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September 3, 2009

Game 1: Spartaaaaaa!

The Trojans open a new season, with a true freshman quarterback, against Pete Carroll's first collegiate opponent, San Jose State.

The 2009 USC football team, ranked No. 4 in the USA Today coaches' poll and the AP poll, opens the season Saturday, September 5, against the Western Athletic Conference's (WAC) San Jose State Spartans at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Fox Sports Net television audience. It is the fourth meeting between the two schools, with the Trojans leading the series 3-0 (1995, 2000, 2001). USC is 28-1 against current WAC foes, while the Spartans are 44-134-2 against Pac-10 competition.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll enters his ninth season at USC (88-15) having led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, San Jose State headman Dick Tomey begins his fifth season in charge of the Spartans, holding a 23-25 mark at the school. The 2009 season will be Tomey's 29th as a head coach in college football (181-135-7, including stints at Hawaii and Arizona), and his 181 victories rank him fourth among active coaches - behind only Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden and Mack Brown. Under Tomey, the Spartans have finished 6-6 each of the past two seasons after playing in the 2006 New Mexico Bowl.

The Trojans' 2009 opener is only their second in the Coliseum in the past seven seasons, and yet USC has won its past 11 opening games, and is 58-16-7 in season openers at home. Troy returns nine starters to an offense expected to be among the nation's best, even with new quarterback Matt Barkley set to become the first true freshman QB to start a game for USC. On defense, USC returns just three starters, including consensus All-America safety Taylor Mays as the leader of what may be Carroll's best secondary during his tenure.

The Spartans, meanwhile, feature 14 returning starters, including seven on an attacking, high-risk defense that piled up some solid statistical results in 2008. A number of skill positions on offense feature new starters, while the secondary in SJSU's 4-2-5 alignment is likely to feature a pair of new cornerback starters. However, the granting of an extra year of eligibility to running back Patrick Perry, who missed the previous two seasons with a knee injury gives the Spartans hope for a boost in offensive production for a unit that struggled mightily a season ago.

San Jose State Offense
With an offense that ranked at No. 106 or worse in scoring (18.7 points), rushing (86.7 yards per game) and total offense (282.8 yards per game), it seems there is nowhere for this Spartan unit to go but up. Offensive coordinator Steve Morton (who was USC's offensive line coach in 1999-2000) does have a solid group of returning linemen that he has to hope blossoms and an interesting group of skill position players who have the talent to change the Spartans' luck in 2009.

In fact, at quarterback, SJSU has two players who are expected to see the field on Saturday. Returning starter, senior Kyle Reed, completed 64 percent of his passes a season ago. Nominally a dual-threat quarterback, the Cal transfer gained just 80 yards in 87 carries a season ago, thanks to sack losses (the Spartans gave up 31 sacks in 2008). Junior Jordan LaSecla, who appeared in just two games a year ago, made a strong push in spring ball and fall camp and is likely to split snaps through at least the first few weeks, as Tomey says he'd like a full-time starter by the time SJSU kicks off WAC play in early October.

Whoever plays under center will benefit from the return of senior wideout Kevin Jurovich, who missed all but two games in 2008, but caught a single-season SJSU-record 85 passes in 2007. Tomey praises his speed and elusiveness. Rangy 6'4" junior Jalal Beauchman has 51 career receptions, though he missed eight games a year ago, while sophomores Michael Avila and Josh Harrison combined for 37 grabs a season ago. And JC transfer Marquis Avery, another 6'4" specimen, should also see the field. At tight end, the Spartans are green thanks to a camp injury to sixth-year senior Terrance Williams, who was transitioning from receiver. Redshirt freshman Ryan Otten will get first crack on Saturday.

The physical Perry's return to the backfield should help energize the Spartans' anemic running game. Perry's last appearance in a Spartans uniform came in the December 2006 New Mexico Bowl. He appears to have recovered fully from a knee injury that kept him out the past two seasons. He has scored nine career TDs in 23 games at SJSU. JC transfer Lamon Muldrow is a compact, powerful runner who gained more than 3,200 yards in two seasons at the lower level. Sophomore Brandon Rutley is more of a speed back and is the Spartans' leading returning rusher (356 yards in 2008).

