Game 2: ‘With My Last Bit of Hope, a Tin Can and a Rope, I Just Want to Break Free’
The USC Trojans (1-0), ranked eighth by the Associated Press (AP) and 10th in the USA Today poll, continue a season-opening three-game home stand this Saturday, Sept. 12, against the Sun Belt Conference’s Idaho Vandals (0-1). Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Pac-12 Network cable television audience. It’s the ninth meeting between the schools, but just the second in the past 86 years. The Trojans and Vandals played seven times in the 1920s as Pacific Coast Conference foes, but after 1929, did not meet again until 2007, a 38-10 USC victory.
Last weekend, the Trojans opened the season with a 55-6 whipping of Idaho’s Sun Belt brethren Arkansas State. Cody Kessler overcame some early offensive line struggles (USC allowed five sacks in the first half) to throw four TD passes, while the Trojans averaged eight yards per play in rolling up 509 total yards. Perhaps more impressively, the USC defense – featuring waves of young and veteran playmakers, alike – held a potent and veteran Red Wolves offense to a single touchdown and forced four turnovers. Meanwhile, the Vandals dropped a 45-28 home decision to Ohio University on Thursday, Sept. 3. The Bobcats manhandled the Idaho defense to the tune of 489 total yards.
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian (10-4 at USC; 44-33 career collegiate head coaching record) is in his second season at the helm of the Trojans after leading Washington from 2009-13. Idaho headman Paul Petrino (2-22) is in his third season in Moscow – and may have had a rockier go of it in August than Sarkisian. Petrino blew up at a local beat reporter on the sideline during one workout, earning Idaho national attention for a change – but not the kind its fan base likely desires. Of course, with only a single win in each of Petrino’s two seasons (by two points over Temple in 2013 and by 12 over New Mexico State in 2014), an average margin of defeat that tops three touchdowns, and a young roster tied for the sixth-fewest seniors (13) of any Bowl Subdivision schools in America, Petrino might be feeling some heat.
Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Kris Cinkovich has some talent at quarterback – though it’s young and mistake prone. Sophomore Matt Linehan (son of former St. Louis Rams’ head coach Scott Linehan) is the starter. He threw for more than 2,500 yards in 2014, completing 58.3 percent of his passes. However, he was picked off 18 times – against just 11 TD passes. He was more accurate against Ohio (75 percent), completing a nation-leading 36 passes, but that interception bugaboo jumped up twice. A downfield passing attack has been hard for the Vandals to come by in recent seasons (Idaho gained just 297 yards passing vs. Ohio, despite those 36 connections), which is perhaps why strong-armed, 6’6” redshirt freshman Jake Luton is expected to see some snaps on Saturday.
The top receiving option is senior slot man Dezmon Epps, who notched a nation-leading 15 receptions (for 160 yards) last weekend. Epps was booted from the team in 2014 after catching 79 balls and four TDs in 2013. With sophomore receiver David Ungerer suffering a foot injury against Ohio that should shelve him for 4-6 weeks, juniors Deon Watson (5 catches, 48 yards, one TD in the opener) and Trent “Buck” Cowan (2 catches, 14 yards) become that much more important. Watson can play both receiver and tight end, while Cowan shifted from wideout to tight end during the offseason as the Vandals looked to improve their overall team speed. Juniors Jacob Sannon and Callen Hightower (a transfer) and sophomore Reuben Mwehla will also see time.
Senior thumper Elijhaa Penny appears set to carry the load at running back. After gaining 589 yards (4.2 yards per carry) mainly in a reserve role in 2014, he carried the ball 17 times for 69 yards and two TDs against Ohio. He also caught five passes for 32 yards. Sophomore Aaron Duckworth saw limited opportunities in the opener as a change of pace.
Four players with starting experience return for the Vandals up front, with only junior tackle Jeff Travillion making his first start last weekend. He’s joined by senior guard (and captain) Dallas Sandberg on what Idaho calls the “quick” side, while on the “strong side” sophomore Jordan Rose is at tackle and junior Mason Woods, who can also play tackle, is at guard. Junior Steven Matlock is the center. Experienced depth is extremely limited here. Idaho rushed for just 100 yards last weekend, while Linehan was sacked three times.
Defensive coordinator and safeties coach Mike Breske – who was fired by Washington State after 2014 – brings a new 3-4 base to the Vandals, which has meant some positional transitions to get the best playmakers on the field. To say it’s a work in progress may be kind: two Ohio quarterbacks combined to complete 20-of-25 passes for 284 yards (14.2 yards per completion), while the Bobcats rushed for 205 yards on 5.4 yards per carry, including eight rushes of 10 yards or more. The Vandals forced just one turnover (a sack/fumble) and two punts, while Ohio converted 50 percent of its third-down opportunities.
Up front, senior defensive end Quinton Bradley was a pre-season Sun Belt honors candidate after notching six sacks among his 52 stops a year ago. He picked up where he left off, snagging both of the Vandals’ sacks in the opener while making six tackles overall. Classmate Ryan Edwards is another returning starter on the nose (47 tackles/two sacks in his career). Junior Tueni Lupeamanu rounds out the starting trio at defensive tackle. He played in 10 games a season ago. Senior Kaylyn Ayers, junior Glen Antoine, and sophomore Zach Cable can rotate in, but lack much game experience.
