Another Saturday, another elimination game.
Clearly, with six such Saturdays still on the horizon, it's an already daunting chore that faces both sides. But just as clearly, it's a chore that will end quickly with a loss. And that's the bottom line.
"We need to find a way to get a win on the road," says Husky coach Rick Neuheisel, whose Huskies sport a three-game road losing streak and play four out of their last six away from the friendly confines. "It's such a pivotal, pivotal game for us. A win on the road – especially against such a quality opponent - would give us such confidence for the rest of the season."
Trojan coach Pete Carroll echoes the importance of the contest. "There are three teams in the PAC-10 that have one loss, and we have got to take care of our business. We have to win our own games, we have to keep pace. There are certainly no breaks in our schedule. Each game to us is like a playoff game."
"The conference is much like we thought," Carroll continues. "We have to get through some more match-ups before it settles. But it's clear it will be difficult for any team to separate from the rest of the conference."
Carroll sees his team as a resilient bunch – perhaps a bit departed from recent USC teams. "We have a lot of the right ingredients to play well at the end, and to win (late) with our experience."
The proof is in the pudding. Just last week, the Trojans trailed Cal 21-3 before storming back -- then holding on -- to win by two. Earlier, they were down 27-6 to Kansas State in Manhattan before succumbing by seven. And a couple of bad kicks prevented them from winning in regulation at Pullman. They've won six in a row at home, they have a senior quarterback playing with a senior's confidence, they have three senior tailbacks that all want the rock, and they have hands-down the best defense in the PAC-10. "I anticipate them trying to run it down our throats," says Neuheisel, "especially with that great defense they have. They completely stuffed Colorado and Oregon State."
Last year, John Anderson's last-second 32-yard field goal propelled Washington to their seventh win over USC in the last 10 meetings, a game which see-sawed throughout the second half. However, the Trojans haven't played gracious hosts to the Huskies over the years. Washington has lost 13 of their past 16 (and is 10-26) with USC in Los Angeles, and the last time a Husky team set foot on the cavernous Coliseum floor they were drubbed 33-10 in 1998 -- with then-freshman Carson Palmer leading the way in his first-ever start as a Trojan.
"It's going to be a tremendous challenge for us on the road," reiterates Neuheisel. "After five straight games at home, the change of venue could be a good thing."
"This is the PAC-10. You almost expect there's going to be late-game heroics. We'll just have to wait and see. The most important thing is for us to stay in the immediate PAC-10 race."
Indeed, the conference season hangs in the balance. As if it weren't already difficult enough to win in a place that has seen more than its share of Husky burials.
TEAM STATS: 27.2 points (8th PAC-10), 389.0 yards (7th, 116.8 rush, 272.2 pass) RUSHING: Sultan McCullough 117-529-5 TD (4.5), long 62 Justin Fargas 37-103-0 TD (2.8), long 12 Malaefou MacKenzie 31-102-1 TD (3.3), long 16 PASSING: Carson Palmer 143-238-6 (.601), 1633 yards, 9 TD RECEIVING: Keary Colbert 33-402-1 TD (12.2), long 32 Mike Williams 28-434-4 TD (15.5), long 55 Kareem Kelly 25-235-2 TD (9.4), long 27
The Trojans have been all over the lot offensively – they threw it 50 times against Washington State, and ran it 51 times against California. But one thing is certain – there will be a lot of seniors getting touches on the ball.
Senior quarterback Carson Palmer (6-6, 230) moved into 3rd on the PAC-10 career passing yardage list last week, and has thrown to 12 different receivers this year. Palmer opened his Trojan career starting against Washington in 1998, when he threw for 279 yards and one touchdown. Since then, he's broken seven school records. Palmer has thrown for 670 yards the previous two weeks, and he likes to put it up deep.
Senior Kareem Kelly (6-0, 190) is protecting a sore ankle, and wore a protective boot in practice this week. The track speedster is second on Troy's career receiving list with 183 receptions. Junior Keary Colbert (6-1, 205) has been the go-to guy on third down, and has 98 receptions in his three-year career. True freshman Mike Williams (6-5, 210) is a lock as a freshman All-American, averaging 15.5 yards per grab, including a spectacular 55-yard strike against Cal last week. Like his namesake Reggie (no relation), Williams possesses a frame and prowess that will give any defensive back nightmares. Junior Alex Holmes (6-3, 265) has 12 receptions in the past three weeks from the tight end spot.
Unlike last year, when USC had to plow through part of their season with a fullback running at the half, the Trojans boast three senior tailbacks now. Sultan McCullough (6-0, 190) dominates the scene, running for a career-high 176 yards last week against the Bears. McCullough ran through Washington for 132 yards in Seattle, and showed his world-class speed in a 62-yard scoring scamper against Colorado. Justin Fargas (6-1, 210) and Malaefou MacKenzie (5-11, 225) have combined for nearly identical numbers – MacKenzie is most dangerous as a catcher, becoming the first USC back since Mike Garrett to break the 100-yard receiving barrier with a 117-yard day in the opener against Auburn.
A knee injury forces tackle Jacob Rogers to the sidelines this week, so junior Eric Torres (6-5, 300) will take his spot. Senior Zach Wilson (6-5, 300) is a three-year starter at guard; while junior Lenny Vandermade (6-3, 275) moved to the other guard after two years at center to make room for Norm Katnik (6-4, 280), who started at three different positions last year. True freshman Winston Justice (6-6, 305) beat out Torres for the right tackle spot, becoming the first Trojan true frosh to start on the line since Travis Claridge.