San Jose State's front five is the team's most experienced group. Sophomore left tackle Fred Koloto missed all but two games a season ago, after starting eight times as a true freshman. The rest of the group return as starters from a season ago: LG Isaac Leatiota (a junior and two-year starter); senior center Ronnie Castillo, a Rimington Award watch lister; junior RG Ailao Eliapo; and junior RT John Konye, whose nine starts a year ago were at LT.

San Jose State Defense
Sixth-year defensive coordinator Keith Burns (who was USC's defensive coordinator from 1994-97) has taken Tomey's 4-2-5 design, first made famous by Arizona's Desert Swarm defenses in the 1990s, and applied it with great success in the Bay Area. Led by a pair of brothers, senior defensive end Carl Ihenacho and junior safety Duke Ihenacho, the Spartans ranked in the top 25 nationally a season ago in total defense, tackles for loss (No. 7), pass efficiency defense (No. 8), pass yardage defense (No. 10), sacks and turnover margin. While the Spartans remain strong up the middle and at defensive end, some green defensive backs could make it tough for Tomey's team to replicate those pass defense numbers.

SJSU returns three of four starters up front, led by speedy and physical Carl Ihenacho, whose 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks put him among national leaders and earned him second-team All-WAC honors. Classmate Mohamed Marah mans the other end spot and had 32 tackles a year ago. Tested depth at end is questionable, but not so at tackle, where four players have solid experience. Senior Adonis Davis is the leader inside, but sophomore Pablo Garcia rotates with him (Garcia played in nine games as a freshman). Senior Kalvin Cressel is a new starter at the other spot, though he's played in 33 games in his career (starting five), while junior Justin Willis - a playmaker in 2006 and 2007 - returns from an injury that sidelined him in 2008.

The Spartans boast a pair of experienced linebackers in seniors Travis Jones and Justin Cole. Jones led the team in tackles a season ago, with 72, and Cole is a three-year starter who earned second-team All-WAC honors a season ago. Reserve junior Pompey Festejo started just once last year, but still notched 49 tackles.

In the secondary, Duke Ihenacho moves to safety from linebacker, but will likely still play a major role against the run and pressuring the QB. The versatile junior was first-team All-WAC a year ago, with five interceptions, 66 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. Junior safety Devin Newsome is the only other member of the secondary with much experience, and he had 59 stops and two interceptions as a starter in 2008. The third safety spot will be manned by sophomore Tiuke Tuipulotu, a first-time starter. First-time starters will also appear at both cornerback spots with sophomores Peyton Thompson and Alex Germany getting the nod.

San Jose State Special Teams
Colorado transfer Tyler Cope, a sophomore, is expected to handle PAT and field goal duties, while senior Philip Zavala returns as punter and will also handle kickoffs and longer field goals. Zavala averaged just less than 37 yards per punt in 2008. Jurovich will handle punt return duties, while Rutley returns in his kick return role, where he averaged an impressive 26.7 yards per in 2008.

USC Offensive Gameplan
As 2009 gets underway, there are plenty of debuts on the offensive side of the ball for the Trojans. It's the first game as offensive coordinator for John Morton, the first game for new play caller Jeremy Bates, and - most ballyhooed - the first game for Barkley as USC's starter.

With that in mind, and considering the fact that San Jose State showed more vulnerability against the run than the pass a season ago, I'd be shocked if USC doesn't lean on its rushing attack early and often in this one. Looking back at the debuts of Matt Leinart (2003 at Auburn), John David Booty (2006 at Arkansas) and Mark Sanchez (2007 vs. Arizona), there is no doubt that Carroll preferred an initially more conservative gameplan. And considering each of those quarterbacks had at least two years in the program under their belts (compared with about eight months for Barkley), it's not exactly going out on a limb to think that USC might want to use its stable of running backs and imposing offensive line to do early damage. While Joe McKnight got the nod as starter earlier this week, expect healthy doses of Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable and Allen Bradford in the gameplan.

