The coverage begins: USC vs OU preview

Well it's only a few weeks till the Orange Bowl, this year also known as the BCS Championship Game. For the first time ever, the Univeristy of Southern California Trojans will be playing in that game and at stake is a claim to the BCS National Championship of College Football.

Well it's only a few weeks till the Orange Bowl, this year also known as the BCS Championship Game. For the first time ever, the Univeristy of Southern California Trojans will be playing in that game and at stake is a claim to the BCS National Championship of College Football. To avoid being called the ultimate hypocrite, I was careful how I labelled that title. After all, last year USC was squeezed out of the BCS Championship Game, yet after a victory in the Rose Bowl, USC still claimed the National Championship based on finishing number one in the AP Poll. Hopefully, this year, the winner of this game will be number one in all the major polls and there will be less of an argument, though a convincing Auburn victory over Virginia Tech might still place some doubt in many people's minds if either SC or Oklahoma were to win a close, sloppy game. Whereas this is USC's first appearance, this is the third such game for the Oklahomer Sooners under Coach Bob Stoops.

Over the past many years I have witnessed some of the more interesting and much anticipated matchups that one can imagine.This game matches two undefeated teams who made it through the entire season ranked number one and two respectively. I can never remember a more intriguing game which pits two teams with such similar accolades and similar college football histories. When rabid SC fans read that statement, they might take offense, but I really believe it. Think about the recent Heisman Trophy Ceremony. Obviously, Matt Leinart won the coveted award to become USC's 6th winner. Ironically, three of the other four contestants were also from either USC or OU. That is simply unprecedented. Jason White, Oklahoma's talented quarterback won the Heisman Trophy last year and this year he won the Davey O'Brien award as the nation's top quarterback as well as the Maxwell award as the nation's top football player. Meanwhile, Matt Leinart also won the Walter Camp Award as the Player of the Year. Two other underclassmen, Reggie Bush for SC and Adrian Peterson for OU were also amongst the finalists for the Heisman Trophy as well as members of various All-American teams, with Peterson being named as a running back and Bush being named at more than one spot, depending on the organization naming the team. Add to this list the names Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson, Matt Grootegoed, and Lofa Tatupu for USC as well as Jammal Brown, Dan Cody, Mark Clayton and Lance Mitchell and one has an incredible number of All-American type players on each squad. USC has earned ten previous national championships and the University of Oklahoma claims 7 national championships with SC and OU splitting that honor in 1974.

So how do these teams really compare and what might we look for when they play? Let's start with the Oklahoma Offense against the USC Defense. This particular battle could be one for the ages. USC's defense is one of the better units in the nation allowing only 12.5 points and 271.6 per game while Oklahoma averages 36.1 points and 469.6 yards per game. It does not take a genius to figure out that something has to give . OU brings one of the best balanced offenses in the country and trying to keep the Sooners out of the endzone will be a real task for SC. Others may disagree, but I really think that having played California earlier this year will serve as a nice preparation for this game. Oklahoma brings an outstanding passsing game and the Sooners feature one of best running backs in America in Adrian Peterson. SC faced a similar challenge when they had to defend Arrington and the Bear Passing attack. In fact, if there is any quarterback alive who can perform siginficantly better than Rogers played against USC, I haven't seen him. Yet in the end, SC defeated the Bears. OU's phenomenal Oline should present a stiff test for Shaun Cody and company and conversely, I don't think OU has seen a faster, stronger or more athletic bunch than the group SC brings to the field. Outland Trophy winner Jammal Brown might very well find himself matched against Lombardi semifinalist Shaun Cody when Shaun plays DE and when that happens, it might be amongst the best battles of the night , if not the whole season. For USC to win this game, the down four, with the help of the linebackers and blitzing dbs must put Jason White on his back and contain the run. If White has time to throw, SC will be facing an uphill battle. Jason has been sacked only 7 times all season for a mere 53 yards, so if the Trojans can put him down, it could really shake him up. Of course, that is a big IF and it is one upon which the national championship might rest. The Trojans must also find a way to keep OU from converting on third downs. The Sooners have converted an amazing 54.6% of its 3rd down conversions and if that continues, that spells trouble with a capital T. The Southern California Linebackers will have to tackle well and not overpursue. With two All Americans, Lofa Tatupu and Matt Grootegoed, this is a fine group of linebackers for SC and they should be up to the task at hand, though stopping Peterson is not easy.

