History under Head Lane Kiffin:
In his young career with the Trojans, Kiffin has posted a 19-7 record, with this being his third season.
His initial two years have been overshadowed by NCAA sanctions that prevented him from bowl competition and from having as many players on his roster. As a result, how far he can bring USC is still an unknown. This season will give Kiffin his first opportunity to show if he can lead the Trojans to the postseason and if that occurs, how he handles the increased pressure and level of talent in the expanded season.
Offensively for USC:
At center. When quarterback Matt Barkley decided to return to the Trojans as opposed to putting his name in for the 2012 NFL Draft, the most significant piece of the offensive side of the ball was taken care of.
Nassib will hardly ever get the credit for it, but his numbers do rival Barkley's at time. After their first games, Barkley amounted 372 passing yards and attained four touchdowns through the air, while Nassib added over 100 passing yards on top of Barkley's 372 with 482 and equaled Barkley with four passing touchdowns of his own.
Thus, this game will showcase two of the most productive quarterbacks in college football.
As far as containment on Barkley, Syracuse will have to decide which defense they will be: the defense that began last season's match with USC or the defense that finished the game. Defensive tackle Deon Goggins started out strong, forcing Barkley to scramble initially, but later, the defensive line was relatively silent.
The Orange, however, from newcomer to veteran provided pressure to Northwestern. Junior college transfer out of the state of California, defensive end Markus Pierce-Brewster, got going early and was involved in hurrying Wildcats' quarterback Kain Colter, resulting in solid defensive stances by Syracuse. Goggins, a redshirt-senior, who also originated from California, assisted in taking down Colter. Junior Defensive tackle Jay Bromley has experience and senior defensive end Brandon Sharpe came into the season with a good showing in Fall camp. Behind these four linemen are competitive, improving linemen in junior defensive end Robert Welsh and yet another junior college transfer out of California, junior defensive tackle Zian Jones.
Barkley does not lean on his running game as much as Colter and despite trouble at times, Syracuse only allowed Colter 40 yards on the ground, while taking away another potential 19 yards. If the Orange continue to get to the quarterback quicker, even to someone comfortable with their feet like Barkley, less opportunities to test the secondary will aid Syracuse in providing some containment in the upcoming match-up.
Protection. Syracuse's layers of linemen will be contested by a relatively stable Trojan offensive line, from right tackle through to left guard. Injuries did affect their involvement in Fall camp, but right tackle Kevin Graf, right guard John Martinez, center Khaled Holmes, and left guard Marcus Martin are trusted in front of Barkley.
The biggest point of concern on the offensive line is at left tackle where redshirt-sophomore Aundrey Walker is playing for the first time. Walker struggles with penalties, giving up yards to false starts, as he did against Hawaii last week.
The passing game. Wide receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods have a mere one game under their belt, like most, this season. However, unlike most, both have two touchdowns apiece going into only their second contest.
Lee and Woods advanced to and surpassed 1,000 receiving yards last season.
Against Syracuse last year, both receivers scored. Lee averaged over 30 yards between his two receptions, while Woods had the most yards receiving with 82 off of the most receptions by any USC receiver, with eight.
The challenge for Syracuse is that they are facing tenacious receivers who not only can receive the pass, but also are dangerous in the open field. Cornerbacks Ri'Shard Anderson, Keon Lyn, and Brandon Reddish all need to improve in their speed to the ball and even more important, getting a hand in the passing lane more frequently. Barkley can send the ball deep, so waiting to tackle until after the catch cannot be an option for the Orange. Safeties Shamarko Thomas and Jeremi Wilkes, along with Durell Eskridge and Ritchy Desir need to shrink the field by helping out in coverage. Lyn and Thomas had experience last year against USC, which needs to be utilized to train the rest of the secondary in what to expect. This game will be a true test of how Syracuse's secondary can multitask.
On the ground. Starting running back Curtis McNeal took five carries a mere 10 yards, averaging two yards per carry last week against Hawaii. Despite these numbers, McNeal is no one to overlook. Last season, McNeal amounted 1,005 yards on a mere 145 carries, averaging almost seven yards per carry.
