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October 30, 2008

Game 8: Homecoming

Washington visits the Coliseum with an already-fired Tyrone Willingham still at the helm. Will that give the Huskies a little extra bite to go with their bark?

The USC Trojans (6-1, 4-1 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 5 in the BCS rankings, No. 6 in the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 7 by the Associated Press (AP), return home Saturday, November 1, to face the Washington Huskies (0-7, 0-4) at 3:30 p.m. (PDT) at the sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Fox Sports Net cable TV audience. The Trojans' annual Homecoming game is the 79th meeting between USC and Washington, with Troy holding a 48-26-4 edge. A season ago, the Trojans held off the Huskies, 27-24, in Seattle, notching their sixth consecutive victory over UW. In the previous meeting at the Coliseum, in 2006, USC defeated Washington, 26-20, as the clock ran out on the Huskies' last-gasp drive.

A week ago, the Trojan defense held the high-flying Arizona offense to just 188 total yards (54 in the second half) in a 17-10 victory in Tucson. USC's 11-quarter shutout streak ended early in the second quarter on a Wildcat field goal, and Arizona scored a touchdown early in the third quarter after a Mark Sanchez fumble gave them possession at the USC 15-yard line. However, the Wildcats didn't threaten the rest of the way and a 30-yard third quarter TD pass from Sanchez to fullback Stanley Havili - following an incredible blitz pick-up and block by Stafon Johnson - held up as the final margin. Meanwhile, the Huskies dropped a 33-7 decision at home against Notre Dame, the final game of a stretch that saw Washington play five of six games in Seattle.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his eighth season at USC (82-15, 53-10 in the Pac-10) 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, Washington headman Tyrone Willingham (11-32 at UW, 76-83-1 in 14 years at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington overall) is in his fourth - and now final - season in Seattle. Willingham's hot seat was turned off earlier this week, as the university announced he would step down at the end of the season. It was a predictable move, what with the Huskies seemingly going backward throughout Willingham's reign. However, the loss of sophomore quarterback Jake Locker on Sept. 27 proved to be Willingham's final undoing, as, since the injury, the Husky offense has struggled to mount any kind of consistent attack - joining the Husky defense as two of the lowest ranked units in the Pac-10.

Washington Offense
Offensive coordinator Tim Lappano's group was struggling for consistency even before Locker went down with a broken right thumb against Stanford. In the three games since his injury, things have gone further south for UW's offense, as the Huskies have scored just 34 points, and Washington is ninth in the conference in scoring and total offense. With Locker - and his great running skills - out, the Husky offense has transitioned back to more of a traditional look, with redshirt freshman Ronnie Fouch serving as much more of a pure passing quarterback. The Huskies utilize a number of two-tight end and traditional two-back looks, mixed in with some three-receiver sets. It's a pretty simple offense, given that Fouch is in only his fourth game as a starter. He's completed fewer than 50 percent of his throws and has four interceptions to go along with his four touchdowns.

Small but quick sophomore D'Andre Goodwin has set himself apart from the rest of the Husky receivers. He's made 39 grabs in 2008, and is averaging nearly 13 yards per catch. He has just one TD, however, as Washington's passing attack ranks seventh in the conference (and just ninth in efficiency). True freshmen Devin Aguilar and Jermaine Kearse are the other top targets, and have combined for 30 grabs (and two scores, both by Kearse). Another true freshman, Kavario Middleton, has made eight catches from the tight end spot, while senior Michael Gottlieb is a more skilled blocker, who does average nearly 17 yards on his six catches.

Without Locker, the Huskies rushing attack (ranked eighth in the Pac-10) is incredibly anemic. UW averages just 92 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry - and even though Locker has missed nearly half of the Huskies' schedule, he remains their leading rusher, with 180 yards. The loss of heralded true freshman Chris Polk to a shoulder injury in the second game hasn't helped either. Another true freshman, Terrance Dailey has started the past two games and has averaged 4.8 yards per carry on the season. Undersized classmate David Freeman has also started twice, and averages 5.6 per tote. Sophomore bruiser Brandon Johnson may also see some time.

