It’s time again for our weekly “Five questions, five answers,” blog entry, focusing on UW’s opponent — which this week is USC, which comes to CenturyLink Field Saturday at 4 p.m.
Our guest is Gary Klein, a longtime writer for the LA Times who currently covers USC for that paper.. You can follow Klein on Twitter at @LATimesklein.
Here we go with my questions and Klein’s answers:
Question 1: Since Steve Sarkisian took over at UW, he is 2-1 against USC, marking what are probably two of his top three or four wins as coach at Washington. Is that something that will be brought up at USC this week and be on the minds of players and coaches?
Answer 1: Sarkisian’s record against USC will not be on the minds of the players, but you can be sure that Lane Kiffin and his staff are aware of it. Kiffin and Sarkisian are highly competitive friends who communicate often. So, losing to Sarkisian at the Coliseum in 2010 no doubt irked Kiffin. And though USC remains the gold standard for top recruits in Southern California (and given the oral commitment of Skyline High quarterback Max Browne, perhaps Washington as well), a Huskies victory would boost Washington’s growing presence on the recruiting front. USC quarterback Matt Barkley (pictured above in USC’s win over UW last year in an Associated Press photo) has vivid memories of the 2009 loss at Seattle that pre-dated Kiffin’s return. On that day, Barkley was injured and unable to play. He could only watch as Sarkisian, Jake Locker and Erik Folk sent Husky Stadium into delirium.
Q2: Washington beat Stanford a week after Stanford beat USC. What issues did USC have against Stanford that most directly led to the loss?
A2: Stanford’s front seven overwhelmed USC’s offensive line, which included redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi playing center in place of injured senior Khaled Holmes. The Cardinal sacked Barkley four times, hit him often and pressured him into throwing two interceptions. Stanford’s offensive line pushed around the Trojans and opened holes for running back Stepfan Taylor. Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes did not play especially well, but he was dynamic during a key stretch in the fourth quarter– and that was enough. USC kicker Andre Heidari also was sidelined because of knee surgery. Freshman walk-on Alex Wood, from Mercer Island, Wash., was on the trip, but on a fourth-and-two from the Stanford 13, Kiffin decided against a 30-yard field-goal attempt that might have given the Trojans a 10-point lead. Barkley’s pass to fullback Soma Vainuku in the end zone fell incomplete.
Q3: It appears USC has played better since that Stanford game. Has anything changed much in terms of personnel or scheme?
A3: Holmes returned for USC’s next game against California and helped stabilize the offensive line. Kiffin called out left tackle Aundrey Walker after the Stanford loss and the sophomore played better against Cal. Kiffin also turned to the rushing game. USC finally connected for a long touchdown pass against Utah; the first time the Trojans’ successfully went vertical with an offense that features receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. And sophomore tailback D.J. Morgan ran effectively after Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd were sidelined. Safety T.J. McDonald lines up at different spots but the defense that Sarkisian and the Huskies faced in 2010 and 2011 has been simplified. Though USC is getting solid play from junior cornerback Nickell Robey, the Trojans have been exposed at the other cornerback spot. Kiffin said safety Josh Shaw, a transfer from Florida, was getting a look there during practice this week.
Q4: How would you assess Matt Barkley’s season so far?
A4: Sarkisian said last November that he would take Barkley ahead of Andrew Luck if he were choosing first in the NFL draft. That comment was met with guffaws from many, but it fueled the 2012 preseason hype after Barkley announced he would remain at USC for a final season. Barkley played efficiently, if not spectacularly, against Hawaii and Syracuse before he was beat up at Stanford. He had two passes intercepted against Cal and had a ball ripped from his grasp and returned for a touchdown on the first series against Utah. But Barkley might have turned a corner last week when he coolly rallied the Trojans to a victory. For the first time this season, he threw short, medium and long routes with precision. He looked like a four-year starter and the player most expected him to be this season.
Q5: Finally, how about USC’s defense? Statistically, it seems like they are playing pretty well, but are they?
A5: It’s hard to tell. Kiffin made a good point this week: The Trojans have not faced the same caliber of quarterback that they played during his first two seasons. No Jake Locker. No Brock Osweiler. No Nick Foles. So, if Keith Price can play at a high level, we’ll have a better measure. The defensive line, led by JC transfer Morgan Breslin, had a breakout game against Cal, but the Golden Bears’ have given up a nation-worst 28 sacks. Linebackers Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey are on the smaller side but both have played very well as second-year starters. And middle linebacker Lamar Dawson has been solid since returning from a leg injury suffered during training camp. The cornerback spot opposite Robey has been the main liability, so we’ll see what USC does this week to improve that.