Game preview - USC vs Auburn

The USC Trojans are about to kick off the 2002 season against an opponent, that under closer inspection, shares some common traits with the Men of Troy. The similarities are evident enough that one must then ask, what will be the difference maker? What are the keys that will put one team over the other and lead to victory?

KEYS TO VICTORY WON'T BE FOUND IN THE CADILLAC

 

The USC Trojans are about to kick off the 2002/03 season against an opponent, that under closer inspection, shares some common traits with the Men of Troy.  The Auburn Tigers feature an outstanding running back, are lead on defense by a pre-season All American (Second Team), start a senior at quarterback, have shuffled tight ends over to the defensive line, are thrilled with their kicking game and have an offensive line that led their league in sacks allowed, giving up just one less than our own heavily criticized group.   The similarities are evident enough that one must then ask, what will be the difference maker?  What are the keys that will put one team over the other and lead to victory? 

 

Key number 1: Homefield.  Rarely would I say that SC's home is a tremendous benefit to Troy, but in this circumstance with an opponent that has to travel across the country to a place many of their players have only heard of, I think the advantage becomes distinct.  "Tiger Walk" is a major part of the pre-game ceremonies for Auburn and although their fans will try to simulate it for the players at the Coliseum, it cannot compare to having 70 thousand of their own cheering them through a human tunnel on opening day.  Coach T and his boys will be a long way from home, for nearly three days and nights and will be facing a hostile, Trojan crowd.  The population of Los Angeles is such that it is so spread out, as a visitor you hardly notice.  So when it does gather for an event, they kind of swarm.  It can be unsettling and downright inhospitable to out-of-towners. The Tigers return only 14 seniors to this team and have brought in a new offensive as well as defensive coordinator. Considering that nearly half their team is comprised of true freshman or redshirts, in their first college game, by the time kick-off comes 'round, Auburn might be more ready to go home than play ball. 

 

Key number 2:  Experience.  As mentioned above, the Tigers are not a team loaded with experienced players, and that begins at quarterback. Yes, both schools feature seniors at quarterback, but that's all the two signal callers have in common.   Cobb, named the Tiger's starter, lost control of his team in their 2001 season ending tailspin, throwing for just 1,100 yards.   His replacement, Campbell, who the coaches hoped would come on this fall, did not and faired no better during his time at the helm last year.  Their combined stats fell short of SC's Palmer, in an admitted bad year, by nearly 600 yards.  Neither are as mobile as Palmer and neither are being looked at by NFL scouts as a first round draft pick.  Palmer is working with receivers who he has played up to four years with.  Cobb lost his top pass catcher and is left with the two tight ends, one with a team leading 17 receptions from 2001, to operate as his go-to guys.  That's not to say Auburn did not bring in some talented freshmen wideouts or that receiver is not a position a young player can contribute, but when you expect to potentially play five redshirt or true freshmen at the spot, it's never a good sign.  No, Auburn relies on the ground game and their tight ends to set their game up.  They've talked about going deep to spread the field, but if this doesn't work early for them, it's going to be tough to call that a weapon later on in the game.  Carnell "Cadillac" Williams will be the man of the moment, the one carrying the rock and according to SC's coaches he is the real deal.  However, as good as Williams might be, he has to have a line to open the holes.  This is where experience hits the Tigers between the eyes.  In 2001 Auburn gave up, like SC, league high numbers in sacks.  Three of those starting lineman, arguably the best of that bunch, have moved on leaving only two starters and one other with significant playing time.  The Tigers will start a walk-on senior, a redshirt freshman and a sophomore who worked as the back-up center last season.   SC, on the other hand, has a unit that has played together for three and four years.  They may not be deep, but they are experienced, putting two years now in with the offensive schemes and developing through that second year with their conditioning coach.   They are stronger, more mature, have all started, save Matua, through the majority of games in 2001 and most importantly love the running backs they are blocking for this year.  Although the Auburn line is equally excited about making room for Williams to do his thing, nobody on that squad is as confident with their air attack. 

 

The quarterback's role in Auburn's offense is to hand off to the tailback and dump short passes to their two tight ends.   That is Tiger football.  The results of that game plan was the firing of their Offensive as well as Defensive Coordinator.   That move has told a lot about where the Tiger coaches see their 2002 team and the mindset they are taking into this game.