Not only have the Huskies struggled to run the ball, but they've also given up 19 sacks. Obviously, since the starting front five has been mostly intact all season, one would imagine quality depth is an issue if the current starters are not challenged for their spots. The only change for the Washington offensive line all season is sophomore Ryan Tolar taking over for starting right guard Casey Bulyca after the latter suffered a season-ending injury at Arizona. Otherwise, junior left tackle Ben Ossai, senior left guard Jordan White-Frisbee, senior center Juan Garcia and sophomore right tackle Cody Habben have started every game.

Washington Defense
The story doesn't get much better on the defensive side of the ball, where defensive coordinator Ed Donatell's squad has played mix and match at the tackle, linebacker and safety spots all season - but to no avail. In the conference, the Huskies are eighth in pass defense, ninth in scoring and rushing defense, and dead last in pass efficiency and total defense. Not only that, but the Huskies have just five sacks and have forced only five turnovers in 2008.

Up front, junior defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim is the group's leader. He has 34 tackles and three of the Huskies five sacks. On the other end, junior Darrion Jones has only 13 tackles and has looked overmatched. True freshman Everette Thompson is starting to push for time, and recorded his first career sack against Notre Dame. Inside, sophomore Cameron Elisara has started six of seven games and has 17 stops, while senior Johnie Kirton, a converted tight end, and sophomore DeShon Matthews share the other tackle spot.

At linebacker, sophomore Mason Foster has been the leader from his outside spot. He has a team-leading 60 stops, including 6.5 for loss, and an interception. The other outside spot has had some problems, leading to junior Donald Butler, who has started five games at MLB, shifting outside. Butler has 34 tackles. Replacing him in the middle is senior Trenton Tuiasosopo, who has 33 tackles. Senior Chris Stevens, junior Joshua Gage and sophomore Matt Houston have all struggled in their time on the outside.

The secondary has been a huge problem for the Huskies, even though cornerbacks Mesphin Forrester, a senior, and Quinton Richardson, a redshirt freshman, have started every game. Forrester has 41 tackles - a high number for a corner, which may tell you he's been targeted by opposing passers. The corner duo has only seven pass break-ups and one interception between them. Sophomore Vonzell McDowell is also likely to see time at corner in nickel packages. Sophomore Nate Williams has been a solid tackler at free safety, but not much else. At strong safety, senior Darin Harris has missed the last four games with an injury, leaving average sophomore Victor Aiyewa and junior Tripper Johnson to fill the spot.

Washington Special Teams
There is nothing special about the Huskies' kicking teams. Senior placekicker/punter Jared Ballman is averaging just 37.5 yards per punt in 41 opportunities. He's nailed seven touchbacks in just 25 kickoffs, and is two-of-five as the Huskies long-distance field goal specialist. Junior Ryan Perkins handles PATs (he's 13-of-14) and is one-of-three on shorter FGs. Washington has only returned a total of four punts all season (opponents have punted 19 times against UW). Goodwin and Aguilar split those duties and average just over five yards. Receiver Jordan Polk handles kickoff returns, but only averages about 18 yards.

USC Offensive Gameplan
Another uneven performance by USC's offense almost doomed the Trojans to defeat on the road last Saturday. A shaky first 32 minutes by Sanchez, a series of penalties on key plays and some strangely called offensive series in the second half helped turn what could have easily been a 30-plus-point performance into a tight 17-10 victory. Let's start with Sanchez, who says that missing what should have been an easy TD pass on the Trojans' first play from scrimmage by overthrowing Patrick Turner caused him to struggle mentally. No matter the reasons, Sanchez did struggle, throwing a brutal interception, missing a number of other throws and even eschewing an easy first-down run in favor of a low-percentage deep sideline throw that led to USC missing a scoring opportunity. His fumble early in the second half (that led to Arizona's only TD) on a play where he has to know to get rid of the ball more quickly, was another error. Sanchez did bounce back to lead the game-winning TD drive and looked better the rest of the game.

