Coming into this season, the expectations on offense were off the charts. USC returned as talented an offense as most anyone could ever imagine. The quarterback, Matt Leinart, is a Heisman Trophy winner, the starting tailback, Reggie Bush, should be the next Heisman Trophy winner and the other tailback is arguably the finest power tailback that I have seen in quite a while. In most any other scenario, Lendale White would also be a very legitimate Heisman candidate in his own right. I guess the backfield that had Paul McDonald at quarterback, Marcus Allen at fullback and Charlie White at tailback may have been comparable, but the game was somewhat different in the late 1970's. If I had to choose, I would cast my vote to the current group, having been around and having seen both play extensively. One should not neglect to add David Kirtman and Brandon Hancock to this equation. Both of those guys can catch the ball, block and even run reasonably well on occasion.
To go along with the mighty backfield, USC has its most dominant offensive line since that same 1979 group. How good this current Oline will do at the next level remains to be seen, but at the collegiate level, this group excels. The biggest and most pleasant surprise has been Tautusi "Deuce" Lutui. Last year he came to USC with all the accolades in the world from the JC ranks, but he was a bit slow and over his ideal playing weight by a significant amount. Yet he came back for his senior season ready to compete and he has not disappointed. With the return of former starter Winston Justice, Deuce took the opportunity to win the left guard spot and SC has not looked back since. He has continued a trait started with John Drake of having a road grinder at the left guard and he has made one All American Team so far. As for the other members of the line, there is not a weak link in the group. Winston has shown some signs of the one year layoff, and it might cost him come draft day should he decide to go out after this season. On the other hand, he is one of those players that is likely to tear it up at the combines. How many legitimate 6'6, 300 pound guys look lean, can run a sub 4.8 forty for real and can move like he can?? Ryan Kalil has become one of the better centers in the Pac-10 and a real anchor on the line as well. Matua has stepped way up as well. In 2004, he would occasionally get schooled, but that has not been the case so far this season and to my eye, Sam Baker is simply steady in a very complimentary way.
To compliment the talent already mentioned, USC has a terrific group of receivers and tight ends, invisible as they have been at times. Steve Smith has made some great catches though he has put a few more on the ground than some might have expected. Dwayne Jarrett makes so many unbelievable grabs that we are now disappointed when he does not catch every single ball that comes near him. He has excelled to the point that he has been named one of three finalists for the prestigious Biletnikoff Award What is most amazing is that he is only a young sophomore. His best football is still way ahead of him. And then there is the next guy in line to become a superstar wide receiver. Freshman Patrick Turner has had time to develop and he has shown some signs of brilliance. One can only hope that he is healthy enough to contribute toward a victory against the Bruins. If he can't, then very reliable Chris McFoy is another very steady player that has had his moments. In fact, the only thing that appears to be missing from his game is opportunity. To compliment the wide receiving corps is a fine group of tight ends. If the wrs have had any one problem, it would be that they don't always shine when faced with very physical coverage from the cornerbacks. However, to counter that, USC does have Dominique Byrd and Fred Davis. Both are more than capable, though Dom has been injured and he has not demonstrated the incredible hands since coming back from his hip injury that he has shown in the past. When I think of Fred Davis, I see a weapon just waiting to break out. Am I the only guy who has noticed that when Fred gets the ball he runs like a power tailback. This kid really knows what to do with the rock. When our wrs are jammed, I am still hoping that the TE's are utilized more and more. But to be fair, there is only one ball and with such talent, somebody is obviously going to be left out. I should also mention that Dale Thompson has been a terrific blocker when healthy and Jimmy Miller is another guy who can flat out catch the ball, as he has done for two TD's this season.
There has been much talk about the new offensive coordinator and assistant head coach/quarterback coach often referred to as Sarkiffian. When Norm Chow left, some were fearful that our offense would flounder. Others claimed that we don't even need an offensive coordinator. With this amount of talent, just let Matt go out there and call his own game. And others feel that we will be fine this year, it's next year that the problems will arise. (Personally, I would like to finish this year before I worry about next year). Whatever position one takes, there are a few facts that cannot be disputed. This offense has average more points than any team did under Norm Chow. This offense is on course to be the first ever to have a 3000 yard passer, 2 one thousand yard rushers and quite possibly 2 one thousand yard receivers. Maybe Sarkiffian does not call all the plays that many fans would like to see. Maybe Chow would have done even better, but then again, maybe not. Maybe it is Pete Carroll himself who has a bigger input into this offense than most any of us know with certainty. Having seen the Texas Longhorns on a number of occasions, I can say this with certainty. In my opinion, this current USC offense is the best in college football this year and if SC wins out, it will certainly go down as one of the very best units of all time, if not the very best.
So how about the defense? Well, it is true that this unit is not as powerful as the prior two editions. The 2004 Trojans had Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson, Matt Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu, all of whom were mentioned on some various All American Teams. To my surprise, I think the loss of Tatupu turned out to be as crucial as any of the others. When one realizes that Lofa is perhaps the leading candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, one realizes just how good that guy really was at USC. Nonetheless, this defense has played some pretty good football. I had hoped for an even more dominating unit by this time in the season, but it has not worked out quite as desired. Excuses are never acceptable, but I will simply offer up some facts and each fan can decide for himself how to judge the unit.