That's not to say that Bates, Morton and Carroll won't give Barkley a chance to gain some confidence against SJSU's green corners. However, with the Spartans well-known tendency to blitz from different looks in an effort to confuse and hurry quarterbacks, Barkley's outlet receivers - such as tight end Anthony McCoy and fullback Stanley Havili - should also see plenty of action in the passing game. Still, Damian Williams (especially in the absence of injured Ronald Johnson) has established himself as a go-to guy, and he should make some statement catches as well. SJSU's defensive scheme also begs USC to see what McKnight can do as a receiver out of the backfield and in the slot.

If the performance of an offensive line is what many people believe differentiates the entire unit's success from failure, then Trojan fans must breathe a sigh of relief that Barkley will be protected by, perhaps, the best front five in the nation. Even without injured center Kristofer O'Dowd on Saturday, the line is stocked with returning starters at four of the five spots. With tackles like Charles Brown and new starter Tyron Smith, guards like Alex Parsons and Jeff Byers (who is covering for O'Dowd at center this weekend) and utility players like Butch Lewis, Nick Howell and Zack Heberer, this is a stacked deck for any opponent.

USC Defensive Gameplan
Around the nation, questions about the Trojan defense are flying. That's what happens when you lose eight starters, including four linebackers drafted into the NFL. However, with experienced reserves taking over at the three linebacker spots, a stellar secondary and a solid group of defensive linemen who seem to have taken to new DL coach Jethro Franklin, anyone who expects a huge drop-off from a Carroll team's defense is just kidding themselves.

New defensive coordinator Rocky Seto must be thrilled with the toys he's been given. Against SJSU, which had a lot of trouble running the football a season ago, expect the Trojans to play pretty vanilla defense early. If the Spartans struggle running the football, USC will likely begin to mix up looks on the Spartan quarterback, whomever he may be, in an effort to rattle and confuse. In other words, the USC defense will do what it does.

Up front, expect the tackle trio of junior Christian Tupou, sophomore Jurrell Casey and JC transfer Hebron Fangupo to set the tone on Saturday (senior Averell Spicer is injured, but should return next weekend). This group is likely to surprise national pundits with its power and quickness - and that will likely open things up for rising star end Everson Griffen. At the other end, the big question Saturday will be which of a trio - redshirt freshmen Wes Horton and Nick Perry or sophomore Malik Jackson - will set himself apart in the race to replace injured Armond Armstead.

The play of the front line will also be a signpost for USC's new trio of linebackers - MLB Chris Galippo, SLB Michael Morgan and WLB Malcolm Smith. There will be a lot of eyes peeled on this new group as they try to replace one of the best LB groups in school history. If the front seven plays up to standard, that will make it easier for USC's standout secondary, headed by physical freak Mays, to become the turnover-forcing playmakers Carroll looks for. Senior corners Kevin Thomas and Josh Pinkard are physical, while Will Harris looked well on his way to strong safety stardom as a late season replacement for Kevin Ellison a year ago. Also, keep an eye out for redshirt freshman Brian Baucham, sophomore T.J. Bryant and junior Marshall Jones in nickel packages.

The Pick
While the Spartans feature some definite talent on the defensive side of the ball, their risky, attacking style might put them in some trouble against USC's speed and athleticism. Leaving defenders in one-on-one situations against the kind of talent USC possesses on offense is not usually a prescription for success. The question is: how adventurous will the Trojans' coaches be with Barkley - especially with Ohio State on the horizon?

Defensively, expect the Trojans to stifle the Spartans rushing attack. While the Spartans have a veteran line, that doesn't mean its talent is up to Pac-10 par. At the same time, the sack numbers allowed by SJSU a year ago say that USC should be able to harass the quarterback often, especially with the Trojans' vaunted coverage schemes designed to confuse. If the Trojans can keep the Spartans away from the big play, San Jose State will have a hard time sustaining an extended drive.

In the end, though the Spartans have clearly improved in the Tomey Era, they simply don't have the players to match up with USC. The biggest question will be how Barkley passes his initial exam. With the help of his offensive mates and a strong defensive performance, expect the freshman to overcome a couple of early mistakes and guide the Trojans to a big win.

USC 42, San Jose State 10

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine 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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