However, the penalties and playcalling were another matter. USC penalties nullified at least three key first downs, including one on the Arizona 4-yard line, stifling a number of Trojan possessions. And, again, while the initial game plan was strong (if unexecuted by Sanchez), it seemed as if Steve Sarkisian lost a feel for the game as it went deeper into the second half. Instead of riding the obviously hot Stafon Johnson, who had his best all-around game in a USC uniform, and utilizing the intermediate passing routes that had proven effective, it seemed that Sarkisian got away from those things too often. Perhaps the most frustrating series followed a Kevin Thomas interception that set the Trojans up near midfield. Three consecutive running plays - none calling on Johnson, including an inexplicable 3rd-and-7 handoff to C.J. Gable - ended what could have been a stomach-punch drive to the Wildcats' hopes.

Will we learn anything from the Trojans this week against another seemingly overmatched defense? USC should be able to throw the ball effectively, as Washington's back seven is not overly athletic and plays mostly a loose zone. The Huskies have had no success pressuring quarterbacks or creating turnovers. One would hope for a performance similar to the Washington State game two weeks ago - focus, a good - and thoughtful - run-pass mix, minimal mistakes and even fewer penalties.

USC Defensive Gameplan
What more can be said about the USC defense other than it is the best in the nation - now officially according to the statistics, as well as to the naked eye. USC allowed its first points since Oct. 4 against Arizona, but Trojan offensive mistakes were about as much to blame (if not more) than the Trojans' stingy defense. The Trojans played as physical a game as they have in 2008, led by safety Taylor Mays, who had his best overall game since arriving at USC in 2006. Mays' jarring hit on Arizona running back Keola Antolin took the Wildcats' most effective performer out of the game, and the rest of the defense followed suit, pummeling Wildcat skill players all night.

On perhaps the key play of the night - USC's fourth-and-inches stand against a Willie Tuitama sneak in the fourth quarter - it was true freshman Jurrell Casey, along with senior Fili Moala, overpowering the middle of the Arizona line and causing a loss. It was quite a moment for the youngster, who will earn more playing time this weekend, especially with an injury to Averell Spicer.

The Trojan defense should only improve its numbers against the struggling Huskies. Fouch is inexperienced at quarterback and not nearly as mobile as Locker - and UW has had trouble protecting him. The Husky running game is nearly non-existent and they don't have a single deep threat among their receivers. If USC's offense doesn't turn the ball over, the biggest challenge the Trojan defense may face would be to match their performance against Washington State - by not allowing the Huskies to run a single play inside Trojan territory.

The Pick
It's November, and as has been noted many times this week, the Trojans are 23-0 in the eleventh month under Carroll. That streak doesn't figure to end with this game. The Huskies are simply overmatched, and even if they play an inspired game with the recent announcement of Willingham's coming departure, it would take a truly horrendous USC performance for this game even to be close.

USC fans should expect a more-than-ready Trojan team this weekend. After uninspired offensive performances against Oregon State and Arizona State, USC lit up Oregon for 44 points and Washington State for 69. The Trojan offense will be focused early and should have immediate success. I don't expect this one to get quite as out of hand as the WSU game - in Pullman, USC, with a traveling squad of just 64 players, was still using second- and third-stringers at the end of the game. At home, expect to see a lot of scout teamers throughout the fourth quarter.

After Saturday, the schedule brings what should be four intense games - USC's oldest rivals (rivalries that have been revived - for different reasons - in recent seasons) in Cal and Stanford, and its chief rivals, in Notre Dame and UCLA. This weekend's Homecoming game should be a nice little warm-up for what should be a very interesting month.

USC 56, Washington 0

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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