"A" GAME FOR ‘THE A-TEAM'
"When it comes down to the end of the day, you're going to have to play good defense to get to the finish line." Rick Neuheisel, September, 2002
Pete Carroll and his staff spend many a night in the conference room that served as home for Paul Hackett's last stand, the farewell party that announced the end of one regime and the beginning of another. But Carroll and Co. aren't there contemplating their exit. They spend night after night preparing for their next opponent, reviewing cases of videotapes and tapping into a desktop computer that houses a catologue of every offensive play that opponent might run. These five coaches refuse to believe Pac-10 games must be high scoring. In four games, their Trojan charges have allowed only 47 points and surrendered a meager 205 yards per game.
Coach Price's evaluation of the Trojan defense... "Everyone on the USC line is solid. They aren't too light, not too heavy. They can run and playing real hard. They are the best defensive front we will go up against."
For Troy, their defensive line is the "X-factor," the "X-Men" if you will... The absolute difference between wins and losses. For SC's faithful, they are "The A-Team," a relentless group of goodguys determined to bring the house down on every opposing offense they face.
Unfortunately for Price, he chose to voice a different opinion on the Men of Steel.. "I've heard a few statements made about it that concern me. They wanted to really hit Derek Anderson, take him out, or at least that's what they said on TV. And they did, they hit him and they knocked him out of the game. I hope that's not the mind-set for them."
Price has chosen to portray the SC defense as a band of thugs, hooligans, out to physically hurt other teams' players. That might be his first mistake going into Saturday's game. In some ways you can't blame Washington State's coach, who is considered Dean of the Pac-10. Working out of Pullman is like trying to sell oil to an Arab - tough. Mike Price is a good man, but he's had to nearly be his own version of P.T. Barnum, a carnival barker, just to bring fans and players to the university. He knows he'll have to pull every gaf from his bag of tricks to get a win against the Trojans...
"We need to utilize a "12th man'' Saturday at our homecoming football game against USC." Price just hopes the Cougars have better results using 12 men than Washington did at Michigan. "It's gonna be sold out." Price, a shameless optimist conveniently ignores the fact that WSU ranks last in the Pacific-10 Conference in attendance and hasn't sold out Martin Stadium in five years. "Every seat will be sold. "Every person in Spokane is going to be here screaming their guts out. Carson Palmer won't be able to think straight."
Like someone selling snakeoil, this is just the beginning of Price's game. He's also trying to lull SC's coaches and players into thinking WSU is vulnerable and weakened by the loss of players.
"If you look at USC's starting lineup at the start of the season, they have had only one change. If you look at our lineup, it's a different one every weekend. We have just had freak injuries that have happened to us and at times, it has just decimated our team. We still have injuries on our offensive line and other guys are banged up...against USC's defensive line, it's going to be a difficult situation for us."
"The defense is okay. We have had a lot of guys in and out of the linebacking position because of two players who were penciled in as starters, who probably won't play this week (Don Jackson and Will Derting). Don will probably play although he's not 100 per cent..."
"I think the Trojans have great balance on their team. On defense, they don't have a weakness... We're still looking at the tapes to find something. We may even invent something just to give our players some hope. Carson Palmer is playing the best I have ever seen him since he's been at USC."
The above is the "Lou Holtz" approach to pre-game set up. It could prove to Price's second mistake in preparing for the Trojans. Here's what SC is really looking at and doing their own pre-game prep on...
The Cougars are now averaging 6.6 yards per offensive snap --- best in the Pac-10. And the Cougars' 308-yard average per game via the pass is sixth best in the nation. Against Cal, Gesser had 431 air yards, fourth-best ever by a Cougar QB, completing 28 of 44 and striking scoreboard gold four times. And his marquee receiving corps, The Trio --- Mike Bush, Devard Darling, and Riley --- lived up to their preseason billing with each crossing the goal line once and each exceeding the century mark in yardage. They combined that air assault with a fairly solid ground game, gathering 578 yards of total offense. They've also platooned three running backs and managed an average of 121 yards per game, sixth in the conference.
Mike Price feels very confident that he has the skill players to deliver this potent mix each Saturday until January 1, 2003. He loves his offensive line, running backs and wideouts.
Price especially loves his quarterback... "Jason showed a lot of courage last week and we have to protect him. He was only sacked once, but even though he was sacked in this offense, he will get hit as he throws. That guy is tough as steel."
