tanford and Southern California have been playing each other for an awfully long time, but we wanted to the skinny on this year’s team from a writer that covers the Trojans every day. Michael Katz of The Daily Trojan, USC’s student newspaper, was kind enough to answer questions about USC, game plans and how Saturday’s game will end up. Find more of his work by clicking here.
USC is back in the top 25 this week and is riding a three-game winning streak. What’s the feeling around the program right now?
There is certainly a feeling of confidence around the campus and at USC practice. Students are excited that College GameDay is coming back to the L.A. Coliseum. There’s been a lot of “USC Football” apparel being worn around campus, too. Students are proud of a 6-1 record, especially in the second year of the bowl ban.
In interviewing the players, there is an air of confidence around practice as well. Players seem excited, more active than they were, say, earlier in the year. Special teams drills are as intense as scrimmages. Players don’t seem intimidated by opponents, but rather ready for whatever challenge may arrive come game day. It’s an exciting time to be at USC; it’s not quite how it felt when Pete Carroll was here, but it’s pretty exciting around campus.
It seems that USC has been pretty inconsistent in 2011. The Trojans barely got past Minnesota and Arizona but blew past Notre Dame and Cal in the last two weeks. Has the team’s performance really been as up-and-down as it appears and, if so, why?
From an offensive perspective, I think the reason there were close games at the start of the year and the season has seemed “up and down” was the lack of a running game. Matt Barkley has been lighting it up and has done an excellent job taking care of the football (19 touchdowns, 4 interceptions on the year), but the Trojan offense, despite passing for 304 yards against Minnesota, only managed to score 19 points.
It seems to be a given that Barkley is going to get his yards. The Trojans score points and win by large margins, though, when the running game is going. Against Syracuse, USC ran for 175 yards. Against Cal, the offense struggled, but still ran the ball for 118 yards. Against Notre Dame, the team ran for 219 yards. These were all hefty victories by the Trojans. If they run the ball well and move the chains, which then gives Barkley easier throwing lanes, the Trojans are pretty scary.
How has Matt Barkley’s play this season compared to preseason expectations for him?
Matt Barkley has played about as well as any quarterback in the country. Yes, this includes Andrew Luck. Coming into the year, there were questions about his accuracy and his ability to win games. The 6-1 record seems to have quelled those concerns. His accuracy really has gotten better too. He’s thrown some passes that have made commentators start to drool.
I think more important, though, has been his decision making. Earlier in his career, Barkley turned the ball over a decent amount (14 interceptions as a freshman, 12 as a sophomore). A lot of those passes were intercepted because they were thrown into coverage. The 2011 edition of Barkley does not make mistakes like this: he seems to know the offense so well at this point that he is almost always going to make the right read.
We know that Robert Woods is good. How good is he nationally and historically?
Robert Woods, in my opinion, is even better than advertised. He’s cooled off a little compared to how he started off, but he’s still averaging better than 120 ypg receiving and has eight touchdown catches. He was impressive as a true freshman last year, but he’s taken it to another level this year. At this point in the season, he’s third nationally in receiving yards. Anyone who has seen him play, however, knows that there might not be a better playmaker with the ball in his hands than Woods; his touchdown off a screen against Arizona is a perfect example of this.
He has to be mentioned among the top two or three receivers in the country. Ryan Broyles of Oklahoma gets a lot of hype, but Woods is just as good and should be a Biletnikoff finalist. From a historical perspective, USC has had a lot of great receivers: Johnnie Morton, Keyshawn Johnson, Mike Williams, Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett, and Damian Williams are the first that come to mind. Woods still has a ways to go to make the impact that these guys did in the program, but he’s still only a sophomore. He has a lot of time to make it to the top of this list; if he stays all four years, I have no doubt he’ll be recognized as the best in school history.
Much was made last season of USC’s supposed lack of interest in finishing the season strong considering the postseason ban. Have there been signs of that this year?
Absolutely not. This is a team on a mission. The Trojans know they can’t go to a bowl game, but watching them practice, you would have no idea. I’ve asked offensive tackle Matt Kalil if it’s hard to get excited for games, and his response was an adamant “no.” There’s a lot of pride in the locker room. They want to win every game and believe they can do so. Stanford, Oregon, Cal, Minnesota; it doesn’t matter who they play: they expect to win.
What’s the most important thing that USC did well against Notre Dame that it will need to do well again versus Stanford?
There’s two things I think they need to do again. I already touched upon one of them, which is the running game. As I said earlier, if the running game is steady, Barkley will pick a defense apart. When the offense isn’t predictable, that’s when they’re at their best.
The other key that occurred against Notre Dame that they have to do against Stanford is capitalize off turnovers. The Trojans forced three turnovers; one fumble was returned for a touchdown by sophomore safety Jawanza Starling, the other fumble resulted in USC having the ball at ND’s 18-yard line, and the interception by Nickell Robey effectively sealed the game. USC must not only force turnovers but must score and take advantage of everything the opposing offense gives them. Stanford does not turn the ball over often, but if Luck throw an interception, the Trojans have to capitalize off of it.
Who is a USC player that most fans might not know but who could have a big impact on Saturday’s game?
Senior receiver Brandon Carswell could come up big. Everyone knows about Woods and freshman receiver Marqise Lee, and rightfully so; they have 12 touchdown catches between them. However, Lee has been banged up lately and only caught two passes against the Irish. If he and Woods are covered tightly, as is expected, Carswell could be the man open down the field. He only has one touchdown this season, but it was an impressive run after the catch effort where he broke several tackles. He and Brice Butler have sort of alternated as the “third receiver” for Barkley and company, but Butler seems to be more consistent. A touchdown or two from him against the Cardinal is certainly not out of the question, especially in the redzone, where his strength can get him open in tight coverage.
Running back Curtis McNeal has come on strong in the last several weeks. What does he bring to the USC run game that Marc Tyler doesn’t?
Curtis McNeal has impacted the Trojan offense in a way I don’t think most people thought he would. I think the element that he brings that Marc Tyler necessarily doesn’t is a quick burst through the line of scrimmage. Tyler, who is a bigger back, sometimes gets caught moving parallel to the line; McNeal, despite his 5’7” frame, is fast to the line and makes his cuts quickly. He also is far stronger than many give him credit for. He has been breaking tackles left and right this season and can get through the line of scrimmage quickly because of his strength and quick cuts. He plays far bigger than his roster size would lead one to believe. He reminds me a lot of former Oregon State back Jacquizz Rodgers; not the biggest back, but always goes forward and runs like he’s 6’0”, 230 lbs.
How much impact will home field advantage have on the outcome of the game?
The Coliseum has been quieter in recent years, and the sanctions definitely have played a part in this. However, with a no. 20 ranking in the AP Poll and College Gameday coming to campus, I expect a good 80,000 or more fans at the game. This is everything for the fans; with no bowl game, this is the closest we get to a Rose Bowl-type environment. This is the most excited I’ve seen people for USC football since Coach Kiffin has been here, and I think Saturday’s crowd will show this. Having so many fans in the stands will have an effect on Stanford; whether it’s not being able to hear audibles, getting false start/offsides penalties, home field at a packed Coliseum cannot be underestimated.
What’s your final prediction for Saturday?
This one’s going to be close. I’m going to say USC pulls off the upset, 35-31. Something about this game just feels like it’s going to play in the Trojan’s favor. Luck will score his points, but I think he’s going to commit a turnover that hurts the Cardinal. USC is excited and confident for this game; I don’t even think they’ll consider it an upset if they win.
(Headline image courtesy of Wikipedia)