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August 28, 2008

Game 1: Jeffersonian Democracy?

As the Trojans visit the third president's home to open the 2008 campaign against Virginia, USC leans on its powerful defense while committees at tailback, receiver and on the offensive line hold open debates for new leadership.

The 2008 USC football team, ranked No. 2 in the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 3 in the AP poll, opens the season Saturday, August 30, against the Atlantic Coast Conference's (ACC) Virginia Cavaliers at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) at sold-out Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., and in front of a regional ABC television audience. It is the first meeting between the two schools, and Virginia's first-ever home game vs. a Pac-10 foe (the Cavaliers are 0-1 against Pac-10 teams, losing at Washington in 1976). USC is 10-6 against ACC competition.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll enters his eighth season at USC (76-14) having led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Virginia headman Al Groh is also setting sail on his eighth season at the helm in Charlottesville, holding a 51-37 mark at the school (77-77 overall including his six years at Wake Forest in the 1980s). Groh, a Virginia alum, guided the Wahoos (or 'Hoos, an unofficial nickname at UVa, dating to the late 19th century) to a 9-4 mark and a berth in the Gator Bowl in 2007.

The Trojans' 2008 opener is their fifth on the road in the past six seasons, and their sixth opener against BCS conference competition in the past nine seasons. USC has won its past 10 opening games, and is 26-7-1 in season openers away from Los Angeles. Troy returns seven starters on a defense expected to be among the nation's best, while junior quarterback Mark Sanchez is set to take the reins of an offense that has only four returning starters but a slew of talent at the skill positions that is expected to mature in 2008. While USC's offensive line features only guard Jeff Byers as a returning starter, the players expected to man the other four spots to open the season had a combined nine starts in 2007 and played extensively.

The Cavs, meanwhile, feature just 10 returning starters and lost major talent on both the offensive and defensive lines. Virginia has been solid on defense under Al Groh, but offensive coordinator Mike Groh (Al's son) traveled to Texas Tech and BYU this spring to study those pass-happy offensive schemes in an effort to liven up the Virginia passing game. Virginia has also seen its share of off-season turmoil, losing starting quarterback Jameel Sewell as an academic casualty, as well as other players to assorted issues.

Virginia Offense
The loss of Sewell puts Mike Groh's group in the unenviable position of taking the field behind a first-time starting quarterback against USC's vaunted defense. Question marks along the offensive line are another key issue for the Cavaliers, as left tackle Eugene Monroe, an Outland Trophy watch-lister, leads a green group. There is talent at running back and in the receiving corps, but the bulk of the pass catchers are young, and it appears the 'Hoos are set to make some changes to what has been a tight-end-heavy passing attack.

UVa's most seasoned passer is 6'5" sophomore Peter Lalich who appeared in eight games in 2007. He split time with Sewell early in the season, and appeared more sparingly as Sewell established command. He is a straight-up pocket passer, and not prone to scramble around. He had a tough spring, but has progressed well in fall camp. Senior Scott Deke graduated after last season and was not expected to return until Sewell's troubles came up. Now, Deke, also a traditional pocket QB, is expected to be the back-up, though sophomore Marc Verica competed well for the spot in camp.

Losing the top two tight ends from a passing attack that saw the tight ends and backs catch nearly three times as many passes as its wideouts in 2007 would seem to be a major concern. However, the shift to a three-receiver set minimizes those losses. That's not to say senior TE John Phillips, who had 17 grabs as a third stringer, isn't expected become another in a recent line of excellent tight ends on the UVa campus. However, the biggest news is the return of 2006's leading pass catcher (52 catches), junior wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, who missed last season with an injury. He's become the clear leader during this camp, while 2007's top wideout, 6'4" Maurice Covington (21 catches a season ago), appears to have nailed down a starting job. Sophomore Staton Jobe appeared to have the third starting spot sealed, but has been held out of drills recently due to an undisclosed injury (Groh's staff is very quiet about any injuries, due to new ACC rules that mirror the NFL's injury reporting system). Classmate Dontrelle Inman appears to be the next in line.

