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September 10, 2010

Game Preview: USC vs. Virginia

Game 2: Come On, Come On Down, Sweet Virginia

Can the Trojan defense bounce back against Mike London's Cavaliers?

The AP No. 16 USC Trojans (1-0) open the home portion of their 2010 schedule on Saturday, Sept. 11 against the Atlantic Coast Conference's (ACC) Virginia Cavaliers (1-0) at 7:30 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Fox Sports Net cable television audience. It is the second meeting between the two schools - the Trojans bombed UVa, 52-7, in Charlottesville two seasons ago. USC is 12-6 against current ACC foes, while the Cavs are 0-2 against Pac-10 competition (the other loss coming at Washington in 1976).

A week ago, the Trojans opened the 2010 campaign with a 49-36 victory over Hawaii on Waikiki. Matt Barkley tied a school record with five touchdown passes, three of them to Ronald Johnson, who also returned a punt 89 yards for a score. Junior tailback Marc Tyler rushed for 154 yards and a score, as USC rolled up 524 total yards. However, the Trojan defensive performance brought back memories of last season's nightmares against Oregon and Stanford, as Hawaii wrecked USC for 588 total yards, and a slew of missed tackles and bad angles called into question the Trojans' lack of contact during training camp. Meanwhile, Virginia won its first opener since 2005, topping FCS (formerly known as Division I-AA) opponent Richmond, 34-13, in Charlottesville. The Cavs were paced by senior QB Marc Verica's 283 yards passing and senior tailback Keith Payne's 114 yards rushing and four TDs.



Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (8-6 career collegiate head coaching record; 1-0 at USC) is in his first season at USC, after serving as the head coach at Tennessee in 2009. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Meanwhile, Virginia headman Mike London made his UVa head coaching debut against his former team last week. London went 24-5 in 2008-09 at Richmond, leading the Spiders to the 2008 FCS national championship. Before becoming a head coach two seasons ago, London had spent six of the previous seven seasons as an assistant at Virginia.

The Trojans have won their past 12 home openers and 17 consecutive non-conference games. But last week's shaky defensive performance has many USC fans wondering what to expect when the Trojans roll out of the tunnel this Saturday night. However, the Cavaliers are in a similar transition to the Trojans and have not traveled this far West in nearly two generations. London appears to have the attention and passion of the Virginia squad more focused than it was in recent years under Al Groh, but a talent deficit remains an issue.

Virginia Offense
First-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor (one of eight new assistants on London's refreshed staff) spent his most recent seasons with the NFL's Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks and brings a pro-style offense to UVa, after Groh's staff spent much of the past few seasons tinkering with different versions of the spread. However, the Wahoos (or 'Hoos, an unofficial nickname at UVa, dating to the late 19th century) lost their top four rushers and three of their top four pass catchers from what was an underachieving offense in 2009. About the only group with positive expectations coming into the Richmond game was the offensive line, which has three returning starters and a base of solid talent.

Verica was Virginia's starting QB for much of 2008, and to call him inconsistent that season would be kind. He was replaced by fleet-footed Jameel Sewell a season ago, but is the best option for London and Lazor with the switch to a more traditional offense and zero experience behind him. The Cavs' brain trust expects Verica to manage the game and avoid turnovers, while taking the odd deep shot off play-action - and he did just that in last weekend's win.

Verica's receiving corps is decent, mainly because of two players - junior wideout Kris Burd and senior tight end Joe Torchia. Burd was the leading returning receiver, and it showed a week ago, as he hauled in seven passes for 122 yards and a score. Torchia, a highly recruited tight end, is thrilled that Groh's spread is gone, and he's now a big threat, especially in two-TE sets (with sophomore Colter Phillips). Sophomore Tim Smith, senior Dontrelle Inman and junior Jared Green should also see targets from Verica.

After losing its top four rushers from a season ago, question marks abound for the Wahoos' running game. Some answers came about in week one, as the bruising (6'3", 255 lbs.) Payne rumbled through the Richmond defense. Payne played plenty in 2008, but was lost for 2009 because of academic and discipline issues. Scatback starter Perry Jones, a sophomore, also averaged better than eight yards on his nine carries. Senior Raynard Horne will also see time. This group will face a much stiffer test against USC's front seven.

Virginia returns three starters on the offensive line, including solid junior LG Austin Pasztor. He's joined on the left side by returning tackle Landon Bradley, a junior, and by returning RG B.J. Cabbell, a senior. The intrigue, however, throughout camp, was at right tackle, where sophomore Oday Aboushi has been impressive in fending off big-time recruit Morgan Moses, who weighs in at 350 lbs. Junior Anthony Mihota is the center.

Virginia Defense
London's background in defense and his hire of veteran defensive mind Jim Reid as defensive coordinator and associate head coach has created some high hopes for the Wahoos' new 4-3 defense. However, along with the switch from the 3-4 set of the Groh Era comes a new emphasis on athleticism that has forced a major reshuffle of roles in the front seven, even among those with the most returning experience.

Up front, there is definitely some experience to lean on in the middle, as junior Matt Conrath, who was voted the team's top interior lineman a season ago, joins classmate Nick Jenkins and senior John-Kevin Dolce to form what could be a solid tackle rotation. Jenkins' improved athleticism makes him one to watch. It's a different story at end, though, with junior Cam Johnson a converted linebacker who has the size and speed to make the switch in the Cavs' new set. Classmate Zane Parr is still fairly green for someone who played in 10 games a season ago. A pair of redshirt freshmen, Jake Snyder and Jeremiah Mathis, provide more inexperience on the second string.

