Game 3: ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’
The USC Trojans (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12 South), ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press (AP) poll and No. 10 by USA Today, head to the northeast to face the Boston College Eagles (1-1, 0-1 ACC Atlantic) at 5 p.m. PDT on Saturday, September 13, at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN. It’s the fifth meeting between the schools and first on the BC campus since 1988 (a 34-7 Trojan victory) with USC having won the four previous contests. A season ago, the Trojans walloped the Eagles, 35-7, at the Coliseum. In its history, USC is 24-11 vs. current members of the ACC; BC is just 4-8 against Pac-12 foes.
A week ago, the Trojan defense put up a valiant performance in the red zone, holding then-No. 13 Stanford to just 10 points on nine trips inside the USC 35-yard-line in a 13-10 victory on the Farm. Leonard Williams, playing on a badly sprained ankle, had 11 stops, fellow lineman Delvon Simmons had a blocked field goal and a fumble recovery and – following a career-long 53-yard field goal by Andre Heidari that gave USC the lead with 2:30 to play – J.R. Tavai sacked Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan, forcing a fumble that was recovered by LB Scott Felix with 19 seconds to play to seal the win. Meanwhile, the Eagles allowed visiting Pittsburgh to rush for 303 yards and build a 27-7 lead on the way to an eventual 30-20 win on Friday, Sept. 5. It was a disappointing performance for BC after a season-opening 30-7 win over UMass on Aug. 30.
Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (2-0 at USC, 36-29 career) is in his first season at the helm after spending the past five years at Washington. Sarkisian spent seven years as an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08). Across the country, Boston College headman Steve Addazio (8-7 at Boston College, 21-18 overall in four seasons as a head coach) is in his second season after arriving from Temple, where he served as head coach in 2011-12. He took the Eagles from 2-10 the year prior to his arrival to a 7-5 regular season and bowl berth in his first year, but while he’s changed the attitude in Boston, he’s still trying to fill talent and depth holes left by the prior regime.
Boston College Offense
Former Eagle assistant Ryan Day returned with Addazio to serve as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator a season ago (he was the BC wide receivers coach from 2007-11). Under his tutelage, Boston College averaged nearly 28 points per game a season ago – the school’s best output since 2007. The Eagles operate out of a three-wide, single-back set – at times employing either a fullback, a fourth wideout or a more traditional tight end look. However there is a big shift in what BC looks like in 2014 after Chase Rettig, more of a pro-style QB, graduated. He’s been replaced by dual-threat Tyler Murphy, a graduate transfer from Florida. Murphy ran for 210 yards in the season’s first two games, averaging 7.2 yards per carry with two TD jaunts. He’s had less success throwing the ball, especially against Pitt. He completed just 10-of-28 attempts against the Panthers and struggled mightily with his accuracy. Overall, he’s completed just 52 percent of his passes, with three INTs against two TD tosses. Touted freshman Darius Wade is the backup – and there have been some rumblings that he may see some time on Saturday night.
The Eagles also lost their top pass catcher in recent seasons when Alex Amidon graduated after the 2013 season. Big junior Dan Crimmins, who had 10 catches in 2013, is the most experienced returnee at the spot. He’s snagged nine passes in the first two games, but is averaging just 7.2 yards per catch. Another big target, redshirt freshman Charlie Callinan, has caught five passes, while senior Josh Bordner – who converted from quarterback this season – also has five grabs. Senior Shakim Phillips had all four of his catches this season against Pitt, including a 48-yard score. With Addazio talking about getting some of his younger players looks this week, freshmen Thaddius Smith, Gabriel McClary and Drew Barksdale could also be in the mix.
Clearly the Eagles’ biggest offensive loss was RB Andre Williams (now toiling for the New York Giants). The all-everything back ran for 2,177 yards – averaging better than six yards per tote – a season ago. The Trojans locked him down in L.A. (only 38 yards on 17 carries), but he was the key to everything the Eagles did in 2013. Sophomores Tyler Rouse (101 yards, 4.0 average) and Myles Willis (79 yards, 3.4 average) are splitting time in the spot this year – but QB Murphy is the real featured runner in the BC attack so far this season.