Whoever plays quarterback does have seasoned and capable running backs to lean on, with senior Cedric Peerman and junior Mikell Simpson returning. The duo combined for 1,155 rushing yards in 2007, with Simpson taking over at the season's midway point when Peerman went down with a season-ending injury. Simpson is a much more impressive pass catcher, however, and he led UVa with 43 receptions last year - a valuable tool in the redesigned offense.

The Virginia front five features left tackle Monroe and junior RT Will Barker, who's started the Cavs' past 25 games. At guard, the two new starters will be sophomores Zak Stair on the left and B.J. Cabbell on the right. Stair has especially big shoes to fill, as he replaces first-round NFL draft pick Branden Albert. Converted TE Jack Shields appears to be in line to start at center after playing in just one game as a freshman. Experienced depth is a major concern.

Virginia Defense
New defensive coordinator Bob Pruett (who was the headman at Marshall during its late 1990s heyday, and has been under fire in recent days after accusations of academic fraud during that stint were leveled at him on Aug. 19) will stick with Groh's preferred 3-4 alignment - probably a good decision what with the losses up front and the returning quality at linebacker. Senior outside linebacker Clint Sintim, senior free safety Byron Glaspy and junior cornerback Vic Hall are the group's leaders.

Not only does Virginia have to replace the NFL's No. 2 overall draft choice, DE Chris Long, but they also lost nose tackle Allen Billyk to graduation and DE Jeffrey Fitzgerald to a transfer. First crack at replacing this excellent trio will go to sophomore DE Sean Gottschalk (who missed some of fall camp for undisclosed reasons), senior DE Alex Field and junior tackle Nate Collins. Collins is the most experienced, with appearances in all 25 games he's suited up for at UVa. Experience is even slighter among the reserves on the DL than it is on the OL - only junior DE Jason Fuller has any game experience.

Fortunately, they are backed by perhaps the ACC's best group of linebackers. Sintim is a Nagurski Award candidate at his outside spot, and the senior has started 37 consecutive games in a Cavalier uniform. He had nine sacks a year ago among his 77 tackles and is UVa's best pass rush threat. Inside, senior Jon Copper is expected to lead the team in tackles for the third consecutive season (he had 109 a year ago). Joining Copper inside is fellow senior Antonio Appleby, perhaps Virginia's most talented LB. At the other outside spot, it seems the Cavaliers are set to use a platoon of senior Aaron Clark and junior Denzel Burrell. The pair has been splitting first-team reps all camp long.

In the secondary, the undersized Hall (5'9") is a fighter and somewhat of a do-it-all guy for UVa - he's also the leading punt returner and has served as a holder on placekicks. Sophomore Ras-I Dowling steps into the starting lineup after notching 44 tackles and two interceptions as a true freshman. Glaspy, who was originally a walk-on, has started 28 games at UVa - second only to Sintim on the defense. Junior Brandon Woods gets first crack at the strong safety spot vacated by Nate Lyles.

Virginia Special Teams
A competition to replace departed placekicker Chris Gould yielded a surprise winner, as former all-ACC soccer star Yannick Reyering earned the spot just months after his first effort at kicking an American football. At 6'6", freshman Jimmy Howell is not your average punter. He also played quarterback in high school, so USC must be extra aware of a gadget play with him. Hall is one of the ACC's best punt returners, averaging 10 yards per in 2007. Peerman is expected to be the top kickoff returner - he averaged more than 27 yards on the job in 2006.

USC Offensive Gameplan
So what should fans expect out of USC in its first effort of the new season? With offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian in his second year as a solo act, and a more mobile, gunslinging quarterback in Sanchez, it will be interesting to see what tweaks he has in mind.

However, with Sanchez having missed nearly two weeks of camp after suffering a dislocated kneecap and the question marks about Virginia's defensive front, I'd be shocked if USC doesn't lean on its rushing attack early and often in this one. With a four-headed monster listed atop the depth chart (Pete Carroll loves those "OR" designations that allow more than one guy to be listed in a spot, doesn't he?), I expect Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight, C.J. Gable and Allen Bradford to each get an opportunity to show what he can do. McKnight will also line up at receiving spots often, while Gable and Bradford - along with fullback Stanley Havili - are able pass-catchers.

