Time again for our weekly “Five questions, five answers” blog post exmaning UW’s upcoming opponent — which this week is USC.
And providing the answers is Gary Klein, who covers USC for the Los Angeles Times and can be followed on Twitter at @LATimesklein.
Q1: We’ll start off first with kind of a big-picture question on how USC has responded to its NCAA sanctions. The conventional wisdom in a lot of places was that it might impact the motivation of the players. But USC seems to be playing at a pretty high level right now and that doesn’t seem to be an issue, looking from the outside. Is that an accurate view, and how have the Trojans managed to keep the motivation high?
A: The sanctions and absence of an opportunity to play in a bowl game does not seem to be an issue for USC players in terms of motivation. If anything, coaches have used it as a rallying point. It’s a classic “Us against them.”
Fans, administrators and the media get caught up in bowl games. In my experience, the vast majority of players who come to USC are motivated by one thing: Getting to the NFL. Only a relatively small number, of course, will see that become reality. But that’s the driving force. That’s what keeps motivation high.
The coaching staff has done a good job of keeping the team on point, though this final stretch against Washington, Oregon and UCLA will provide a more accurate measure.
Q2: Matt Barkley (pictured at right in a Getty Images photo) seems like a better player this year. It is it just experience, or are there other reasons?
A: Matt Barkley is a year older. Saturday’s game will mark his 34th start. So he’s pretty much seen about everything a college quarterback is going to see.
To this point, Barkley has for the most part made better decisions. He’s not forcing as many passes so his interceptions are down (28 TDS, 5 INTS). He also is benefitting from a more experienced Robert Woods and the emergence of receiver Marqise Lee and tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer.
Lane Kiffin seems loathe to give them credit, but the players on the offensive line have done a good job of protecting Barkley. And Barkley seems more nimble than in years past, making several good plays after being flushed from the pocket.
Q3: Robert Woods (leading the Pac-12 in receiving with 90 catches for 1,121 yards and 11 TDs) is having an amazing season statistically. What does USC do to feature him in the offense and have there been any teams that have held him down and what did they do?
A: The most impressive aspect of Robert Woods’ season is that he is doing it with a bum ankle. Woods was injured last spring playing basketball and has never fully healed. But he still gets open and gains yards after catches.
USC has utilized Woods in a variety of ways, lining him up wide, in the slot, even in the backfield to confuse defenses and create mismatches. California slowed him with what appeared to be a near constant double team. Stanford got very physical with him at the line of scrimmage. Colorado had no answer.
The emergence of Lee and the tight ends, along with the dependable play of senior receiver Brandon Carswell and senior fullback/tight end Rhett Ellison, has taken some of the pressure off Woods. When opponents have to account for the others, Woods becomes even more problematic for opponents.
Q4: It seems like USC’s defense is playing better as the year has gone on. Is it just experience, or are the guys finally picking up Monte Kiffin’s system, or what?
A: Monte Kiffin remolded the defense into a smaller, faster unit. Linebacker Dion Bailey is a converted safety. Linebacker Hayes Pullard is also on the shorter side. They’re both redshirt freshmen. True freshman Lamar Dawson will make his second start against Washington.
Monte Kiffin also seems to have simplified some things. For example, you don’t see the middle linebacker dropping so deep into coverage. That was a major problem last season.
The defense provided a game-turning play against Notre Dame with a fumble return for a touchdown. Cornerback Nickell Robey’s touchdown on an interception against Stanford would have been another–but he left too much time on the clock for Andrew Luck. USC was not producing those kinds of plays early in the season.
But any Washington fan who watched the USC-Stanford game will recognize that USC appears to have the same problem it had last season (and, really, the season before that as well under Pete Carroll). The Trojans just can’t seem to stop opponents from moving down the field late in the fourth quarter.
Q5: Finally, is this season on its way to being deemed a success by fans and is Lane Kiffin winning over the populace? Or still too early to tell?
USC’s fan base was split when Kiffin was hired–and it remains so.
Most fans, and Athletic Director Pat Haden, would probably consider this season a success if Kiffin emerges victorious over Steve Sarkisian and UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel. A 9-3 finish would obviously be regarded as improvement over last season’s 8-5 record.
Now, if the Trojans could pull off an upset over Oregon at Autzen Stadium…
But the fact is, many USC fans will never completely warm to Kiffin simply because he is not Pete Carroll.