Senior Marc Millan is the heart and soul of Idaho’s defense. After notching 192 total tackles in 2013 and 2014 combined, he returned from a hamstring injury in camp to notch seven stops (one for a loss) playing at both the strong and BUCK positions. Classmate Broc Westlake brings his experience to the middle, and he tied Millan with seven tackles against Ohio. Senior Chris Edwards made his first start at linebacker after spending most of his career in the secondary, playing both outside backer spots (BUCK and on the weak side). He, too, had seven tackles. Sophomore BUCK rusher Kevin Shelton had five stops, while classmate Tony Lashley and true freshman Kaden Elliss are also in the mix.
Senior Jayshawn Jordan is a three-year starter at cornerback. He has 164 career tackles (six last week) and three interceptions. JC transfer Isaiah Taylor got the call at the other corner spot last week, and was welcomed by a TD pass on Ohio’s first possession. Another transfer, Kendrick Trotter, also saw time at corner. Senior strong safety Russell Siavii had five tackles but was burned twice for Bobcat scores, while sophomore Armond Hawkins appears to be splitting time between free safety and nickel. Sophomore Jordan Grabski also plays in the safety rotation.
Idaho Special Teams
Junior Austin Rehkow may be the Vandals’ most decorated player. The punter/placekicker was a Ray Guy Award finalist in 2014 and is a two-time Walter Camp All-American. He finished first nationally in punting in 2013 and second in 2014 (47.8 yards per punt each year) As a placekicker, he’s been a little more sporadic, making 23-of 38 field goals in his career (including two-for-two last weekend), but missing only two of 57 career PATs. Epps, Jordan, and Penny share the kick and punt return duties.
USC Offensive Gameplan
When a team puts up 55 points and 509 yards in its first game, it’s often tough to find a whole lot of issues. Kessler spread the ball around to his impressive array of receiving options – with Juju Smith-Schuster taking the fourth play of the season 61 yards for a touchdown, and Isaac Whitney and De’Quan Hampton also providing some big play spark. Meanwhile, Tre Madden’s return from injuries that swallowed up his last season-and-a-half included an impressive 65-yard touchdown jaunt, and freshman Ronald Jones II sent murmurs through the crowd with an impressive burst on a 44-yard TD run. However, a couple of stray Kessler deep balls and some stops-and-starts in the rushing attack all take a back seat for concern to the five sacks USC allowed in the first half.
While Arkansas State does boast a pair of solid defensive ends and a confusing stunt-and-twist pass rush, USC’s offensive line has plenty to clean up this Saturday. Fortunately, the Stanford front seven is another week off, and the Trojans get to face a group searching for more than one go-to player in the pass rush, while also looking to stiffen up against big plays. If USC’s front five is going to get some rhythm going, this Idaho defensive front looks like the perfect foil.
Expect the Trojans to remain balanced – the 32 runs and 32 passes USC had last week were skewed by those five sacks, but generally, the Trojans mixed things up well. How does Justin Davis fit into the tailback mix as he returns from an injury-riddled training camp? And how will Steven Mitchell and Adoree’ Jackson’s injuries affect their availability? Sarkisian and Clay Helton would like the USC offense to play at a faster pace, and with better work in the third-down conversion department, the Trojans could push their play total over 80 pretty easily. The only issue there is the Idaho defense: put simply, USC could be scoring far too quickly to keep the play count up.
USC Defensive Gameplan
One big note that’s been kicked around since Saturday is that 23 players – 13 freshmen – made their Trojan debuts against Arkansas State. A key part of this was the platoon system utilized by Justin Wilcox’s defense, which featured 22 different players playing at least 25 defensive snaps during the game (for more on USC’s intriguing participation chart, check out Shotgun Spratling’s story from Wednesday). While Jackson’s minor injury gave cornerbacks Jonathan Lockett and Iman Marshall plenty of good work, perhaps no one player had as impressive a debut as MLB Cameron Smith, who became the first true freshman to start at an an opener at an inside linebacker spot since Riki Grey (now Ellison) in 1978 – and celebrated with a team-leading seven tackles.
Overall, USC’s defense was impressive against a veteran, multifaceted Arkansas State attack, forcing four turnovers and allowing just a single third-quarter scoring drive. It was a pleasant surprise to see the Trojans able to shuttle players and groups in and out of the game so effectively against the Red Wolves’ quick-moving attack – and the improved talent and depth levels in each group became quickly apparent.
USC’s keys this week will be similar to last: get as many players into the action as possible; test new groupings and pairings in both the front seven and in the secondary; and pressure the offense into mistakes – sacks and turnovers. How will Claude Pelon slot back into the defensive line mix after the Trojans had two clear trios working last week? His return can only help the growing depth there. Still, Idaho only qualifies as an early-season quiz. The big tests start next Saturday.
Idaho is an also-ran in the same conference in which Arkansas State has been a recent bowl fixture. The Vandals have won one game in each of the past three seasons and any measurable progress under Petrino the past two seasons has been difficult to see, even for the most dedicated of the Vandal faithful.
There isn’t much intrigue in this one. The story lines of last week – the season opener, the Red Wolves’ apparent capability on offense, and a first look at the newest Trojans – are gone. And, I imagine about 20,000 of the more than 79,000 on hand at the Coliseum last weekend will also be missing.
However, it will be a good test of the hold this coaching staff has on this group of Trojans. How prepared will they be? How sharp will they be? Can they build on the lack of penalties in the opener? Can the defense continue to sharpen its rotations while forcing turnovers? Can the offensive line clean up some of its early issues? How will Kessler’s newer skill position targets continue to grow? How USC answers these questions should merely serve to decide the Trojans’ margin of victory as they move to the expected 2-0.
USC 62, Idaho 7
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 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)