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September 10, 2009It is great to have college football back- the best time of the year! It was a forgettable start to the college season for the Pac-10 with Oregon's debacle at Boise State. The aftermath was even worse with a classless sucker punch by their running back LaGarrette Blount that was replayed repeatedly on ESPN.
The PAC did bounce back with a big non-conference win by Cal over Maryland, wins by UCLA, ASU, Arizona and Oregon State, and a respectable effort by Washington against LSU. Stanford looked good in its conference win over Washington State.
It was good to see an improved Notre Dame with a shutout win over Nevada. We are going to need all of our opponents to have strong records when we get deeper into the season. Also, to be the best, we need to beat the best, and we want our rivalry games to have the highest of stakes.
It was a great afternoon last Saturday to be back at the Coliseum with the all of the Cardinal and Gold, the best band in the country blasting "Conquest" and "Fight On," Traveler galloping up and down the sidelines, and of course, the Song Girls cheering. As we know, there was history made last Saturday with Matt Barkley taking the first snap of the season from center as a true freshman. For you history buffs, USC played its first football season way back in 1888. Another statistic worth noting - Barkley's start Saturday marked the first true freshman to start under center in the opener for a top-5 ranked team since Rick Leach started for Michigan in 1975.
The best part of it though is that he did not seem fazed by any of this history. The day was about going out and playing football, being part of the team, playing within the game plan, distributing the ball to his arsenal of weapons and being a confident leader. I am sure Pete Carroll was ready to get all of the talk of statistics and history behind him and just go play football as well.
San Jose State was the perfect starting game for USC and young Barkley. The Trojans had a well-designed game plan that started revealing itself in the 2nd quarter. It was a slow start for the offense, with two fumbles and two punts, finishing the first quarter down 3-0. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and the good news is that these turnovers allowed Coach Carroll and his staff to do what they do best: teach young men. They will be coaching ball security all week and all season. As mentioned previously, Coach Carroll's biggest statistic that translates into success is winning the turnover battle.
In games USC has won the turnover battle, they have won 50-straight games. This was the best game at the best time to have turnovers happen- early. The other good news is that Barkley did throw a ball out of bounds, and he did take a sack. Although, this does not look positive to many, it truly did show good decision making, and it reinforced the work that Jeremy Bates and Coach Carroll have been working with him on since he arrived last spring.
Remember, Coach Bates had a big impact on turning Jay Cutler into a Pro Bowl quarterback for the Broncos. After going 2-for-4 in the first quarter, Barkley settled down and completed 13-of-his-next-15, with his first touchdown pass to Rhett Ellison coming in the 3rd quarter.
The O-Line taking control of the line of scrimmage and establishing the running game opened it up for Barkley to get into a groove, and you could see his confidence and comfort grow. Coach Bates called some boots and play-action passes that showcased Barkley's arm strength and his ability to throw accurately on the run. One area of significance that did not matter much in this game was third-down conversion percentage.
This is the most important down in football, and we only converted 2-9 on Saturday. It does not matter much when you have 620 yards of total offense, but believe me, it will sooner than later.
It was also great to see Aaron Corp play and have success as well going 4-4. As we saw with Oklahoma's upset loss to BYU and the loss of their Heisman winning quarterback, Sam Bradford, a lot can happen in the course of a season.
Two areas that clearly stood out for me in the game were the offensive and defensive line play- these guys are studs! Each year a team develops its own unique personality as the season unfolds. This personality comes top down from the coaches but also from the leaders on the field, often from the upper classmen. Jeff Byers, in his sixth year, is a leader on the O-line and he is nasty!
The offensive line is deep, athletic and strong, but what impressed me the most is the condition and the heart that they displayed on a hot Saturday afternoon. On Joe McKnight's spectacular 54-yard TD run in the second half, all five linemen were downfield chasing the ball, hustling 10 yards behind, looking to pound some bewildered Spartans. This epitomizes Trojan Football!
The running game netted 342 yards and 6 rushing TD's. As I have said, the game is won and lost in the trenches, and these guys give us a chance this season. Kristofer O'Dowd should be back this week, which will make us better and provide even more depth at Ohio State.
Anthony McCoy,Rhett Ellison, and Blake Ayles give us three solid tight ends that are big, physical, and athletic. McCoy does need work on securing the ball, and he will be coached on that intensely this week. All of the tight ends can block and get downfield after making the catch. McCoy threw a nice forearm rip that knocked a Spartan down in the second half. We should continue to find ways to get them the ball and involved in the offensive scheme.
