Game 1: ‘Oh, You Get Up, You Get Down – and You Try It Again!’
The 2014 USC football team, ranked 15th in the Associated Press (AP) and USA Today polls, opens the season Saturday, August 30 against the two-time defending Mountain West Conference champion Fresno State Bulldogs at 4:30 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Fox television audience. It’s the fourth meeting between the schools – and second in a row. USC topped Fresno State, 45-20, in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 21, taking a 2-1 lead in the overall series. Saturday’s contest marks the first time Troy has faced the same opponent in consecutive games since defeating Arizona to close the 1916 campaign and again to open the 1917 schedule (winning both). USC is 29-1-1 against current MWC opponents, while the Bulldogs are 25-40 against current Pac-12 members.
Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (34-29 career collegiate head coaching record) kicks off his first season at the helm after spending the past five years leading what was a moribund Washington program back to respectability. Sarkisian spent seven years as an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08), including stints as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator. Fresno State headman Tim DeRuyter (21-6, including a win as Texas A&M’s interim coach in the 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl) is in his third season on campus. The Air Force alum, known as a defensive stalwart, has seen a high-flying spread passing attack put up huge offensive numbers since he arrived. In 2014, he faces a big challenge replacing three-year starting QB David Carr (now with the Oakland Raiders).
The Trojans’ 2014 opener is only USC’s fourth at home in the past 12 seasons. Nonetheless, USC has won its past 16 opening games, and is 61-16-7 in season openers on at home. The Trojans return eight starters on both offense and defense (plus the kicker and punter), led on offense by a trio of juniors – quarterback Cody Kessler, tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen and wideout Nelson Agholor. On defense, junior defensive end Leonard Williams and senior linebacker Hayes Pullard helm a group that improved immensely in 2013.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, return five starters on offense, eight on defense and two specialists from a team that led the nation in passing offense a season ago. However, with Carr and two of his leading targets – Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse – now gone, the Bulldogs are retooling their attack. Fresno State’s defense, which was annihilated by the Trojans to the tune of 499 yards – 345 passing by Kessler – last December, features a solid and experienced group of linebackers and safeties and an aggressive style (its 40 sacks in 2013 ranked sixth nationally). But the Bulldogs must improve against the pass if they are to compete for their third consecutive conference crown. USCFootball.com’s Josh Webb, who also covers Fresno State, shared some solid intel with me for this week’s preview – and you’ll see much of it throughout the story.
Fresno State Offense
Though offensive coordinator Dave Schramm and Carr combined to put up some massive numbers in 2012 and 2013, this might be Schramm’s toughest job to date. You can’t lose a guy who set 27 school and 41 conference records and not take at least a half step back before moving forward. Who gets the first crack at replacing Carr? That remains to be seen as DeRuyter says that both junior Brian Burrell and senior Brandon Connette will likely play Saturday. Burrell appeared in five games as Carr’s backup in 2013, completing seven-of-12 passes. He appears to be the better passer of the pair, but Connette – a graduate transfer from Duke where he set a school record with 31 rushing TDs – adds some intrigue to the mix. He’s a powerful runner and a threat with his arm (he threw for 16 scores in his Duke career and played on both offense and defense in his time there). But Webb says Burrell is no slouch when he decides to run as well.
Whoever is under center, he will have senior receiver Josh Harper to lean on. Though Adams (Green Bay) and Burse (Denver) are now in the NFL, Harper ranks fifth among current players nationally in career TD receptions with 22 – in just 27 games. His 138 career receptions and 1,841 yards dwarf the rest of the returning Bulldog wideout corps. Sizeable sophomore Aaron Peck and junior slot receiver Da’Mari Scott are the other starters, with seniors Greg Watson and LeKendrick Williams also likely to see time. Webb says Peck and Texas A&M transfer Williams have pushed each other at the slot position, while Peck’s issue with drops may well be a thing of the past. Senior tight end Riley Barnes is a solid blocker and most often used as a decoy, though Webb says that 6-foot-8 senior Jerin McLendon could be a weapon, as well.
The Bulldog backfield is suffering from the concussion-related loss of freshman Kurt Scoby. Last season, Fresno ranked just 78th nationally in rushing in 2013 and USC held the Dogs to 37 yards on the ground in the Las Vegas Bowl. The position is still a bit of a two-headed monster – senior Josh Quezada and junior Marteze Waller combined for 1,453 yards rushing and 13 TDs, as well as 74 receptions, in 2013. Waller is the bigger of the two and gets used more in short-yardage. Redshirt freshman Dontel James has impressed in practice, according to Webb, and could also be a factor.
Fresno State’s offensive line loses All-MWC first-team left tackle Austin Wentworth – who did not allow a sack in two years at his spot – and center Lars Bramer from last year’s squad, but returns stud senior RG Cody Wichmann, who’s made 36 career starts. Two others return as starters, as well – junior right tackle Justin Northern and junior Bo Bonnheim, who shifts from left guard to center. Webb says the Bulldog staff hopes Bonnheim’s first step helps give the running game some more punch. Junior Alex Fifita, who was replaced at left guard by Bonnheim midway through 2013, will start at left tackle and senior Sean Rubalcava will slide in at left guard.
