No. 3 USC (1-0)
Saturday, Sept. 18
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Ohio Stadium; Columbus
Head coach: Pete Carroll, 89-15 at USC, ninth year
2008 record: 12-1, Pac-10 champions, Rose Bowl champions
Series mark: USC leads 12-9-1
School location: Los Angeles
Colors: Cardinal and Gold
Stadium: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Fight song: “Fight On”
USC Players To Watch
RB Joe McKnight: If there’s one player the Buckeyes truly fear on the USC offense, it’s probably McKnight. The junior has speed and elusiveness in droves, but at 6-0, 190, he also has enough strength to get through arm tackles if the need pops up. That’s why he’s averaged nearly 7.0 yards per carry during his USC career, including a 12-carry, 105-yard performance against Ohio State a year ago.
On top of that, there are two more reasons to fear the McKnight: he’s finally healthy, and the famously introspective tailback appears to have matured and become more comfortable with the USC squad during the offseason.
“McKnight is awesome,” OSU defensive lineman Doug Worthington said. “He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen as far as on film. It looks like he’s going 10 mph but the burst, the cuts he does are extremely rare. He’s a great athlete. He’s a great player.”
QB Matt Barkley: Much has been said about Barkley, but here’s what is known about the signal caller from southern California: After a standout junior year of high school in which he became the first player ever in his class to be chosen as the Gatorade national player of the year, Barkley threw 23 picks and 18 picks as a senior in high school. He then won the quarterback battle in camp and started his career with a 15-of-19 performance last week against San Jose State with one touchdown and no picks.
“You see he does well in the pocket,” OSU’s Cameron Heyward said. “They run him out for some short passes. We just have to affect him.”
DE Everson Griffen: He boasts a great combination of size and athleticism that occasionally makes him a terror off the edge, and Griffen is placed here because of his potential that earned him 4.5 sacks last year. Griffen is capable of going off at all times, but he has been inconsistent in his career, making just 18 tackles last year and one in the opener.
The coaches have attempted to get him focused on every play, and word during the offseason was that he was starting to reach the necessary mentality. Still, the No. 1 overall player in the class of 2007 has to show it on the field; if he’s hungry that could be Saturday.
S Taylor Mays: Mays is everything people could want in a safety. He has size (6-3, 235) and speed (4.25 seconds in the 40-yard dash). Mays plays the run, where he truly excels, and the pass with skill. Already a two-time All-American, Mays is the quarterback of the defense and makes a living controlling the middle of the field. In his four years as a starter, Mays has 186 tackles, 18 pass backups, four interceptions and a fumble recovery.
“He’s a great player, one of the best safeties in the country,” Buckeye tight end Jake Ballard said. “He’s big, fast, physical. At any other college in the country he’d be playing D-end or linebacker.”
Projected Starters (captains starred)
QB 7 Matt Barkley, 6-2, 230
TB 4 Joe McKnight, 6-0, 190
FB 31 Stanley Havili, 6-1, 230
SE 9 David Ausberry, 6-4, 235
FL 18 Damian Williams, 6-1, 195**
TE 86 Anthony McCoy, 6-5, 250
LT 71 Charles Brown, 6-6, 285
LG 53 Jeff Byers, 6-3, 290**
C 61 Kristofer O’Dowd, 6-5, 300
RG 56 Alex Parsons, 6-4, 300
RT 70 Tyron Smith, 6-6, 285
DE 96 Wes Horton, 6-5, 255
NT 44 Christian Tupou, 6-2, 285
DT 91 Jurrell Casey, 6-1, 295/99 Averell Spicer, 6-2, 295
DE 93 Everson Griffen, 6-3, 280
SLB 17 Michael Morgan, 6-4, 220
MLB 54 Chris Galippo, 6-2, 250
WLB 6 Malcolm Smith, 6-1, 225
CB 15 Kevin Thomas, 6-1, 190
CB 36 Josh Pinkard, 6-1, 215**
FS 2 Taylor Mays, 6-3, 235**
SS 26 Will Harris, 6-1, 210
PK 38 Jordan Congdon, 5-9, 175
P 39 Billy O’Malley, 6-1, 190
KR 2 C.J. Gable, 6-0, 205/22 Curtis McNeal, 5-8, 190
PR 18 Damian Williams, 6-1, 195
Five Fast Facts
1. Eight members of the 2009 Trojan roster have relatives who played on national championship USC squads: TE Rhett Ellison (father Riki, 1978), OT Kevin Graf (father Allen, 1972), OG Khaled Holmes (brother Alex, 2003-04), S Patrick Hall (cousin Keary Colbert, 2003), OT Nick Howell (father Pat, 1978), OT Matt Kalil (brother Ryan, 2003-04), LB Marquis Simmons (brother Melvin, 2003) and LB Malcolm Smith (brother Steve, 2003-04).