Fellow starter in the backfield, Penn State University transfer Silas Redd, has not wasted any time making the most of the carries given to him. Against Hawaii last week, Redd carried the ball nine times for 56 yards, an average of 6.2 yards per carry. Redd broke away for 31 yards for a rush that culminated in the endzone.
After allowing Northwestern's Venric Mark 82 yards on 14 carries for an average of 5.9 yards per carry as well as a touchdown through the air, the necessity to get to the rusher earlier cannot be understated. USC's pass attack is one of the strongest in the country. Allow the Trojans to run the ball and the game opens up wider for a USC team that showed they could advance without much on the ground last week.
Defensively for USC:
Defensive Line. Considered a thin position for the Trojans due to injuries and inexperience. Senior defensive end Devon Kennard tore his pectoral muscle before Fall camp and has healed back to a game-ready state as of yet. His participation in this game is unlikely.
Fellow senior defensinve end Wes Horton was inactive against Hawaii. How involved he will be is unknown.
Junior college transfer, defensive end Morgan Breslin, also has a question mark above his head. He has not been much of a factor in practice, but made his presence known when he took on Hawaii's line last week. Breslin went for five tackles, four of them solo, including a sack.
Linebackers. This unit is considered an asset to the team as a solid element of the USC defense. Hayes Pullard ended his first game already with an interception and a return for a touchdown, off of that interception. Pullard also added six tackles, two solo and four assisted versus Hawaii. He has moved to middle linebacker from the weakside with Lamar Dawson out.
Dawson, the team's middle linebacker, has been on the depth chart as a starter, but did not compete last week. His involvement in the game is still unknown.
Dion Bailey, who has aided the group at strongside linebacker with Dawson out, attained seven tackles, three solo and four assisted, in his first outing of this season.
At weakside linebacker, Anthony Sarao amounted four total tackles, split two solo and two assisted, including a sack.
With Pullard reeling in an interception after a mere game, Nassib must watch his passes over the middle, knowing that Pullard can get the read and has the hands to make a play for the ball.
In the backfield, Syracuse must utilize its depth. Just as USC has more than one capable player in the backfield, the same is true for the Orange. Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley both showed that they can keep drives alive by catching out of the backfield, running through tackles, and running in the open field. Smith has demonstrated speed, while Gulley looks to have gotten faster from last season. Both kept a hold of the ball, also.
Getting both backs their own carries and passes and then putting them in a split back situation can benefit Syracuse by making the defense have to concentrate on both players instead of a single back. The running game is essential. USC knows that Nassib is going to air it out. Set up a progressive running attack and the passes become less expected.
Secondary. Kiffin's theme for this season lies with the secondary. He wants the unit to attack the ball more and reel in more interceptions. The secondary amounted six of the team's nine interceptions, a number Kiffin hopes to see rise.
Junior cornerback Nickell Robey is considered a solid veteran, being responsible for two of those six takeaways last season. Along with his aid in completion prevention, Roby also serves as punt returner, illustrating Kiffn's trust in his hands.
On the other side of the field, the cornerback position is in question as to who will be seen there for the upcoming game. Torin Harris has been out since Fall camp and did not play last week against Hawaii. He is listed on the depth chart but his participation remains unknown. On the field, Harris added a takeaway of his own as one of three members of the secondary who gained possession for USC off of an interception.
Vying for that position in Harris' absence have been sophomore Anthony Brown and senior Brian Baucham.
Brown recorded two tackles against Syracuse in last season's contest and, in total, was on the field for USC for half of their games last year after breaking his ankle during their October 13th game, which resulted in him sitting out the final six games.
After recording at least one tackle in 10 of 13 games in 2010, Baucham did not play all of last season due to academic ineligibility, and, thus, has yet to face the Orange.
Currently, the focus is on Brown to take the position, who had six total tackles, two solo and four assisted, as a starter in last week's game versus Hawaii. Baucham did not start and failed to record a single tackle against Hawaii.