Oklahoma obviously runs the ball very well with Adrian Peterson but their receivers also catch the ball well. Mark Clayton will be one of the better receivers SC will face this year and Travis Wilson and Mark Bradley have also stepped it up in a big way. USC's dbs have played steady ball this year and it is not very common for SC to be beaten deep. Againt UCLA, the deep pass at the end of the game was a relatively uncommon occurrence. Take it to the bank that against the Sooners, the SC corners will be tested. Both Eric Wright and Justin Wyatt are very fast and although OU might look at the yards surrendered and think, OH BOY, this unit is not weak. Don't jump the gun too hastily Sooner fans. Yes, SC yielded 196.2 yards per game in a passing conference But the Sooners, who claim their dbs are the real deal, have themselves given up 193.8 yards per game in a running conference. The key to the pass defense is to keep the plays in front as the Trojans did against Cal and to get to White. The jarring hits dished out by Leach, Bing and perhaps Arbet and Ware will have to cause a few drops or fumbles to keep things interesting. It should also be noted that unless the Sooners goes against tendencies, they do not usually use the TE's as major weapons, though it is not impossible. Their leading tight end, James Moses caught only 16 balls this season with his backups catching even fewer. Overall, the strengths of both teams will be going head to head.

When SC has the ball, how will the Trojan Offense fair against a very good Oklahoma defense. SC's Offense averages, 442.8 yards per game while scoring 36.8 whereas the Oklahoma defense allows 280.2 yards per game and 13.7 points. As one can readily see, these statistics are almost mirror images of those I presented when comparing SC's Defense against OU's offense. So what is likely to happen in this battle of units? Well, OU's Defense in run by Bo Pelini, a Pete Carroll Disciple of sorts. What that likely means is that SC can expect to see a fast, athletic and hard hitting unit that will use stunts, blitzes and everything else to slow down the Offense. One thing Bo will have to do that he has not done in the last four years, is prepare to attack an offense that has one of the all time great Offensive Coordinators---Norm Chow and he will also have to prepare to face a Heisman Trophy quarterback, though he had to do that when he coached at Nebraska against the Sooners. Few of the teams that Oklahoma has faced this year present the kind of challenge that the Trojans will . USC also has a balanced offense that can run, and catch well, though SC tends to pass the ball better than it runs it.

IMO, this is the one aspect of the game that can really help or hurt USC's chances of winning. The young Trojan Offensive line has to step way up and give Matt Leinart time to throw the ball and make his reads. USC must also be able to run the ball well enough to prevent the Sooner Defense from teeing off on Leinart and really laying the wood. The SC receivers should be at full strength and they can and will present a very difficult challenge for the OU dbs. In their backfield, OU has a freshman named Marcus Walker. Mr Walker, please meet Mr. Dwayne Jarrett. I don't think there is a freshman corner alive who can cover Jarrett and not many seniors can do the job either. SC's receivers have improved dramatically as the season progressed and depsite a couple of now atypical drops against UCLA, they have been unstoppable as of late. I also want to remind the SC fans that despite all his accolades, Keary Colbert dropped one pass in many games and it did not stop him from being an all time SC receiver. The one part of the passing game that I can't see OU stopping is the pass to the tight end. It seems like any time USC really needs anything, they have the option of going to either Alex Holmes or rising star Dominique Byrd. When trying to defend Byrd, the Sooners will have a major headache. Of course, when it comes to receivers, the OU defense also has that other little situation to deal with, the one called Reggie Bush. They have not faced anything like this kid coming out of the backfield as a receiver. I only hope they try to cover him with a linebacker. Yeah, that is something I REALLY WANT TO SEE.