That's not to say that the Trojans won't put the ball in the air against a Cavalier secondary that was merely decent against far-from-pass-happy ACC competition a year ago - even with Long and his pass rushing friends disrupting up front. Without a consistent rush from the 'Hoos, USC can take advantage of the UVa secondary. After having stellar camps, expect transfer Damian Williams and sophomore Travon Patterson to join Patrick Turner, Vidal Hazelton, David Ausberry and Ronald Johnson as targets for Sanchez. The Trojans' tight ends could be in position for a big game, as well, with Virginia's outside linebackers used to boost the pass rush. Junior Anthony McCoy will get the first crack, but don't be surprised to see true frosh Blake Ayles make a play or two downfield.

The line's performance will likely be the crucial component that differentiates success from failure for the USC offense. Replacing four starters, including All-American Sam Baker and all-conference selection Chilo Rachal, is no short order. Fortunately, with Byers as an anchor at one guard spot and sophomore center Kristofer O'Dowd back in the starting role he held for three games early in 2007, the makings for a solid group are there. Sophomore RT Butch Lewis and junior LT Charles Brown both have starting experience, as does RG Zack Heberer. Much of the depth is inexperienced.

USC Defensive Gameplan
Defensively, the Trojans are likely to do what they do - attack the ball, try to force turnovers and use their speed, athleticism and discipline to disrupt the Virginia offense. With an inexperienced quarterback at the helm, expect USC to do its best to hassle whomever Groh chooses from the get-go. If the Cavs really do move to a short-passing style, a la Texas Tech, USC should be more than ready after dealing with Arizona and a number of other similar offenses throughout the Pac-10 in recent seasons.

With seven returning starters, including four All-America candidates in linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing and safeties Kevin Ellison and Taylor Mays, the only true question mark for the group is on the defensive line, where USC must replace NFL first-round draft picks Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson. Fortunately, talent is abundant, with returning starters Fili Moala at tackle and Kyle Moore at end leading the way. First crack at replacing Jackson goes to sophomore Everson Griffen, who was a freshman All-America in 2007, with 5.5 sacks. Senior Clay Matthews is expected to see time in pass rushing situations as well, perhaps from a stand-up position similar to USC's "Elephant" formation of two years ago. Inside, junior Averell Spicer and sophomore Christian Tupou are listed as co-starters. How they fare (freshman Jurrell Casey could become a factor down the line) will be crucial to the line's success.

USC's secondary could be tested by the Virginia gameplan. The Trojans should be ready, with a set of four cornerbacks who could be used interchangeably. Senior Cary Harris and junior Shareece Wright are the listed starters (though Harris is recovering from a dislocated shoulder), with senior Josh Pinkard and junior Kevin Thomas both expecting to see the field often.

The Pick
While the Cavaliers have a solid back seven returning on defense, those question marks in the front three are huge. We're going to learn just how important Long and his fellow defensive linemen were to the success of UVa's linebackers a season ago. The Trojans are going to try to push that defensive line around early. If UVa is unable to get pressure on Sanchez without blitzing more often than they like, both his opportunities and those of the running backs will open up.

Defensively, I expect the Trojans to take advantage of the new 'Hoo quarterback and offensive line. While the sack numbers might not be huge with UVa's new offensive design, USC should harass the quarterback often and different coverage schemes will be designed to confuse him. Virginia's likely to use a few gadget plays in order to get what's expected to be a huge crowd into the game. If the Trojans can keep the Cavaliers away from the big play, Virginia will have a hard time sustaining an extended drive.

In the end, the worst possible issue any team can face against USC is inexperience in the trenches. The Trojans love to impose their will up front on both sides - against Virginia, expect them to do so. With a slightly above average offensive performance, and 2-3 turnovers created by the defense, the Trojans should run away with this one in the second half.

USC 38, Virginia 6

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight 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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