To get an USC point of view on Saturday's match-up in against the Trojans in Los Angeles we sat down with Mike Piellucci (@mikelikessports) of Neon Tommy for a quick Q&A. You can view our answers to their questions here.
The Trojans entered the season with National Title hopes in their first year with full postseason eligibility restored. USC now sits at 5-1 nearly halfway into the year after a loss to Stanford and some less than comfortable wins. How do fans feel about the season so far and what are their hopes for the final six games and postseason?
NT: USC is a half decade, a bout of sanctions, and a head coach removed from the days of ripping off BCS bowl wins yet this is still the same place where the fan base once became jaded with annual trips to the Rose Bowl, so you probably won't be surprised to hear that a large chunk of it was furious after the Stanford loss. Of course, there were some mitigating circumstances but the fact remains that people don't like seeing a team that was hyped as a special group by both the local and national media lose its conference road opener the same way it has in three of the last four seasons. That same level of expectation just as easily translates into optimism, though, and it has the fan base hopeful - though I wouldn't go so far as saying optimistic - that this team can win out and work its way back into the national title picture.
Great things were expected out of Matt Barkley and the Trojans offense headed into the year. What's been wrong with the passing attack so far?
NT: I think it's a combination of factors. USC has only played two home games so far, and Lane Kiffin has alluded to calling a more conservative game plan on the road given that the Trojans are still a pretty young team overall; accordingly, he wants to minimize risk. But this is the same guy who made mention in the preseason of fans coming out to see exciting football, so I have trouble believing this was his plan from the get-go. More likely, the offensive line's struggles - particularly those on the left side manned by sophomores Aundrey Walker and Marcus Martin - have put a damper on some of his grander scheme ideas. Then there's third downs: USC has converted just 30% of them, which puts them 112th out of 120 FBS teams. Stir it all together and you have a recipe for a floundering passing game, even with all the weapons on tap.
Penn State transfer Silas Redd was considered to be the final piece to a title run for USC. How has his season gone so far? Has he met expectations?
NT:Other than Marqise Lee, Redd is the only skill position player on offense putting up big numbers. He's currently averaging 5.6 yards per carry and on pace for 1,140 yards on the season and what started as a timeshare with Curtis McNeal has evolved into more of a 2 to 1 split of the carries in Redd's favor. He only has one truly outstanding trait - his vision - but he has no obvious weakness as a runner either, which allows him to be productive whether he's running between the tackles or bouncing things to the outside, giving Kiffin plenty of flexibility in his play calling. The expectations coming in were for Redd to be a useful piece in the running game; instead, he's become its focal point.
Who has stood out on the Trojans defense so far? Better, as expected, or worse than expected?
NT: As underwhelming as the passing game has looked, the defense has been every bit as stellar. That isn't especially surprising with the back seven, where usual suspects like safety T.J. McDonald, cornerback Nickell Robey, and linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard have been excellent. But nobody knew what to expect from the defensive line, which boasts just one senior at any position in defensive end Wes Horton after losing bookend senior pass rusher Devon Kennard to a torn pectoral muscle in fall camp. It wound up becoming a force largely thanks to junior college transfer end Morgan Breslin and true freshman defensive tackle Leonard Williams, who have combined for 12.5 sacks. USC still lacks quality depth in some spots due to the sanctions but the talent and balance in the starting lineup is at a truly elite level.
If you were Buffaloes head coach Jon Embree how would you attack this Trojan team?
NT: USC's Achilles heel on defense has been the second cornerback spot opposite Robey, so that's the obvious place to start. Monte Kiffin, as we all know, built the Tampa 2 defense and as a result USC also tends to spend a lot of its time sitting in soft zone, meaning that Colorado will have opportunities to pick up small chunks of yards if Jordan Webb has time to throw and makes the right reads. It's tough to formulate a strategy for containing USC's fleet of skill position players on offense but the teams that have had the most success against the Trojans have done so with the blitz. Neither Walker nor right tackle Kevin Graf are especially light on their feet, so sending speed rushers off the edge or the occasional corner blitz is a good way to exploit that. Of course, that just increases the chance that Lee or Robert Woods breaks free for a big play but there isn't a team in the country that can handle both straight up, so Embree might as well go for broke and hope to get in Barkley's face before he can find them.
Game prediction? Will the Trojans beat "Alabama" and cover the spread?
NT: I don't anticipate USC covering that gargantuan line, but I do expect them to win comfortably and for Lane Kiffin to open up the passing game now that the Trojans are playing on home turf. One thing to note - Barkley is four touchdowns away from setting the USC and Pac-12 record, and Woods is five catches away from becoming the school's all-time reception leader. No matter how much he's denied it this year, Kiffin likes seeing his guys break records and I bet he makes sure they both go down this weekend as part of a 45-17 USC win.