The best thing to say about this football game was "it was better than last week". It was a tall order for USC to go in and be confident in the first half after a road loss and another road game in the Pac-10. The only people who can't stand to see USC fail are USC people. Everyone else smelled the blood in the water after Cal and was satisfied to see the Trojans faltering in the first half. It's safe to say now that there are some pretty big zits on the USC Trojan football team. Matt Leinart's ailing legs, a secondary that seems to be losing confidence and a run defense that suddenly looks just a touch vulnerable. All that is OK. It's OK to have some weaknesses because you can pull yourself through with superior coaching and heart, 2nd half play and adjustments. The Trojans were able to do just that at Sun Devil Stadium. I will address the following issues right now.
1) Running back – You've heard me talk about LenDale White on radio, television and in this column. I believe he is the best chance the Trojans have at a physical running game. For the time being, LenDale has answered all Trojan running game questions. LenDale White has a bank of instinctive football ability that you don't often see in young backs. As big as his body is, he's yet to fill out. He could be very special as a Trojan back as his career develops. By putting in the best rushing performance by a freshman in USC history, he eclipses such names as Malaefou MacKenzie and Delon Washington to put himself next to guys like Charles White in the stat book with that solid performance. The 21 carries alone for a true freshman is really impressive. You can't carry the ball a lot as a freshman. This guy is durable. He ran with confidence, he made his cutbacks naturally, he was powerful, he was hungry for yards and he was angry. Most importantly, he held on to the football. All great signs for a young tailback. He also faked well and was good in play action situations. If you notice though, LenDale didn't do too much pass protecting. That is going to be the challenge for him. The question will be, can LenDale stay in every play to pick up blitzes and identify linebackers and defensive fronts. The answer at this point is probably not. Hershel Dennis played well and will be a nice change-up back to LenDale if he gets the nod for the bulk of the carries (and why wouldn't he). Reggie Bush right now is a perimeter guy and should remain so. Brandon Hancock had a 33 yard touchdown pass and the fact that he showed abnormal speed for a fullback on that play really speaks well for the future. Defenses will have to account for him now that they've seen him on film doing that.
2) Quarterback situation – Matt Leinart is unmistakably the offensive leader of this football team. He seems to be a calming presence out there, he seems to have relaxed enough to do the things day in and day out to move the offense. It doesn't hurt when the run game is grooving. Leinart was peg-legging it out there and should be commended. The guy is not very mobile and sometimes looks a little awkward running around, especially with ligament problems in his knees. My only concern would be how many more shots can he take? He's already a statue back there. Matt Cassel hopefully gained some confidence by playing a quarter and throwing what should have been a near touchdown pass to Mike Williams (bad call by the officials). Supposedly Brandon Hance would've started the 2nd half if Leinart wasn't able to go. Booty is still hanging out on the sideline wearing a baseball cap and holding a clipboard with a 5 o'clock shadow. No matter what is going on with the quarterback situation, USC fans should hope that Leinart can start every game and finish the season. As uncertain and erratic as his play may be (he was not impressive in the first half of this game), he gives USC the best chance to win right now.
3) Secondary – The USC secondary is not as impressive as I believed it to be earlier in the season. On radio, I would scoff at people who called in to the show and regarded it as a weakness. The truth of the matter is USC's lack of pressure on the quarterback last week vs Cal and Saturday vs Arizona State in the first half set the secondary up for failure. The success of Pete Carroll's defense revolves around the ability to pressure the quarterback and force bad throws, sacks and fumbles. Basically, creating chaos and anarchy in an opposing offenses backfield. If that is not happening, bad things ensue. However, some things in USC's secondary cannot be ignored. The play of Marcell Allmond the past two weeks has been shocking and strange. He doesn't seem to be himself. He did have an ankle problem in the first half against Arizona State but even last week he wasn't getting a good bump on people when he was mugged up on receivers, he's not tackling well, he's not playing with confidence. For now he will rotate with Ronald Nunn between nickel and corner and try to figure out how to get some swagger back in Marcell. Will Poole is a star. He's a solid tackler and along with Lofa Tatupu, who should be back soon, he is the Trojans biggest surprise this season. Darnell Bing's youth and young manhood seem to be the crux of his difficulties right now. Darnell has the potential to be one of the great ones but at this point he's up and down. I like Pete Carroll getting Dallas Sartz involved for a few series during a meaningful part of the football game. Some new blood back there is a good thing. The Trojans should be OK as long as the pass rush can step it up like they did in the second half.
4) Shaun Cody – A couple weeks ago I wrote that Shaun Cody was a step slow after coming back from a knee injury. He seemed a lot faster against the Sun Devils. Shaun looked as strong, lean and dominant as ever. However, he is still a half step short of his form before the injury. This is evident is his fourth and fifth stride when chasing down a ballcarrier. He's improving every week and is still your best bet for greatness on USC's highly touted defensive line. Omar Nazel has proven to be a great emotional leader and he kept that defense together on the sideline when times were hard on a hot day in Tempe. Senior leaders like Omar, and remember that Omar was there when times were not as pleasant, is eventually what will pull this team through this Pac-10 season.
Really quickly, here are some other performances by players who should be noted; Matt Grootegoed (truly one of the most angry football players and solid tacklers ever to put on a Trojan uniform), Danny Urquhart (a tough first half, he recovered in the second half and did a pretty good job filling in for Lofa), John Drake (350 lbs is a lot to lay down on a defensive end and he did it a few times. Congratulations to John on his first start), Eric Torres (welcome back, he adds much needed depth to the line), Dominique Byrd (continues to impress at tight end, they need to get him more involved in the offense) and, of course, Keary Colbert and Mike Williams (USC's two best weapons offensively, along with LenDale).
Stanford is next at home. The Trojans survived two tough road games and they're still together even though they suffered a terrible loss at Memorial Stadium. Pete Carroll was able to rally his players and win in a tough situation in the desert. The most important thing was getting that winning feeling back on what onetime was, and is again, a winning football team. They are well led and well coached, they played aggressively and played to win in the second half and at the end of the day that's all that matters. Now everybody knows my feelings about Stanford. Perhaps it has something to do with my Cal connection. Why does Stanford bug me? Maybe it's the tree mascot, which I've never really fully understood. Maybe it's the cheese and crackers and wine at their tailgate parties. Maybe it's the elitist attitude (much worse than SC's). I don't know what it is but the point is USC should beat them and beat them badly. Look for the Trojans to win on Saturday and all but squash those bad memories that Cal dealt them two weeks ago. It's back to work, have a good week and Fight On.