TEAM STATS: 17.5 points (2nd PAC-10), 274.5 yards (1st, 117.8 rush, 156.7 pass) TACKLES/TFL: Matt Grootegoed 40/7.5 Melvin Simmons 35/5.0 Troy Polamalu 29/3.0 PASSES DEF/INT: Willie Buchanon 6/0 Jason Leach 5/3 DeShaun Hill 5/0 SACKS: Mike Patterson 5.5 Kenechi Udeze 3.5 Omar Nazel 3.0
Some injury problems have started to dent the Trojan armor, though they still lead the conference in total defense by a mile, and still sport a dominating front. Southern California is the clear conference leader in both red-zone and third-down defense, and leads the PAC-10 by a mile in pass defense – Washington's bread-and-butter.
Sophomore stud tackle Shaun Cody (6-4, 275) will likely miss the remainder of the season with a ligament tear in his knee, so senior Bernard Riley (6-3, 320) will start on the nose. Leading sack master Mike Patterson (6-0, 285) will slide down to Cody's tackle spot, while sophomore Kenechi Udeze (6-4, 280) has played the last two weeks with a painful (and recently discovered to be fractured) sternum. Junior Omar Nazel (6-5, 240) has three sacks, three pass deflections and an interception from his end spot.
The linebackers are not the biggest, but they all can fly to the ball and like to force. Sophomore Matt Grootegoed (5-11, 205) has led USC in tackles the previous two weeks, and owns seven TFL. Washington State transfer Melvin Simmons (6-1, 215) can cover ground ala Marquis Cooper, and has five sacks. Senior Mike Pollard (6-0, 225) is the proud defender of last year's USC "Rise and Shine" big hit award. Pollard has three defenses and three TFL from the middle.
Leading Thorpe candidate Troy Polamalu (5-10, 215) is a sure-fire All-American at safety, but has been slowed by a high ankle sprain, and didn't play last week against California. Named PAC-10 defensive player-of-the-week in the Colorado massacre, Polamalu will probably give it a go on Saturday, but he won't be at 100 percent. He picked off a pass and returned it for a score last year against the Huskies in Seattle. Sophomore Jason Leach (5-11, 210) has had an outstanding season in the nickel package, and will start should Polamalu be unable to go. His safety mate DeShaun Hill (5-11, 200) has five passes defensed. Freshman corner Willie Buchanon (6-4, 175) may be asked to take a back seat to junior Marcell Allmond (6-0, 200) in defense of Reggie Williams. Senior Darrell Rideaux (5-8, 170) is smallish, but is most adept in man coverage. The loss of corner Kevin Arbet to season-ending injury was expected to be felt, but has been lessened by outstanding line and safety play.
USC SPECIAL TEAMS
PLACEKICKING: Ryan Killeen 6-10 FG (long 43), 9-10 XP David Davis 1-3 FG (long 37), 7-10 XP PUNTING: Tom Malone 32-41.8 (long 60), .219 inside the 20 KICK RETURNS: Hershel Dennis 7-16.6 (long 29), 0 TD Sultan McCullough 2-19.0 (long 20), 0 TD PUNT RETURNS: Grieg Carlson 10-6.8 (long 14), 0 TD Kareem Kelly 7-7.1 (long 19), 0 TD
Yet another PAC-10 team that has experienced some messy special teams play. Place-kicker David Davis was replaced by Ryan Killeen, but this could still change weekly. Davis has missed three extra-points and two chippy FGs, while Killeen's own extra-point miss against Washington State enabled the Cougars to tie the game with their own three-pointer. Tom Malone is a true freshman, but participated in spring drills after graduating early from high school, showed a booming leg, and won the job. McCullough and freshman Hershel Dennis provide serious hops as a kick-return tandem, though Dennis has had a propensity to return EVERY kick – even those seven-yards deep in the end zone. Marcell Allmond may return kicks now that the cast protecting a broken wrist has been removed. USC is a mere ninth in kickoff returns and last in punt returns, and ranks fifth in kick coverage.
KIBBLES AND BITS
In contrast to football's migration to newer, "swooshy" jerseys, USC has opted to change their look that hearkens back to the old John McKay days – complete with sewn-in numerals . . . Co-captains Troy Polamalu and Carson Palmer have accepted invitations to play in the East-West shrine game in San Francisco . . . Though beating Cal by only two last week, USC had nearly 39 minutes of possession time – the most they held the ball in seven years . . . Both the USA TODAY and Sagarin publications rate the Trojan schedule as the toughest in the nation to this point . . . With Anaheim's Edison Field hosting game one of the World Series on Saturday evening, it shouldn't be a surprise if some Trojan fans leave early, no matter the score. Lucky ticket holders for both games will have about 25 miles of busy L.A. freeway to, pardon the pun, conquest . . . Perhaps they could play just the cross-state guys to help even things up. Washington has 29 Californians on their roster. USC has two Washingtonians (tailback David Kirtman of Mercer Island and punter Tommy Huff of Bellevue) . . . PAC-10 quarterbacks have combined for seven 400-yard performances this year (Cody Pickett, Jason Johnson and Andrew Walter twice each, and Jason Gesser once). They've also gone 5-2 in those games. Six PAC-10 quarterbacks are in the NCAA top-15 in passing efficiency . . .
Rick Samek can be reached at RSAMEK1@ATTBI.COM . . .