Can USC run the ball against Oklahoma? This is a very interesting question which brings me to two of the three most important guys that SC must have to really crank up the running game. These two important guys, to my way of thinking are John Drake and a healthy LenDale White. John is simply a roadgrinder who blocks out the sun along with the opposition's dline. I think Jeff Byers is superb and if he has to play he will do a fine job. Having said that, at this time, he is simply not as big and strong as Drake and he gives up some bull rushes that just won't happen with John. As for LenDale, if he is healthy, we can run that ball. All year long he has been plagued by a bad ankle and now his other ankle is in the infamous boot. With him, SC runs for power and speed. Without him, both Reggie and Hershel will have to step way up. Of course, for those who saw the last game, we know what Reggie is capable of doing form the line of scrimmage as a tailback. Nonetheless, things will go much better for SC with a healthy LenDale than without him.

The special team battle could be interesting. Both SC and OU have all -world punt returners, though I am not sure if Antonio Perkins is currently returning kicks. If so, either team, can return each and every kick all the way to the house if the defense is not careful. SC has shown some vulnerability to fake punts and long punt and kickoff returns so there has to be improvement in that department. If this game comes down to a field goal matchup, USC should have the advantage and yes, I did just write that. Kileen has come on nas of late and OU has major kicking problems with a record of only 8 or 16. In addition to that the Sooners have missed 3 PAT's this year whereas the Trojans have been perfect. SC has managed to keep penalties under control this year and the Sooners are a slightly more penalized team than SC, averaging 58.6 yards per game compared to SC's 42.7. As for the punting game, SC has done well, though Tom Malone's numbers are not as amazing as one might have predicted.

I mentioned earlier that I thought John Drake and LenDale white were two key players for SC. The third guy, IMO, may come as a big surprise to some. I honestly feel that Manny Wright is that guy. When he is healthy and motivated, he can bring it as well as or better than either Mike Patterson or Shaun Cody and that is saying quite a mouthful. If anyone has any questions, look at the Rose Bowl tape from last year. When he is playing his game, it will allow Shaun to spell LoJack (freshman All American Lawerence Jackson) as Defensive End and it should put our strength, Shaun Cody, against their strength, Jammal Brown and I will take that matchup. I believe that SC has really missed Wright and if he returns it will be a huge plus for the Trojans.

How about the coaching contest? I would bet that SC honks are saying SC has the edge and it ain't even close. Well, I think the world of SC's staff . However, this OU staff is not chickenfeed either. This is Coach Bob Stoops 6th year at the University of Oklahoma and it is his third trip to the BCS Championship game. That speaks volumes for what kind of staff he has and how good a head coach he is. We can argue that OU did not belong in the game against LSU last year all we want, but they were there and SC was not. I think Pete can match wits with any Offensive Coordinator and he will bring a well prepared group to the field. Similarly, Bob Stoops and his Defensive Coordianator Bo Pelini know a thing or two about Defense, but Norm Chow is one smart man and he will find the weaknesses and then try to exploit them. Being the SC Homer that I am, I like SC's staff in this matchup but it is close. This Oklahoma team is very well coached indeed.

Finally, there are the intangibles. How will all fame and accolades affect the players from both teams. Last year, Jason White laid and egg or two after winning the Heisman Trophy. He is bound and determined not to let that happen again. On the other side of the coin, will Matt and Reggie, neither one a senior, get big heads and let all this fame and glory get to their heads and affect their level of play?? I would doubt it and I mean that sincerely. However, one never knows for sure. And then there is the never ending issue of assistant coaches such as Norm Chow and Ed Orgeron leaving for other schools. We can get angry that I bring this up all we want, but these guys are interviewing and so far nobody knows for sure what's up. The players are human and it sure did seem to affect the Sooner players last year when Mike Stoops, the co Defensive Coordinator left for Arizona before the bowl game. Will it happen to SC? As the saying goes, only time will tell. As for my prediction, forget it. I am not in the predicting business right now. However, if forced to make a guestimate, I like a healthy USC team in a close game. However, if Drake, LenDale White and Manny Wright are all out of this game, I think it might be too much for the Trojans to overcome, though being wrong on that one would not bother me one single bit.


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