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib is coming off of a game where he completed more passes (44), made more pass attempts (65), and achieved more yards than ever before through the air (470) within a single game. Despite wide receiver Marcus Sales sitting out all last season due to suspension, his big-catch ability appears to have been picked up from where it was last visible, in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl victory against Kansas State University in 2010. The tight end position remains strong with Beckett Wales proving to be a trustworthy target in the first game. Newcomer, wide receiver Chris Clark, has already been on the other side of a crucial pass completion although last week was only his first game as a member of the Orange. Nassib's trust in his receiving core is evident. Sales, Wales, and Clark were not primary targets or in most cases, targets at all, last season, yet the passing game was very successful against Northwestern.
Look for Nassib to continue to air it out against USC after coming off such a high profile performance. With lack of recent experience on one side of the field, it will be an area of concern for the Trojans to attempt to stop a progressive quarterback like Nassib. If the receivers can hold onto the accurate throws from Nassib, there are enough targets to spread the field and make coverage difficult for the Trojans.
Keys to the Game:
Challenge the corners. Cornerbacks Ri'Shard Anderson, Keon Lyn, and Brandon Reddish have all struggled to silence receivers throughout an entire game. Many times, these members of the secondary are a step behind the receiver, not making a play on the ball until after it is caught. The player most trustworthy in man coverage is Lyn, who despite mistakes, has been able to quiet some receivers in the endzone. Reddish has gotten beat before on deep routes and Barkley likes to send it, as seen in the 75-yard touchdown reception to Lee in USC's first game of the season against Hawaii. Anderson has struggled to keep himself away from penalties in man coverage, so pass interference could be an issue for Syracuse and a benefit to USC in the upcoming match-up.
Pass often. Syracuse's defense, in general, has had issues containing opponents who constantly test them through the air. No one on the defense seemed to get their hands in routes for a potential interception in last week's contest with Northwestern. The secondary made some actions to disrupt the passing game, but ultimately need to be more consistent in knocking down passes, rather than trying to stop the receiver after the catch. The Orange allowed Wildcats' starting quarterback Kain Colter two touchdowns through the air, while also failing to stop his backup, Trevor Siemian, from finding the endzone with a pass of his own.
Attack the right side of the offensive line. In his first start of his career, right tackle Lou Alexander did not have as good a showing as fellow newcomer to the starting lineup, left tackle Sean Hickey. On one drive, Alexander was flagged for two false starts. With Alexander currently being the weakest blocker, USC could find success trying to get to Nassib from the right side.
Improve on special teams. The Orange allowed an 82-yard punt return in their first game of the season last week. Wide receiver Marqise Lee is coming off his first outing of the season with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Poor tackling, lack of speed to the ball, and subpar coverage helped separate Syracuse from a potential win against Northwestern. Against a man familiar with the endzone in Lee, the time to progress into a better unit has to be now.
Anticipate the route. Lee and fellow wide receiver Robert Woods are known as some of the best wideouts in the country. In the first game of this early season, both Lee and Woods have recorded two touchdowns. Studying and understanding USC quarterback Matt Barkley's tendencies as well as the route running of both Lee and Woods give Syracuse the best opportunity to make a play on the ball. Mental preparedness is just as important as being prepared in all other areas. Knowledge of the key players in USC's passing attack may help Syracuse make stops despite the athleticism of the receivers.
Attack the defensive line. With a thin unit setting up across from them, Orange running backs should be given ample carries to aid in keeping possession of the ball. Having multiple options in the backfield gives Syracuse an opportunity to spark at least a few runs on any team and the Trojans are not as strong at the line as they are in other areas.
Get to Barkley quickly. Through the first quarter and part of the second quarter in last season's match between these two teams, Syracuse prevented Barkley from picking apart the Orange defense thanks to their pass rush. The rush shriveled as the game progressed and USC gained more separation in part because of that. Syracuse has to keep the pass rush at a high intensity at all times because once the ball leaves Barkley's hands, that is where Syracuse will have a true test due to the talented receiving core.
USC scores on their opening drive and Syracuse answers. The Trojans will add a field goal before a special teams' return for a touchdown. Syracuse will put one through the uprights and at halftime, the score will lean USC's way at 17-10.
USC will get out early in the second half with two touchdowns. The Orange will struggle to score in the third quarter, finally getting on the board again in the final quarter with a touchdown on the ground. USC finishes with a field goal as well as another endzone trip and takes the second contest between Kiffin and Marrone, 37-17.
SCPlaybook.com's Lindsey Thiry contributed to this report