So what really happened in this game, and did it go as expected? Well, let's start with the obvious issues of the wide receivers. In my infinite wisdom, I grossly underestimated just how much we will miss the experience and talent of Mike Williams and Keary Colbert. I made the mistake of thinking the young guys could just step it, step it up and that the Trojans would not miss a beat. All I can say to that is WRONG! Turns out that the kids still have a long way to go. I have no doubt that in time, before this year is over, things will open up and the wide receivers will improve greatly. However, it is simply going to take time. Whereas Matt Leinart was uncharacteristically nervous in the early part of the game, I am now positive that some of the anxiety was due to receivers not being where they were supposed to be and because the receivers were not able to get separation. I should have realized this would be a real problem early on. One thing that I did anticipate was seeing Reggie Bush emerge as one of the leading receivers on this team and that did, in fact materialize. Being as fast and talented as he is, and being a running back who can catch and fly with the ball, Reggie simply creates mismatches that teams cannot defend. Kudos to Coach Chow, Matt Leinart and Reggie for capitalizing on this.
It took a while, but Steve Smith finally emerged as the guy I know he will be. I am sure some will point out the sure ball he missed, but let me remind everyone that the now departed Keary Colbert was good for one or two drops a game for much of his early career. I think Steve Smith was crucial to last night's victory and his speed and sure hands will pay huge dividends as the season progresses. I think Dwayne Jarrett is a star in the making. He did drop that one ball that some will emphasize, but he caught that fade, albeit it out of bounds and he showed toughness going across the middle on a few occasions. It will take a while for him to get in the groove, but with his height and big hands, it is only a matter of when, not if. McFoy showed good hands and that is not trivial. Unfortunately, it seemed to me watching on Television, that all the receivers were having trouble getting open and it took a while to figure out how to isolate Reggie and utilize his speed to make the defenders pay for their tight coverage elsewhere. In the end, SC still gained 271 yards in the air without a pic utilizing an entirely different group of recievers and that says a bunch about Chow, Leinart and the actual talent on the squad.
For the entire preseason, yours truly said this team will go only as far as this Oline takes it. It Leinart spends his days on the ground and running for his life , there will be trouble. Fortunately, the Oline performed adequately. Sure, there were breakdowns, but they gave Matt just enough time to do what had to be done. I absolutely wondered aloud on more than one occasion why we did not continue to pound them with LeDale White when it seemed like he was getting huge chunks of yards on back to back occasions, but I figure that every time I have questioned why Norm Chow does something, I eventually ate my words. So I will say this, he is the Offensive Guru, and although it surely looked like we missed the chance to pound it out versus this Hokie Defense, at least on certain series, in the end all worked out. I must also readily admit that on 4th and inches, when we did go to LenDale, we were stopped. However, that is a time when the qb sneak is the play of choice, or so it would seem, and that opinion was corroborated later in the game when Matt, all 6'5 of him, did sneak it for a first down on fourth and short. As for the players missed on the team, after last night's game, one might conclude that the loss of Winston Justice is as important as most any other. At various times in the game, SC used three different guys at right tackle. There was Lutui, Kyle Williams and even John Drake got in there. None of the guys was embarrassed, but none made me forget Winston. This unit is athletic and tough, but it is going to take time to gel. On a positive note, there were no Oline holds, no false starts and the young line provided some pretty good holes and blocks in their first outing. Ryan Kalil appeared to go the entire game and he more than held his own. That is a great job for a new starting center.
How about the vaunted USC defense? How did they do? Well, early on, the Defense was seemingly handled by the Virginia Tech offense. Bryan Randall made broken play after broken play and the option and running qb took their toll on the SC Defense. A superb interception by Lofa Tatupu saved what looked like an impending score by the Hokies. I did anticipate that it would take up to a half to acclimate to the speed and talent of a running quarterback and it did unfold that way. I am not sure exactly what adjustment Coach Orgeron and Coach Carroll made at halftime, but it looked like they assigned a spy to Randall and the results were positive from the SC perspective. A guy who had been running wild in the first half was kept in check in the second half. He was on target for a while and a very questionable offensive pass interference call against Tech may have saved the game for USC. However, luck never hurts and as an SC honk, I will take it. I also want to point out that on what looked like somewhat of a makeup call, Justin Wyatt was called for defensive holding on Tech's last scoring drive and his hold was about as blatant as the Tech player's offensive pass interference. After watching those calls, I agree with the old addage that sometimes it is better to be lucky than good!