Fresno State Defense
Between defensive coordinator Nick Toth and defensive mastermind DeRuyter, there must be plenty of motivation to get the Bulldog defense back to where it was in 2012. Fresno State slipped from 22nd in total defense that season to No. 95 nationally in 2013 and allowed a frightful 30.3 points per game. While the Bulldogs did amass 40 sacks and forced 23 turnovers, the high-risk, high-reward style they play out of their 3-4 set was definitely hampered by a flood of secondary injuries.
Up front, big senior Tyeler Davison, a second-team All-MWC choice at nose guard a year ago, leads the way. A 309-pounder, Davison has the surprising quicks to play on the end as well, and though the Bulldog brain trust would love to play him out there more often, his skillset on the nose has made it hard for coaches to do so, according to Webb. He’s the lone starter returning up front, but junior end Todd Hunt has played in 21 games coming into the season and junior Maurice Poyadue, who will see time at nose guard when Davison pushes outside, has played in 20. Redshirt freshman end Nathan Madsen will also see plenty of time.
Fresno State returns all four starting linebackers from a season ago – the same quartet that faced USC in Las Vegas, and truly the heart of the Bulldog D. Senior MLB Karl Mickelsen is an aggressive stay-at-home type (97 tackles in 2013, but only 2.5 for a loss). He’s a big hitter but Bulldogs count on him to be in the right place. Junior OLB Ejiro Ederaine led the 2013 team with 10 sacks and 16.5 TFL. Senior Donavon Lewis plays the other outside spot, and had five sacks among his 45 tackles. Junior Kyrie Wilson is the other insider and finished second on the team with 87 stops. Webb says freshman Xavier Ulutu has also made a big impression in fall camp – and the two-deep shows it, as he’s slotted behind Mickelsen.
It’s in the secondary where the Bulldogs hope to raise their level of play the most. The leader is pre-season All-American free safety Derron Smith. USC won’t have to work hard to remember him – 18 tackles and a pick-six in Las Vegas should make him very familiar. Overall, he had seven picks and 87 stops a season ago. Junior Charles Washington started much of 2013 at strong safety before switching to corner late in the season due to injuries. He’s listed as a possible starter at both spots, as is sophomore Dalen Jones. In fact, Fresno State’s depth chart lists 3 “OR” possible starters at both corner spots, so it’s anyone’s guess whom USC might see. Senior Curtis Riley was a regular starter at CB a year ago, but Webb says the Bulldogs need to find answers at corner – and quickly.
Fresno State Special Teams
Sophomore Colin McGuire handles the placekicking duties, while junior Garrett Swanson is the punter and appears to be set as the kickoff guy in 2014. McGuire has plenty of range – with a long of 47 – but three of his misses were from 36 yards or closer. He missed much of camp due to a family issue, but Webb says he looked to be in solid shape when he returned. Swanson was a big reason Fresno State ranked eighth nationally in net punting (40.7) and the guess here is that the Bulldogs hope he can help what was a troubled kickoff coverage unit. Junior receiver Dillon Root was a solid return man a season ago, but is serving a suspension in the opener. That leaves receiver Scott and defensive back Riley to share duties for now.
USC Offensive Gameplan
First, a big salute to Sarkisian for minimizing the number of “OR”s on the pre-season depth chart. Brainiac Lane Kiffin always acted as though he thought he was going to get one over on the opposition OR the media by not naming a clear starter at a bunch of positions. Clearly, that (among many other things) totally worked out for him. Sarkisian, as a matter of fact, got out of that business early, naming Kessler the 2014 starter during spring practice. We all remember the cluster that the early 2013 season became, at least in part due to the two-quarterback system (Kessler and the now departed Max Wittek) used by Kiffin. Kessler is the guy, and just as he took to the role late in 2013, his leadership in offseason workouts heading into 2014 has been exemplary.
The best news for Kessler, though, is the bevy of options he sees when he drops back to pass in USC’s new hurry-up attack. Led by junior Nelson Agholor, this group’s depth is impressive given the Trojans’ scholarship limitations in recent seasons. Junior George Farmer, who finally appears to be at 100 percent, will start on the other side with wunderkind freshman Ajene Harris appearing as if out of thin air to win the starting slot receiver role. Behind them, sophomore Darreus Rogers (22 grabs a season ago) and junior Victor Blackwell are solidly in the mix with freshman (and physical marvel) Juju Smith likely to impress. His classmate, Adoree’ Jackson, while likely ticketed mainly for defense, may also see time. Senior Randall Telfer is back at tight end – and Sarkisian’s UW offense often highlighted the position, so don’t sleep on freshman Bryce Dixon as a pass catcher, as well. In the backfield, Allen looks like the go-to guy in a system that saw Bishop Sankey average 300 carries the past two seasons in Seattle. With junior Tre Madden out Saturday battling turf toe, sophomore Justin Davis could have a chance to shine. It remains to be seen how junior fullbacks Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner are used in the new scheme.