The receivers were steady and did not have a lot to show with mostly vanilla play calling that was utilized on Saturday. Damian Williams will be the go-to guy all season, as he is very dependable and runs routes with precision. David Ausberry at 235 pounds can become a physical force for us on the outside if we can find ways to get him the ball and get him involved with the offense. With Ronald Johnson out for about six weeks, we should get a good look at Brice Butler, Travon Patterson, and De'Von Flournoy as the third option.
Running back-by-committee looked as good as it has since the departure of Reggie Bush and Lendale White. Joe McKnight started the game and finished with 145 yards and two TD's, but the best thing about his day was the physical element that he has added to his game. We know this is the healthiest he has been, but he is also stronger and is running harder on every carry. It was also a breakout day for Allen Bradford, with power and speed on a breakaway 43-yard TD run down the sideline in the 1st half. He will be a strong addition to the rotation this year. Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable had workmanlike games and will continue to get carries and have their time to shine. I believe that C.J. has matured a lot, and he is maintaining a positive, team-first attitude. There was also a great run by Marc Tyler in the fourth quarter, zigzagging through the Spartan defense. Stanley Havili is a weapon that we need to continue to exploit. He is a very athletic fullback and creates some very challenging matchups for linebackers trying to cover him on pass routes. We saw this on his wheel route last year at home against the Buckeyes.
The defense was very impressive as well and they are even quicker than they were last year. Jethro Franklin, the D-Line coach, is a welcomed addition back to the staff, and the players love playing for him. The D held San Jose State to a net 9vyards rushing- very reminiscent of last year's statistics. All of the defensive line played physically, and Jurrell Casey did a great job with a sack and also had a huge tackle for loss, strip, and recovered the fumble himself.
These guys will compete, and they will need to bring their best this week against the Buckeyes. I have always believed that the best pass defense is a great pass rush, and we will need to turn it up come Saturday facing Ohio State's dangerous QB, Terrelle Pryor. Hebron Fangupo looked very comfortable making his 330-pound presence felt in the Spartan backfield. The linebacker play was solid led by Chris Galippo's team high nine tackles. He made a great play behind the Spartan line of scrimmage, causing a fumble in the first half. He needs to stay healthy, and he will have a great season. Malcolm Smith was covering a lot of ground with tackling players for losses and catching guys from behind. Michael Morgan also had a solid game, and freshman Jarvis Jones stepped up and showed that he is going to be very involved contributing this year.
There are big shoes to fill at linebacker but we will make plays with our speed and instincts, and our outside guys, Smith and Morgan, will run players down.
The defensive backs had a solid game, and Josh Pinkard showed why he is so valuable for us locking down receivers at corner. Will Harris and Kevin Thomas had solid outings. Taylor Mays did not have too many opportunities to demonstrate his dominance, but he did give a good shot to a Spartan wide out on the sideline in the second half. Like a predator roaming the Pacific, it is only a matter of time before he will find his prey. Mays mentioned that we will need to tackle better this week to win, and he is 100% correct. It will be crucial to wrap up the ball carriers and to gang tackle, especially Pryor.
Our special teams should also be much improved this year with the addition of Brian Schneider. He brings a lot of experience and enthusiasm to coaching our kick and coverage teams. Garrett Green, our all purpose "quarterback", is all over the place on special teams, and we should be able to break some big returns this year as well.
Do not be fooled into believing the Navy game last Saturday will be like anything we will see come Saturday. I am a humble Trojan, and we will be going into Columbus to face a team that not only wants revenge, they more importantly want respect.
Ohio State has a rich tradition and lays claim to seven National Championships and, like USC and Notre Dame, seven Heisman Trophy winners. It is a privilege to travel to a storied program like Ohio State and go to battle with them. There is a lot of history, but it really comes back to focusing on playing our game - how we practice, the way we compete, the way we fight.
We have a huge opportunity awaiting us in Columbus this Saturday!
Coach Carroll's approach is always one game at a time and this has served the program very well. As we know, each and every game has huge implications in college football to get to where you want to get to down the stretch. It is one game at a time, but this is a game that you live for as Trojans.
The Horseshoe, National Television, College Game Day, Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor, 100,000-plus rowdy Buckeye fans is it Saturday night yet?
Shane Foley played quarterback for the Trojans from 1986-1990. He is a Vice President and Wealth Management Consultant for Wells Fargo in Newport Beach. He serves on the executive board for Pete Carroll's A Better LA, The Blind Children's Learning Center in Orange County and is involved in several other charities. He can be reached at Shane.Foley@wellsfargo.com.