Boston College’s offensive line entered the season with three returning starters, all seniors: left guard Bobby Vardaro, center Andy Gallik and right guard Harris Williams. But Williams went down with a fractured ankle in the opener, dealing the group a big blow. Senior Aaron Kramer took his spot, joining classmates Seth Betancourt (LT) and Ian Silberman (RT) as starters. Experienced depth is a problem. Betancourt is listed as Kramer’s backup at RG, while senior Dave Bowen is the listed backup for both tackle spots.
Boston College Defense
Defensive coordinator Don Brown continued to impress at BC in 2013 following a two-year stint in the same role at Connecticut. The Huskies ranked 10th nationally in total defense in 2012, and Brown’s attacking 4-3 scheme accounted for a huge shift in the BC defense last season, upping the team’s sack total from a measly six in 2012 to 36 a season ago. However, the Eagles’ run defense so far in 2014 has been suspect – Pitt RB James Connor’s 213-yard performance a week ago was the most rushing yards allowed to a single back by BC in 14 years.
That’s cause for consternation as the Eagles did return some decent talent up front from their 2013 roster. Seniors Brian Mihalik (DE) and Mehdi Abdesmad (DT) and junior Connor Wujciak (NT) form a solid and experienced trio. Mihalik (6-feet-9) and Abdesmad (6-feet-7) should be threats as pass blockers. Sophomore Kevin Kavalec has gotten most of the looks at the second end spot, but don’t be surprised to see more of freshman Harold Landry there as well.
Another key injury hit the Eagles last week as starting MLB (and senior captain) Sean Duggan suffered an unspecified knee injury in the first half against Pitt. He didn’t return and is unlikely to face the Trojans. Junior Steven Daniels was plugged in (he played on the weak side against USC in 2013) and had seven tackles and an interception against the Panthers. However, expect to see a touted freshman (sounding familiar) take some reps at the spot against USC, as Connor Strachan is likely to see time. Strongside linebacker Josh Keyes had 30 tackles in reserve last season and has seven in two games this year (including one of the Eagles’ three sacks), while on the weak side, junior Mike Strizak has gotten the first two starts ahead of freshman Ty Schwab.
The BC secondary starters are experienced. Senior cornerback Manuel Asprilla is a three-year starter with 148 career tackles and four career picks. Fellow corner Bryce Jones, a junior, also returns in 2014. There’s been some shakeup at the safety spots as senior strong safety Dominique Williams is backed up by senior Sean Sylvia, a former starter for BC at free safety. Junior Justin Simmons (10 stops, one sack, one INT in 2014) has been solid at the FS position so far.
Boston College Special Teams
Senior Alex Howell is handling most of the placekicking duties, as well as the punting. He’s got a booming leg, with six touchbacks on 10 kickoffs and a 46.4-yard average on punts – but is only one-of-three on long-distance field goal attempts. Senior Joey Launceford is handling the PATs (three-of-three) and shorter FG attempts (two-of-two, both inside 30 yards). Running back Willis is the top kick returner (averaging more than 27 yards on five attempts), while cornerback Jones has handled punt returns.
USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojans’ gameplan at Stanford seemed a bit conservative for many, but there were clear reasons why Sarkisian and Clay Helton went the direction they did. First, Stanford’s sub-.500 record under Shaw when the opposition has a 100-yard rusher is a clear differentiator. Committing to run the ball hard at the Cardinal with Javorius “Buck” Allen was a no-brainer – and it paid off with a 50-yard burst on the Trojans’ third-quarter drive that eventually knotted the score at 10. Second, from an adjustment standpoint, with Stanford clearly controlling the clock throughout the first half, USC simply could not afford to give the ball back to the Cardinal without draining some clock of their own to help rest the defense. While the offensive performance wasn’t a thing of beauty, the Trojans came up with enough plays to back their valiant defense. Cody Kessler and Nelson Agholor have great synergy right now, which led to the junior wideout making a series of key catches, including the big gainer on the game-winning field goal drive.