That might be a little much. But Gesser, who was limited all week because of pain, did show his mettle with a wonderful 39 point second half comeback against the Golden Bears of Cal.Gesser was blitzed mercilessly by Cal. He expects the same treatment from the Trojans, who know all about Gesser's dislocated right rib and flak jacket.
"I guarantee we'll see them blitz me a lot," Gesser said. "They're going to want to get some hits on me, right after I throw the ball or when I'm scrambling. They want to see me hurting or aching throughout the game."
"They were blitzing and they just had a safety on Jerome (Riley)," Price said. "Their corners are pretty good, but their safeties, we felt like we could work them, especially if they were 1-on-1. So it just kind of played into our hands."
This, in my mind is mistake number three by Washington State. SC is not Cal, nobody has the safeties SC fields and Pete Carroll will not blitz - he doesn't have to. Caroll is going to try and take WSU out of their game, which is a passing attack. He will do this by playing the nickel right away and unleashing his defensive line on Gesser. There won't be any safety or corner blitzes, just straight D-line with stunts by the two backers. If WSU can handle it, and can get behind SC's secondary, then it's going to be along day for the Trojans. Thus far, however, not one of Troy's opponents has had any success trying.
Here is another key ingredient and major difference from what the Cougars were able to do against Cal, that they won't pull off with the Trojans...
Out of the Cougars 72 offensive plays, WSU only went with an offensive lineup that involved the tight end 20 times. This means they went with four and five wideouts in every formation. They could do this because Cal, despite the blitz packages they sent, could not get to Gesser. If SC's defensive front gets inside, then Price is going to have to go with his tight ends as blockers, not pass catchers. That, or he's going to have to run. If SC forces WSU to the ground, then they've taken away the strength of the Cougar's game. From that point on, it's ball control and clock management.
Carroll will not go toe-to-toe in a aerial shootout with the Cougars. Palmer's as good, if not better than Gesser, but that sort of game plan leads away from the Trojan's strength and allows the last team with the ball, the greatest chance at victory. You play to your strengths and thus far, defense has been it for Troy. Defense wins football games.
Another interesting comparison of the Cal game versus what the Cougars will see against SC is... they have never seen SC's offense before. And to try and scheme for it will be tough, because in the Trojans' first four games, nothing has looked like it did the week before. Against Cal, WSU felt very comfortable...
"They were running a lot of the same old stuff that Oregon ran last year with Onterrio Smith. So we knew what was coming by the formations and we were able to get our tackles in position to make the plays."
That is Cal and not SC. Let's say I've guessed wrong about SC's game plan, and they come out with the same sets involving Mal MacKenzie that they used so well against Auburn and Colorado. Then they mix in a little more Alex Holmes, go with the deep fades to Williams, the skinny posts with Colbert, quick outs with Kelly and finally, in what looks like a passing down, trap with either McCullough or Fargas. All of the above takes place in the one half and then SC, once WSU has made their adjustments and gone to a nickel or dime package, goes ground game, rolling with the three tailbacks up the middle, along with dumps to the flats to keep the defense honest. That sort of ball control is going to have Mike pulling his hair out by the end of the day.
The last, and final mistake Mike Price made in prepping for USC was... letting go of Melvin "Champ" Simmons. If it wasn't for good guy Mike, Champ would have never made it to SC. Normally a player transferring internally through the Pac 10 has to sit out two years. But because of the pain and humiliation Champ went through following his ordeal in an off campus incident, Price wrote a letter to the NCAA requesting that Simmons be allowed to transfer and play after only sitting out one year. The request was granted and SC, along with Champ became the benefactors of Mike Price's generosity. And for that, I think SC should spot the Coug's a touchdown, then they can whoop ‘em.
If SC does end up in a shootout, or if the Trojans contain WSU but fail to move the ball themselves, then the Cougars have a chance. But Price's defense hasn't been as good as it probably should be giving up over 357 yards and over 22 points per game. WSU hasn't faced a team with the balance on offense of USC's.
The men of have Troy, fresh off a pasting of Oregon State, have been installed by oddsmakers as 3 1/2 point favorites against WSU. And for good reason --- USC has won the last six times they've played in Pullman and 27 of the last 30 regardless of location. And good guy Mike, despite his P.T. Barnum barking and drumming up all the drama he can for this game, has never beaten the Trojans in Pullman.
If Carroll keeps to his game plan and the offense can support the defense by eating up the clock and scoring on every other possession, the victory is Troy's.
SC 34 WSU 24