 

Tuberville and Toledo have more than their appetites in common.  They share a similar mindset, at least for 2002.  When Auburn unraveled last season losing to Bama by a humiliating 31-7, the first thing Coach T did was fire his coordinators.  He did this because he knows that if he doesn't beat the Tide, his coaching career at Auburn is probably over. He then followed that act with some interesting comments to his fans and the press about the coming season… He told the Auburn faithful not to put too much stock in the opener against USC.  That if they could afford to lose one game, this would be it. "This team's going to be a lot better at the end of the year.  It's going to be a lot better in the middle of the year. It's going to be better after the first or second game…" Indirectly, he explained that their goal was to survive the next four weeks, in which they play five games and then focus on Bama.  Don't get me wrong, Coach T wants to beat  SC but not at the cost of the next four games.  SC, on the other hand, has a bye following the Auburn matchup and needs to win this game, because of the difficulty of their other non-conference games.  To Carroll, this game is a launching pad for the season, whereas for Tuberville it's only the beginning to a very long year that he hopes to more survive than dominate.  I think if Tuberville had his druthers, he'd just as soon stay home this weekend, practice a little more and watch someone else play SC.  However, he is a gamer, and an excellent coach that will do what he can to win…

 

With the picture I've painted you'd think I was saying that USC is going to win, going away against Auburn.  On the contrary, these teams match up well enough that a route should not be expected and a win will be a prize well earned. 

 

Auburn's strength this year is clearly on defense.  They return a solid corps of linebackers, a strong defensive line and an equally talented secondary.  They should give our offense fits, with aggressive play, but will struggle trying to contain both the run and pass.  The Trojans were forced to become in 2001 because of their running back woes.  They return two former starters, feature transfer Justin Fargas, who is considered the best of the bunch and back that trio up with Herschel Dennis, arguably California's top running back along with sophomore sensation Darryl Poston.  Add to all that, the return of our true starting fullback from 2001 and as poor as SC was in tailbacks, in 2002 they could be kings.  SC also returns their starting WR and FL, along with one of the best tight ends ever to wear the Cardinal and Gold (which is saying a lot).   All of this means Auburn's defense is going to have its hands full containing SC's weapons.

 

The Trojans defense will be equally challenged.  SC gave up 155 yards per game last year against the run.  SC's defensive line was incredibly young in 2001, but also incredibly talented.  Experts have said that they are the best group to perhaps ever play at Troy.  That is strong praise, but Cody, Udeze, Patterson, Riley, Nazel and their backups appear ready for that challenge.  They will be facing one of the top ten running backs in the nation, but should plug holes nicely against Auburn's young offensive line.  SC must also cover two very big, very talented tight ends with their much smaller linebackers and this is another area the Tiger's will look to exploit. 

 

Because of its youth, SC's secondary will also be put to the test.  The Trojans graduated three key personnel from their secondary in 2001.  All three of those men are currently on NFL rosters.  Add to that the loss to injury of Kevin Arbet, SC's starter in the nickel and it is no wonder why Pete Carroll is moving players around to find two who can carry them through the season.   Auburn does not have a great passing attack, but they are surely planning to exploit the Trojan's weakness with their young receiving corps.  For them to get beyond 14 points it will be necessary for their passing game to work.   If they can complete some deep balls early and get SC on it's heels, it could be all Auburn, all day.   Considering that Tuberville is known as the "Riverboat Gambler" and with the knowledge that he doesn't think this game is the beginning or end of Auburn's season, we might see the Tigers putting their chips on the table with five wide-outs, going for broke.  The only problem with that game plan is #43 for the Trojans.  Troy Polamalu will club one of Auburn's rookie receivers so hard that none of them will want to go deep after that.

 

Speaking of Troy, SC's and Auburn's special teams could turn out to be huge factors in the game.  The Tigers field perhaps the best punter/kicker in the nation with senior Damon Duvall.  He has averaged 44 yards per punt and led the SEC in field goal percentage last year.  He is an All American and was critical in their victory over Florida. That said, he is just one man.  The Trojans have their own league-leading kicker and have gone out to find a junior college transfer kick-off specialist as well as the top high school punter in the nation.  They'll be knew to the Cardinal and Gold, but through Spring and Fall, both performed better than players who held their positions in 2001.  If the two newcomers can keep their game faces on, then the kicking games should be fairly even.  SC did lose their top special teams player in Kevin Arbet, but they have a list of speedy hitters ready to take his place.

 

If Auburn fails to put up more than 20 points against SC, they will probably lose.  SC's defense held opponents to 18 points per game last year, whereas Auburn gave up 24.  SC averaged 27 points per game against Auburn's 22.  Meaning Auburn was outscored last year 24 to 22.  SC did well against opponents, once they adjusted to playing without a ground game.  That won't be necessary this year, as the attack will be evenly balanced.  Auburn also lost their starting back, but had featured backs behind him to carry the rock.  They still lost and mostly because their quarterback and offensive line just weren't good enough to carry the load.  According to coaches, the line is more physically talented, but with much less experience.  The quarterbacks are what they are, average.  In the end it will all come down to experience and SC's 24 seniors versus Auburn's 14 win that hands down.  Look for SC to control the ball on the ground and set up the pass, and then spread the field wide open.  Auburn will hang for the first quarter, maybe even score first, but SC should take over going into the second and lead from there on out.  The majority of Auburn's scores will come from Duval, while SC could put up two offensive touchdowns, two field goals and one defensive or special teams score.  The difference makers for SC will be its Captains Troy and Carson, and the defensive line.  The players for Auburn will be Carnell Williams, Damon Duvall and Dontarrious Thomas.

 

SC 27  Auburn 16


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