensive rush led the nation with 50 sacks last season.

This year, Rucker and Lawrence Jackson return as defensive ends but All-American defensive tackles Cody and Patterson depart.  The task of filling that 600-pound hole falls upon Sedrick Ellis and LaJuan Ramsey, who have combined for just 11 tackles as Trojans.  While both were highly recruited out of high school, and plenty of talent sits behind the duo on the bench, if there's any weakness on the Trojan roster, this is the first line of it.

Compounding the task of replacing two All-American defensive tackless is the departure of two all-star linebackers.  Matt Grootegoed, a First-Team All-American, and Lofa Tatupu, the Seattle Seahawks' second-round draft choice, make way for the unproven Keith Rivers and Oscar Lua, who have combined for only 38 tackles as Trojans.  Strongside linebacker Dallas Sartz returns for his senior season after All Pac-10 recognition last season, and he will be asked to carry much of the load formerly shouldered by the All-Americans that surrounded him.  While I can find only four major holes on this team, the fact that they compose the entire heart of the defense gives me pause in automatically crowning USC national champions before the season starts.  Realistically, Stanford shouldn't be able to exploit this weakness, but Cal's Marshawn Lynch up the middle carry after carry in Berkeley could easily usher in the end of an era.

By contrast, the Trojans exhibit a nearly flawless secondary.  Strong safety Darnell Bing enters his junior season as a third-year starter and one of the hardest hitting strong safeties in the country.  Justin Wyatt and Scott Ware return at cornerback and free safety, respectively.  Both have performed at a high level in previous starts for the Trojans.  The only hiccup in the USC defensive backfield comes at the other cornerback spot, where Eric Wright was slated to return and star, but Wright left school in June following a March arrest for rape and drug possession.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- First Team All-American punter Tom Malone returns for his senior season after an incredible 43.7-yard net punting average.  With Reggie Bush returning the majority of kicks and punts, and new kicker Mario Danielo looking solid from inside 40, the Trojans' special teams alone should give them a touchdown edge on their average opponent.

- Though the most high profile, Norm Chow isn't the only assistant coach to depart.  Five assistants in all are gone from the 2004 coaching staff, including defensive line coach Ed Orgeron (Pete Carroll was his own defensive coordinator), who is now the head coach at Ole Miss, further compounding the Trojans' turnover in the defensive front seven.

- USC's appeared to lose focus at times last season, keeping inferior opponents in the game with a lack of effort (see: Stanford 28, USC 17 at halftime).  USC hosts Stanford a week after Homecoming and a week before their season-defining visit to Cal, so perhaps the Cardinal could benefit from a similar slip in intensity this season.

- On a similar train of thought, after perusing the national media, it seems like I'm the only one to even think that USC might encounter a speed bump or two this season.  I hate to rely excessively on non Xs-and-Os analysis, but it certainly seems possible to me that the heavy expectations placed upon USC might affect this team's composition.

- USC has averaged plus-18 in turnovers the last four seasons, a key to their recent success.  After only six interceptions last season, the offense should be even more meticulous with the ball this year, and the secondary should continue to grab more than its fair share of picks as well, though the defensive rush may not be generating as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

- An early measuring stick for USC will be their rushing defense and how many sacks they are generating.  If they are producing comparable numbers to last season's 79 yards per game and 50 sacks, then watch out.  If not, perhaps there's a glimmer of hope for the rest of us.

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