In our weekly segment scouting UW’s opponent, we talk today with Michael Lev, the USC beat writer for the Orange County Register.
1, Can you talk about the USC offense so far? “The last couple of weeks they have started to establish the identity that they want to have which is a power running team that executes a lot of play-action and bootleg passes off of that running game. (USC coach) Lane Kiffin (pictured at right shaking hands with WSU coach Paul Wulff after last week’s game in an AP photo) went into the season wanting to have one bell-cow back but it’s kind of evolved into two with Allen Bradford and Marc Tyler sharing the load. Dillon Baxter has been sprinkled into the mix and they have a great fullback in Stanley Havili. If anything is disconcerting to USC fans at this point it is that Matt Barkley has thrown four interceptions in the last two games, he had thrown none in the first two games so he still has a really good 12-4 TD-to-Interception ratio but it’s just 5-4 in the last two games. He had an interception-prone freshman season. Everyone has talked about how he has matured and grown and gotten past that but there is another school of thought that maybe this is just who he is, that he’s one of those guys who always forces the issue. So it will be interesting to see if Washington throws a bunch of different looks at him how he handles that situation.”
2, Can you also give an overview of the defense to date? “They’ve gotten progressively better each week. The first year was just a nightmare in Hawaii. They just really seemed to be on their heels the entire night against a team that really spread them out. They faced more conventional offenses against Virginia and Minnesota and did a much better job. Matchup wise it was just a better fit for them against those two teams. They have a big defense that is maybe not quite as fast as maybe we were accustomed to from recent USC squads. So teams that are able to spread them out give them a little trouble. They have a very young secondary other than Shareece Wright, the senior cornerback, and they are all new starters. They have a true sophomore starting at middle linebacker in Devon Kennard who was a defensive end to start his career and then moved to outside linebacker and now in the middle. They have a lot of youth at a lot of important spots and they have not generated a ton of takeaways. They have six interceptions in four games but only one fumble recovery and they have yet to cause a fumble. What they would like to see going forward is more turnovers and a better ability to defend teams that try to spread them out. I’m sure Washington is going to try to do that, to spread them out.”
3, Why has the secondary struggled so much? Is youth the main issue there?: “I would say that is probably the case. The two sophomore safeties — T.J. McDonald (free) and Jawanza Starling (strong) — have gotten better each game and I would say that they have played extremely well the last three games after some major struggles against Hawaii. They are both big, hard, physical prototype safeties who will probably be playing on Sundays before it’s all said and done. Wright is a very good, senior cornerback who hasn’t been tested that much. He’s a very smart tactician. The other spot is kind of interesting. They really fell in love with freshman Nickell Robey — he’s a small guy (5-8, 165) — but a very good leaper, and athlete with great ball skills. But opponents have picked on him and he’s given up some touchdowns. He did rebound very nicely against WSU — he had a pick six and another inception. He’s going through some growing pains this year. They are also working the veteran T.J. Bryant, a junior, as the nickel back. And the other primary guy is Torin Harris who is a talented playmaker but is a redshirt freshman who doesn’t have a lot of experience. So youth is showing itself in that secondary but there is a lot of talent there and they seem to be playing better lately.”
4, Does it seem like the probation and everything else is impacting the motivation of the players in any manner?: “I would say ‘not yet.’ The sanctions haven’t really come up that much lately because they’ve been winning, number one. Number two, it’s not really anything the players have any control over at this point. They’ve been dealt this hand and now they have to play it. Kiffin brings it up on occasion in reference to the number of scholarship players that he has — they are under 75 (the limit is 85). When will it possibly have an impact? Maybe later in the season when the BCS standings come out and USC isn’t in them, or when they lose a couple of games and there is no bowl game to play for as an incentive. They have talked about having a 13-0 season — once that’s no longer possible, how will that change their mindset? The good news for them is that they have their big rivalries at the end of the season, Notre Dame and UCLA, and it doesn’t really matter when you play them, you are going to get up for those opponents.”
5, Are there any real tangible differences on the field with Kiffin as coach opposed to Pete Carroll?: “I would say there is something in each phase of the game. On special teams, they hired John Baxter from Frenso State, maybe the premier special teams coach in all of college football, and he has made a huge difference. They have two returns for touchdowns in four games and they have blocked three kicks — an extra point, a field goal and a punt. They are better at the return game and at coverage, they are just better all around in that area. On offense, there have not been a lot of complaints about play-calling and that was a major deal the last couple of seasons when Steve Sarkisian and Jeremy Bates were calling the plays that to some fans a lot of the play-calling didn’t seem to make much sense. They’ve had really good continuity so far with Kiffin calling the plays, and there is a feeling that he has held back a little bit and might empty the chamber a little more against his old buddy Saturday. Defensively the biggest difference is the way the safeties play. Taylor Mays would play 15-20 yards back as kind of a last-line-of-defense guy and their safeties now are a lot more involved in the run game. People wonder if Taylor Mays would have had those kinds of opportunities that McDonald is getting how that might have impacted his career in a positive wise. But it’s good for McDonald to kind of serve as that extra linebacker and make a lot of plays near the line of scrimmage.”