2. During Carroll’s tenure, the Trojans are plus-107 overall in the turnover battle, and their 270 takeaways since 2001 are the most in the nation.
3. USC is 29-4 against teams ranked by the AP since 2002 and 13-3 against teams in the top 10 in that span. During the past six seasons, USC has seven losses: five against unranked teams and two against top-five squads. Meanwhile, over the last three seasons, Ohio State has six losses, five against top-three teams.
4. USC has scored at least 20 points in 91 of its past 95 games and held 21 of its last 34 opponents to 14 points or less.
5. The Trojans last played in front of more than 100,000 people against Northwestern in the 1995 Rose Bowl. That game attracted 100,102 fans, but the Rose Bowl has since had its capacity reduced. Six of the Rose Bowls in which the Buckeyes and Trojans have met were played in front of crowds that topped 100,000.
Offensive Scouting Report
Much has been made of USC’s freshman quarterback, Matt Barkley, and the hopes of the Trojans while starting a player in front of 105,000-plus fans in just his second career game.
Make no mistake, Ohio State will try to get to Barkley and knock him off his game early. On the other side of the coin, USC will attempt to keep him in a comfort level with high percentage throws and play-action passing while occasionally moving the pocket as they have done for years. Even with an outstanding offensive line, the Trojans are smart enough to know that resting the game on Barkley’s arm, however magnificent it may be, is a risky proposition.
That’s especially true because Barkley has been known to throw interceptions in his career. He tossed 18 a year ago during his senior year of high school and then threw three in one of his first practices this fall after becoming the No. 1 quarterback.
On the other side of the coin, Carroll has spent time raving to anyone who will listen about Barkley’s abilities both on and off the field. When it comes to throwing the ball, Carroll has said Barkley is light years ahead of former USC stars like Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Then there’s the feeling that Barkley is as cool as a cucumber when it comes to facing challenges like playing in Ohio Stadium.
“He’ll be fine in this setting,” Carroll said. “I think we know him well enough. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to win and he’s going to play great, but I know how he’s going to handle it. He’s fine. He’s very comfortable with who he is and how he fits into this program. It’s extraordinary that a guy would come in feeling like that, but that’s the truth.”
But as much as talk about Barkley has dominated the discussion, there’s also the little point of USC’s running game.
The Trojans go anywhere from four deep to seven deep at running back depending on your definition, but either way, the team does list four starters at tailback and boasts a fullback with excellent running and passing skills.
A week ago, USC ripped off 342 yards on the ground against an overwhelmed San Jose State team, averaging 7.6 yards per carry and scoring six touchdowns. Three players – Joe McKnight, Allen Bradford and Marc Tyler – averaged more than 10 yards per carry.
In all, the aforementioned three plus C.J. Gable and Stafon Johnson, the leading rusher on the team the past two years, ran the ball five or more times. Johnson, who has been dubbed “The Closer” because he’s hard to keep out of the end zone from close range, had two touchdowns.