The injuries and loss of personnel has been so extensive on the defensive side of the ball, that USC is still undefeated is somewhat of a surprise. The down four have been relatively free of injuries, though LaJaun Ramsey has missed some significant time. To my eye, the DT and NG have not been able to play at the level of their predecessors as of yet, though Sedrick Ellis, in particular, has stepped way up. Without Manny Wright, nobody has really stepped up as a dominant substitute on the inside and one can only hope that as some of the youngsters mature, this situation will improve. On the other hand, the defensive ends have played very well much of the time. Both Frostee Rucker and Lawrence Jackson have truly performed at all conference level or better for much of the time. The injury to Jeff Schweiger seems to have set him back and Kyle Moore is still learning the position. It is hard for a true freshman not to get worn down over the course of the season without having had the benefit of a full year in the Carlisle system.
When talking about Mash Units, one might also be referring to the USC linebacking and defensive backs. Injuries are one thing, but what we have seen this season borders on the ludicrous. First, SC lost potential superstar Eric Wright due to non-football related problems. Well, that's tough and the way things go. Then, budding star Terrell Thomas went down. To make matters worse, promising true frosh Will Harris has missed most of the season with one injury or another. It keeps on going from there. True Frosh Kevin Thomas missed major time due to mono. Nickel back John Walker has missed several games due to a badly sprained ankle. Emerging star Kevin Ellison went down for the season on a fluke play against ASU. Josh Pinkard has had to make the transition from backup safety to starting corner. Think about that folks. This is just unreal. And the situation with the linebackers has been equally bizarre. A unit that looked to be talented and deep a couple of months ago can now barely suit up a whole unit. First, Brian Cushing went down with a dislocated shoulder in the first game. Then the starting Weakside backer Dallas Sartz went down with the same injury. Thus, SC was/ is playing its third string WLB named Thomas Williams. Ugh, that is until Thomas also went down with a knee injury. Now SC is playing Brian Cushing, not only a true frosh, but only about 80% healed at best and himself in need of shoulder surgery after the season. This is not an intentional comedy strip, but this gets worse. Starting MLB Oscar Lua has also gone down and his replacement, true frosh Ray Maualuga has had some well documented personal problems off the field. Making matters worse, a guy that might be as good as anyone, true frosh Luther Brown is out for the season after having back surgery. Are you kidding me? One would not want the Sam Linebackers to feel slighted, so I guess I should not forget to remind everyone that starting Sam linebacker Keith Rivers is also hampered by a chronic hamstring injury and he is once again doubtful against UCLA. Who would have ever guessed that one of the most crucial guys in the linebacking corps is former walk-on Colin Ashton.? And in the defensive backfield, who would have ever guessed that the oft and unfairly maligned Ting Twins would be playing such a vital role in Prime Time minutes? Come on now, who would or could have ever guessed this? Suffice it to say, in many ways, I think Coach Pete Carroll and his staff have done their best job ever molding this group of guys into a defensive unit that is still one of the better units in the Pac-10, if not the very best.
Finally, how about special teams? Well, how about them?? This has been the biggest disaster since Pete Carroll has been the head coach. The punt coverage has been the worst I have ever seen. Tom Malone has not fully recovered from his hip injury and I suspect that contributes significantly. The kickoff coverage is right there with the punt coverage and these units suffered a huge blow when Desmond Reed was lost for the season. Troy Van Blarcom is somewhat of an enigma as well. He obviously has the leg to boot the ball deep into the endzone as he has done on several occasions. Yet far too often, the kicks go all over the place. On a bright note, there is Mario Danelo. There have not been many demands placed on Mario's shoulders in terms of field goals. However, when called on to hit the relatively safe kick, he has been very accurate. Kudos to Mario. Obviously, the numerous injuries have played havoc with this part of the team, but my guess is that in the off season, things will be fixed. In the meantime, I hope SC punts the ball out of bounds against a kid named Maurice Drew. Why tempt fate?
So here we are. SC has the longest winning streak in it history. USC is in position to control its own destiny. If SC beats the Bruins, the Trojans will get the chance to play in the Rose Bowl and to compete for a third consecutive national title. Right now, the Trojans are at the top of the heap and if one were to pick up a copy of the current ratings, one might think we had taken a trip back in time. Win or lose, I can't believe how awesome these accomplishments really are. Having watched the number two rated team nearly wilt under the pressure yesterday, I have to take my hat off to this team and its coaches. Never, ever could I have envisioned this scenario. Back in the days of Hackett, I had trouble enough envisioning mere survival of yet another season. So folks, all I can say is this is a true fantasy come true and I will personally enjoy every single second. No telling how long this might last, so enjoy each and every second. And btw, I do think USC will beat the Bruins and they will accomplish their season's goal in the end.