There’s been quite a bit of turnover along the Trojan offensive line – one of the big concerns heading into 2014. Among the group expected to start Saturday, only sophomore left tackle Chad Wheeler and junior center Max Tuerk, whose versatility has been a godsend for USC in recent years, were regulars last season. Massive sophomore Zach Banner (6’9”, 350), who’s struggled with injury during his first two years on campus, is the new right tackle, while a pair of heralded true freshmen will start at guard – Damien Mama (6’5”, 370) and Toa Lobendahn (from my parents’ alma mater, La Habra High School). Great things are expected of both at USC, but not, perhaps, so soon. Injuries to sophomores Khaliel Rodgers and Jordan Simmons, as well as the slow healing of senior Aundrey Walker have pushed the duo front and center.
With this shuffling of the line, the Trojan coaching staff has to be thankful that the Bulldogs defensive line remains a touch unsettled. The first game of a new regime is always interesting, but you can double that with Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Clay Helton hoping to live up to Trojan fans’ most recent memory – one in which Kessler threw the ball all over a hapless Fresno State secondary to the tune of 45 points. While the Trojans are likely run the football more often than they have in recent seasons should the backfield and line stay healthy, Fresno State’s defense did a solid job against USC’s rushing attack in Las Vegas. Expect Kessler to have plenty of chances to see what he can do with his new toys, mixed with a healthy dose of Allen to keep the Bulldogs honest.
USC Defensive Gameplan
Things get really interesting on this side of the ball, since there’s really no clue what to expect from Fresno State’s quarterbacks – and how their skills will change how the Bulldogs look to attack. Neither Connette or Burrell is going to make anyone forget about Carr as a thrower, but neither is as tethered to the pocket as Carr was. In Fresno’s no-huddle attack, effective running from the QB spot will only help the Bulldogs’ running backs, who had nowhere to go in December.
This wrinkle should provide an interesting early test for new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and his multiple looks out of a 3-4 set. Similar in some ways to the 5-2 look the Trojans used (and often excelled in) under Clancy Pendergast a season ago, the new look will be very aggressive. Washington notched 41 sacks in 2013 and the Huskies were +7 in turnover margin. At USC, Wilcox has plenty of raw talent to work with, starting up front with All-American Williams at end and classmate Antwaun Woods at nose tackle. While injury has sapped some depth (redshirt freshman Kenny Bigelow is gone for the season), JC transfer Claude Pelon brings solid talent to the defensive tackle spot, while junior Delvon Simmons – a starter at Texas Tech in 2012 before transferring to USC – will also see time. Junior Greg Townsend, Jr., could also see work at end.
At linebacker, the return of Pullard, after he considered entering the NFL Draft, is big news from both the talent and leadership perspective. He’s surrounded by a lot of talent, including fellow returning starter and fellow inside backer Anthony Sarao, a junior. With sophomore Jabari Ruffin lost for the season, the outside backer spots still feature a solid mix of talent, including sophomore Scott Felix and senior J.R. Tavai. Junior Charles Burks, sophomore Quinton Powell and freshman Uchenna Nwosu have also competed for time during camp.
And while the USC secondary looked to be a strength just days ago, the loss of injured and suspended senior Josh Shaw, who was slated to start at one corner spot and was also capable as a safety, poses a number of questions. For one, it pushes redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins into the starting lineup. While Hawkins has looked solid in camp, against the pass-happy offenses of the Pac-12, he’s going to get a trial by fire. Across the way, junior Kevon Seymour, who enjoyed a breakout performance in the Las Vegas Bowl, is locked in to start, but don’t be surprised to see the true freshman Jackson see plenty of time now, especially in the nickel. The news is better at safety, where budding sophomore Su’a Cravens is a mainstay at strong safety – and may even slide up into a linebacker role against pass-heavy opponents. Next to him, senior Gerald Bowman and sophomore Leon McQuay III are currently slated to share the free safety role, with McQuay the more physically gifted of the pair.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: I’ll be very surprised to see USC match its offensive performance of December against the Bulldogs. When you add up the usual season-opening jitters and rust, some of this week’s odd distractions, the Trojans operating for the first time in Sarkisian’s attack, and a healthier Fresno State secondary, things just don’t seem to line up for another 500-yard performance. People forget because of how dominant USC was in Las Vegas, but Fresno State is a proud, conference champion-level football team with quite a bit of talent on the defensive side of the ball.
However, the Trojans still do have a talent and speed advantage on the Bulldogs. USC should be able to move the ball fairly consistently – especially if it can protect Kessler as well as it did in the bowl game, and if it can keep the ball out of Smith’s intercepting hands.
The wildcard in this game is on the other side of the ball – what will Fresno State’s new quarterback bring to the game, and how effective will he/they be? While I expect a few wrinkles to catch USC off guard early, without an effective running attack, it will be hard for the Bulldogs to keep the Trojans off balance for four quarters. Expect Williams and Pullard to lead the defense to an outstanding second-half performance and a solid victory.
USC 31, Fresno State 17
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)