It would become concerning should the Trojans remain more conservative against defenses that aren’t the caliber of the Cardinal. And, honestly, there aren’t many of those remaining on the schedule. If you haven’t noticed, the USC-Stanford game during the past five seasons has become a real outlier for Trojan teams. The schools are currently so evenly matched that, simply, those contests have become “do whatever it takes” wars of attrition.
That said, expect USC to revert to much more of what fans enjoyed in the Fresno State game this Saturday. Overall speed and experienced depth are big issues for the Eagle defense against the Trojans. While an inspired BC first team might be able to play with USC a bit, the Eagles will eventually struggle to keep pace with the Trojans’ personnel. Troy rolled up 521 total yards against BC last year – 257 on the ground – and Kessler completed 15-of-17 passes (yes, under Lane Kiffin). I foresee the Trojans looking to get Allen going early – who wouldn’t against a team that just got gashed for 300-plus rushing yards? But after much of the receiving corps struggled to get involved at Stanford, don’t be surprised to see that array of receiving options freed up, as well. USC has a speed advantage up the middle of the field, so slot receivers and tight ends could see a lot of work come Saturday.
USC Defensive Gameplan
What a gutsy performance from the USC defense. While the chinks in the armor were there – especially struggles in the downfield passing attack with a young secondary – time and again, the Trojans were able to stifle Stanford when the chips were down. Yes, the Cardinal hurt themselves with penalties. But crucial and timely plays by Williams, Tavai and – time and again – Su’a Cravens were just as responsible for slowing the Cardinal attack. And don't forget Chris Hawkins’ key tackle on Ty Montgomery on third-and-goal that set up USC’s fourth-down stop in the third quarter. It’s pretty clear what a special trio USC has up the middle of its defense with Williams, Hayes Pullard and Cravens. But seeing the young guys step up – Michael Hutchings filling right in when Pullard was ejected for a targeting penalty; Adoree’ Jackson not backing down on two Stanford deep balls in the end zone – was especially inspiring for this team’s future.
The Cardinal exposed Trojan defenders to a more varied gameplan than many expected – which should also be a good thing down the line, with many of those fast-moving, wide-open Pac-12 offenses still to come. But to see the USC defense stand up to such a heavy test in early September was something.
The challenge is a completely different one this week – the Trojan defense will key heavily on Murphy. He’s definitely a weapon with the ball in his hands, and BC wants him to run it out of the zone-read looks they’ve incorporated for him. The problem for the Eagles is that he’s not an extremely precise passer, nor does he have a big second weapon to turn to. Look for USC to pack seven-to-eight in the box to minimize Murphy’s legs and the effectiveness of BC’s backs. I don’t think the Trojans see a receiver on the Eagles’ roster who can hurt them repeatedly. Slow Murphy, stop the run and ballhawk when he looks to throw – that would seem to be the recipe.
No letdowns – that’s the big theme this week for the Trojans. Yes, the win at Stanford was huge. Yes, the Trojans look like they could become a big factor in the Pac-12 – and, perhaps, national – race. But first things first – Boston College is a Power 5 conference opponent playing on its home field on a Saturday night in front of what could be a charged up crowd. All USC needs to do is look at what (almost) happened to UCLA in Charlottesville two weeks ago. If the Trojans are thinking back to last weekend’s wonderful memories or resting on their laurels against an opponent they presume will be underwhelming, then things could get a little hairy.
I, for one, don’t see it. It feels too early in the season for a big letdown game and traveling cross country to play on a national primetime stage should be plenty of motivation.
Hutchings’ performance against Murphy will be crucial – losing Pullard for the first half of this one, where you just know he’d be so big against a running quarterback, is tough. But I expect the Trojans to get the job done on defense, while the USC offense gets back in gear after last week’s grinder.
USC 42, Boston College 14
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).