How did the SC linebackers and db's play? Well, they looked "ok" but SC still has not figured out to cover a Tight End coming across the field. There Tight End was open all night long and we were seemingly helpless in defending him. The corners were impressive in their coverage when they were in man. Wyatt and Nunn were where they were supposed to be. I still think Arbet is in deep when trying to play guys one on one and I would love to see him play more as a rover or as fifth back where he can use his keen sense for the ball to make big plays. It will be interesting to see his role evolve as the season progresses. It turns out that SC is a bit thin at safety since Gregg Farr did not even travel with the team. Turns out that he may not be eligible, at least till an appeal over his elibiligy is settled. I can't recall seeing Ware in the game, and I only saw Pinkard and Wright on special teams. Bing, with the exception of the cheap shot he got caught giving late in the game, was more aggressive than he was last year and he showed his fine speed and tackling ability. For the Trojans to be successful this year, some reliable depth will have to emerge at that position.
The defensive line was seemingly handled by the Tech Oline in the first half, but by later in the second half, the superior speed and athleticism of the SC dline took over. In my opinion, the absolute star for the Dline was Mike Patterson. Once again he proved to be too quick and he was virtually unblockable. I do have to say that for all the depth that was metioned in the preseason, only three guys played on the inside, namely Patterson, Manual Wright, and Mike Patterson. I did not see Sedric Ellis or anyone else in the game on the inside. I also feel that we really miss LaJuan Ramsey. His speed and versatility is a most welcome and needed element of this defensive front. Travis Tofi played behind Lawrence Jackson, but for much of the time, Shaun Cody moved over and relieved LoJack and Wright played on the inside. The one kid who also stood out to my eye was Jeff Schweiger. Even as a true frosh in his first game, the kid showed he can make plays. He is faster and quicker than most Offensive Tackles can handle and he got a very important sack shortly after entering the game. Frostee Rucker will feel the heat from this kid all season long.
Now comes our not so special special teams. Our kickoff return team did not show much last night. I am not sure if there was no crease, but we did not do well return their kicks. I was hoping to see what Desmond, catch me if you can, Reed could do, but he never got a shot. Reggie was the star of the game, but to my eye, he was not at his sharpest when returning kickoffs last night. Whether Virginia Tech was that good, or whether we had some other breakdown remains a mystery to me at this time. The punts were fine, but SC had a few procedure problems on a series that caused Tom to punt three times. Such is life in the first game of the season. And how many SC fans had some choice words to say when the first field goal attempt was not even close. To be fair, that one was on the snapper or holder more than it was on Ryan Kileen. Nonetheless, it was a back breaker to come away with no points after a nice drive.
How about Matt Leinart? Mr Heisman Trophy candidate, IMO, ended up being the true star of the game. Reggie will get the accolades, but I just have to love how tough and good Leinart has become. Sure, he started out in a shakey manner. In the end, check the stats, baby, just check the stats. Matt ended up with 1 for 29, and three touchdowns without a single pick. He scrambled better than some of us remember him doing and he was on fire in the clutch. Yes, he overthrew an open McFoy early in the game but in crunch time, he was MONEY. I would love to know exactly how many times his receivers were going one way when the play called for another. Also, I want to remind people of how many times Carson would overthrow the open long receiver. Did anyone notice just how perfectly those long passes to Reggie were thrown?? That is not a given. Reggie could not score if the ball was not on the mark. I am rapidly becoming one of Matt Leinart's biggest fans and advocates. Last year I was convinced we would have qb problems and man, it is great to be way off base. I think Matt is one tough and very smart and talented quarterback. SC is fortunate to have him.
Finally, what about the coaching job? I think the SC guys were fast and in shape. They were not pulling at their pants nor were they sucking gas. The defense took a while to make the adjustments and I was hoping that after Kstate last year, it would not take an entire half to adjust. To their credit, the coaches did get the message across and Randall's running was neutralized in the second half. I like SC's chances much better when a running qb has to win by throwing as opposed to winning with his legs. Much to the staff's credit, they seemed to keep this team focused when that was obviously hard to do. No sense rehashing the whole enchalada. Suffice it to say that all the off the field distractions could have been devastating, but they were not. SC was well prepared and much credit needs to go to a fine Hokie team that is athletic in their own right and that played some really solid football. Of course, being the homer that I am, I do think that SC's talent is superior and as the season progresses, many of the kinks that surfaced will be worked out. I also believe that this staff will mazimie the benefits of this hard fought and somewhat lucky win to get the point across that nothing will be easy this season. SC is a marked team and they will have to play their best ball to win every game. Prior accolades are worth the paper they are written on and the kids will have to show up every day to play ball. Starting the season 1-0 beats the heck out of the alternative.