The shakeup is even more apparent at linebacker, where a pair of converted safeties start on the outside. Sophomore LaRoy Reynolds is on the strong side, where he played in high school, while classmate Ausar Walcott is on the weak side. London and Reid want these guys to pressure the quarterback and be stronger in coverage than recent UVa backers. In the middle, sophomore Steve Greer was a freshman All-American in 2009 with 92 stops. A spring ankle injury, though, gave junior Aaron Taliaferro a chance and the two are listed as co-starters currently. Make no mistake, though: Greer is the playmaker.

Inexperience is not a factor in a secondary, but injuries certainly are. Senior Ras-I Dowling, an All-America candidate at cornerback, is nursing a hamstring injury, and junior strong safety Rodney McLeod, expected to be an impact player, has a knee problem. London is non-committal but seems to expect both to play on Saturday. Missing either or both will be an issue for the Cavs' against USC's passing attack. Sophomore Devin Wallace would fill in for Dowling, while senior Trey Womack and junior Dom Joseph are candidates to replace McLeod. Junior Chase Minnifield is growing up nicely at the other corner spot, while classmate Corey Mosley is also getting comfortable at free safety.

Virginia Special Teams
Junior punter Jimmy Howell averaged 40 yards per boot a season ago and was right there last Saturday, averaging 40.2 on five tries. He can be a shade slow in getting the ball out, however. Classmate Robert Randolph handles the placekicking duties, and made 17 of 19 attempts a season ago. Another junior, Chris Hinkelbein, handles kickoffs and sees some action on long field goals. Tailbacks Jones and Horne handle kickoffs, while Jones backs up Minnifield on punt returns. The Wahoos have been very average in the return game recently.

USC Offensive Gameplan
After a stellar opening performance in Hawaii, the Trojans turn their focus to a Virginia defense that is more athletic than that of the Warriors, but also in transition. Barkley, Johnson and freshman receiver Robert Woods looked to be in sync in a big way on Waikiki, and if the Cavs' secondary injury problems keep their two playmakers limited, USC's passing offense could have another stellar day. Add to that the return of touted freshman sensation Dillon Baxter from a suspension, and there's plenty for USC fans to be excited about upon the Trojans' return to the Coliseum.

It certainly isn't often that a tailback like Tyler averages nine yards per carry and comes out of game one leading the Pac-10 in rushing, but is expected to take a step back for a true freshman, but the buzz around Baxter - especially from Lane Kiffin himself - has been huge. Expectations include even seeing Baxter line up at quarterback in a "Wildcat" set.

Aside from the buzz around Baxter, look for the Trojans to continue to keep it simple on offense. With Virginia green around the edges of its front seven, expect USC to test UVa laterally early, before looking to strike downfield. And, even with Baxter in the mix, don't be surprised to see Tyler get close to 20 carries. It appears Kiffin wants to establish a lead running back - and also is more interested in mixing/balancing run and pass early on, as compared to recent seasons when it seemed USC almost always came out throwing.

USC Defensive Gameplan
As USCFootball.com's Dan Weber has preached this week, I expect a return to simplicity by USC's defensive coaches and players against Virginia. The Cavs' pro-set offense and limited number of playmakers should help the Trojans bounce back from a very shaky effort in Hawaii. It seems to me that the mix of Hawaii's experience with their run-and-shoot and USC's green secondary was almost the perfect storm. That match-up, along with shoddy tackling and the Warriors' time of possession advantage helped UH roll up big yards and points in the fourth quarter with the game in hand for USC.

Virginia, in essence then, almost appears to be a perfect storm as well - except in USC's favor. The Trojans' front seven should be able to slow down Virginia's inexperienced running game, while Verica and his receivers are nowhere near the threat posed by Hawaii's passing attack. The type of football the Wahoos want to play is the type of football that's played right into the hands of USC's defense in recent years.

Line it up and play is the best bet for the USC defense this week. Don't overscheme, don't overthink. Man on man, USC is better than Virginia on this side of the ball (the return of CB T.J. Bryant and DE Nick Perry should help even more), and the Cavs aren't much for trickeration. If USC's defense struggles mightily again this week, then there is true cause for concern.

The Pick
The Cavs provide USC with a much different look - on both sides of the ball - than Hawaii. Not only that, but under London, this is a much more fiery and committed group than USC saw under Groh in 2008. Still, how close this game will be should come down to the Trojans' defensive performance. If USC sticks to its plan and tackles better, it doesn't appear that Virginia has the weapons on offense to trouble the Trojans as much as the Warriors did. And, I expect USC to force Verica into some bad decisions, harkening back to his turnover-prone 2008 season, allowing for some short fields for Barkley & Co.

Again, the intrigue on offense centers on how Baxter will be dropped into a mix that looked so good a week ago. If Kiffin successfully integrates Baxter without taking anything away from the rhythm showed by Barkley, Johnson, Tyler and the rest of the offense a week ago - easier said than done (see McKnight, Joe, 2007-09) - the USC offense truly may be one of the most potent in the Pac-10 this season.

This Saturday, though - barring a slew of USC turnovers or continued struggles on defense - the Trojans should have more than enough to turn away yet another non-conference foe.

USC 42, Virginia 17

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 10 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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