Many people remember Mark Sanchez’s four touchdown passes against the Buckeyes a year ago, but the Trojans’ running game, which racked up 164 yards, set up those scores.
“You always have to stop the run,” Heyward said. “Once you stop the run, all they have is the pass. If you take one out, then they can’t do either.”
That is easier said than done given the Trojans’ veteran offensive line. Seven players who started three games or more last year are back, a list that includes dominating middle men Jeff Byers at left guard and Kristofer O’Dowd at center.
It is likely that two of the USC linemen that started last year’s game against OSU will still be on the roster but not starting. Zach Heberer is a reserve guard and O’Dowd is coming back from injury and might not start; if he does, it moves Byers back to left guard and Butch Lewis, last year’s starting right tackle, to the bench.
That kind of depth is a nice luxury as USC has the players available to push around most defensive lines.
“They’re not sloppy,” Worthington said of the OL. “They’re a fit group, first and foremost. They’re an unselfish group. They’re very, very tough. They get after it. They’re physical, long arms. They’re exactly what you want, a prototypical offensive line.”
If there’s one weakness – on paper, anyway – it’s the team’s corps of wide receivers. Damian Williams, who led the team in receiving last year, is back, but the rest of the group is largely unproven. David Ausberry is a first-year starter who made just six catches last year. The rest of the wide receiver depth chart largely is a work in progress as a host of younger and inexperienced players fight for playing time, and just seven of the 19 completions last week went to players listed at wideout.
It helps, then, that USC has two excellent pass-catching tight ends in Anthony McCoy and Blake Ayles, as well as Rhett Ellison, who caught Barkley’s first career TD pass last week.
Defensive Scouting Report
USC’s defense a season ago was a historically good one, giving up the fewest yards and points for a Trojan defense since 1967 and the fewest points per game of any team since the 1997 Michigan squad.
No wonder, then, that eight players off of that unit were NFL draft picks. No one expects the Trojans to be quite as good this time around, but a huge dropoff isn’t expected – at least by those in the know.
“It’s kind of misleading,” offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said of the fact that so few starters return for the Trojans. “All of the guys have played. It’s not like anyone on the field, it’s there first time out there. They’re experienced. They’re good. They’re really good.”
Two hallmarks of the USC attack are speed and aggressiveness, and the Trojans are not afraid to blitz when they smell blood in the water.
The best part of the Trojan attack might be the secondary, and there’s no doubt the back seven flies to the ball even after the departures of players like Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing.
There was talk that this would be Carroll’s best secondary, but the offseason suspension of cornerback Shareece Wright because of grade issues has tempered that discussion at least a bit. Still, Mays leads the charge followed by a solid group of veterans in seniors Kevin Thomas and Josh Pinkard at cornerback and Will Harris at safety.
“I think they’re a very athletic team, especially in the defensive backfield,” OSU wideout Dane Sanzenbacher said. “Everybody out there can run, everybody out there wants to hit, and obviously they’re great players or they wouldn’t be at USC in the first place.”
Bollman added, after some hemming and hawing, that he has seen teams have to change their plan of attack based on Mays’ presence over the middle of the field.
If speed isn’t lacking up in the secondary, it’s especially prevalent in the linebacker corps. Gone are last year’s bruisers in Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, and in are two speedsters in outside linebackers Michael Morgan and Malcolm Smith along with massive Mike linebacker Chris Galippo. Running side to side on this USC team could be a recipe for disaster for those who try.
Then there’s the defensive line, which must replace three starters who caused havoc last year against Ohio State in tackle Fili Moala and ends Kyle Moore and Clay Matthews. This is where USC is the youngest, with junior end Everson Griffen sharing time with three freshmen in starter Wes Horton and reserves Nick Perry and Devon Kennard.
In the middle, USC boasts Christian Tupou, who started last year, as well as the combo of senior Averell Spicer (who was hurt and played sparingly against SJSU) and sophomore Jurrell Casey.