Q&A WITH THE TROJAN BLOGOSPHEREOur thanks to Displaced Trojan and DC Trojan for agreeing to a little pre-game Q&A. They each run interesting SC blogs and are guesting this week on yet another one - Conquest Chronicles. Look for our responses to their questions on one or all of these sites soon.
TH: Two weeks ago this game might have rated been a tossup in Vegas. After the nice win over Oregon and Cal's meltdown in the desert, USC is now favored by 6. How confident is Trojan Nation about this game?
DT/DC: Betting fans know that USC hasn't covered the spread much this year. And, regardless of what happened with Cal in Arizona last week, knowledgeable fans of USC football see this game as a toss-up, with perhaps a slight edge for the Trojans if only because the game is at the Coliseum. At Pete Carroll's press conference Tuesday, he described the coaching "chess match" with Jeff Tedford as being something similar to inter-division games in the NFL, where coaching staffs know each other's tendencies and personalities. Recent history between Carroll and Tedford bears this out, so coaching is a push. Like most close games, Saturday's matchup will probably come down to one or two key plays in the second half. Sounds like a cop out, but that's how close this game looks. Still, USC fans have reason to be confident, given our performance last week and the recent history in November under Pete Carroll.
TH: What are the three things SC must do to win on Saturday?
DT/DC: 1) Make Cal's offense one-dimensional. This is a primary tenet of Pete Carroll's defensive philosophy, and it couldn't be more important than in this game. What gives USC hope here are two factors. One, the Trojan defense did a wonderful job last week stopping Oregon's Jonathan Stewart, a big, fast back who compares favorably to Marshawn Lynch. Two, Nate Longshore is not a mobile quarterback. USC has problems with quarterbacks who can move (see Vince Young, and to a lesser extent even Aaron Rogers). So, even though the Trojans did a fine job versus Dennis Dixon last week, a big slow target in the backfield will be a welcome challenge for the USC defensive front. This is especially true if the Trojans can force Cal into obvious passing situations by containing Lynch and Justin Forsett.
2) Keep the ball off the ground. USC's last three losses have all come in games in which the offense fumbled the ball at crucial moments (Hershel Dennis in OT vs. Cal in '03, Reggie Bush's "lateral" vs. Texas last season, Chauncey Washington vs. Oregon State.) With Washington nursing a bruised knee and No. 2 tailback Emanuel Moody out with a bad ankle, USC may be very young and very thin at the running back spot. Yes, this means the Trojans may not be as powerful or explosive (let alone experienced) with C.J. Gable or Stafon Johnson hitting the line, but holding on to the ball will be the primary concern.
3) Disrupt DeSean Jackson. Simply put, Jackson will be the most explosive player on the field. That said, the knee jerk reaction is to pull a Dan Patrick: "You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him" with zone defenses and cornerbacks playing off with help. Certainly this is true, but it only goes so far. The USC secondary must also get into Jackson's head by jamming him, chipping him, and popping him hard whenever they get a chance. Still, the most effective way to disrupt Jackson may be to frustrate him by denying him the ball with flawless special teams execution (which is asking a lot from the Trojans) and by disrupting Nate Longshore on plays from scrimmage. Either way, Jackson showed USC last year that he has a little Randy Moss in him – both the good and the bad – and USC must work expose the bad as much as possible.
TH: The two teams seem to have very different patterns on offense. Cal lives and dies by big plays in all three phases of the game. SC has an efficient, almost surgical offense that seems to eat up yardage in five and seven yard chunks, but hasn't sprung for lots of long scores. Does SC have the ability to play keep-away from Cal, or will Kiffin try to stretch the field and generate some big hitters?
DC/DT: In a lot of ways, the offensive patterns of both teams are reversed compared to USC's last epic match up with Cal in 2004. USC had more of a quick strike offense then, while Cal picked apart a bend-but-don't-break Trojan D that used the end zone as an extra defender. As we know, Aaron Rogers tied an NCAA record that day with 23 consecutive completions, albeit mostly on out patterns and short slants. The key to what USC does offensively this Saturday is its running game, which is as we outlined above is a very iffy proposition at this point.
Still, one subtle change we've seen in USC's offense since the second half of the Oregon State game is what appears to be a pass-to-set-up-the-run approach, which looks more like a classic West Coast offense. USC has moved the ball well this way for 10 consecutive quarters, and we'll have to do the same against Cal. But to answer the question: Yes, conventional wisdom says the Trojans have the ability to play keep away from the Cal offense … and yes, Lane Kiffin will try to stretch the field, but on a very limited basis. But that's the conventional wisdom.
TH: It's well known that Nate Longshore is not the most mobile of quarterbacks. Do you anticipate that SC will play a lot of zone and try to generate a pass rush with the 4 man line, or will they blitz and leave their corners on an island?
DC/DT: Even though Taylor Mays and the rest of the secondary are improving, I can't see Carroll leaving them to their own devices with intensive blitzing - the risks are too high. In prior seasons the pass rush has been so fast as to almost count as a blitz anyway, but that has been less true this season.
However, I noticed in the Oregon game that SC was having some success with what was in effect the front 4 plus one, forcing Dixon to scramble but still leaving coverage for him or an outlet receiver... and giving Jackson a chance to go from zero to three sacks on the season in the game. Since Longshore isn't too fast, I suspect that SC will try something similar this weekend to pressure the passer but not risk a big gain from an outlet receiver.
TH: Carroll's strategy for limiting DeSean Jackson in the return game: Punt the ball in the stands, or go for it on every 4th down?
DC/DT: The punter has been working on hang time to give the return coverage a chance to get into position, so if SC needs to punt from their territory he should be trying out those new skills. Otherwise, I'd bet on going for it on 4th anywhere inside the Cal 40, especially on short yardage.
TH: Your prediction for the game.
DC/DT: We had a slight disagreement here. The consensus is that the margin of victory will be less than a touchdown. DC Trojan says USC wins 28 - 24 in a surprisingly defense-oriented game. Displaced Trojan hopes for 38 - 20 but expects 38 - 31.
One place where we don't match up well