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September 17, 2009

Shane's Words: Proud of our guys

The second week of college football is in the books. It was a respectable weekend for the Pac-10. UCLA pulled an upset win over Tennessee on the road. Washington ended the nation's longest losing streak at 15 games with a 42-23 win over Idaho. Cal rolled Eastern Washington 59-7, Arizona 34-17 beat Northern Arizona and Oregon State edged UNLV 23-21. On the flip side, Stanford gave up a 14-point lead to lose to Wake Forest 24-17, and Washington State lost to Hawaii 38-20. Notre Dame lost a tough one to Michigan, which does not help us in the big picture.

It is a very big opportunity for the conference coming up this weekend for non-conference games. Go PAC-10! Here are the games: Cal at Minnesota, Utah at Oregon, Arizona at Iowa, Kansas State at UCLA, Louisiana Monroe at Arizona State and SMU at Washington State. Of course, the Trojans will be traveling up to Seattle to face a much-improved Washington team that has a renewed sense of belief.

So, there we were in The Ohio State stadium last Saturday night- the Horseshoe! The stage was set, the largest crowd ever in the 87-year old history of the stadium. There were 106,033 people there along with ESPN's College Game Day, the infamous Ohio State band doing their signature Script Ohio and a football team playing for the pride of the university, the city of Columbus, the state of Ohio, and the Big 10 conference.

USC came in riding a six-game winning streak against the Buckeyes, including a 35-3 thrashing last year at the Coliseum. This was the biggest clash of the early 2009 college football season with the third-ranked Trojans facing the eighth-ranked Bucks. The entire stadium was covered in their home Scarlet and Silver with a small sliver of Cardinal and Gold and a scaled down Trojan Marching Band in one corner of the end zone. The Trojans against the world!

Matt Barkley came in to this game saying that he would not be affected by the crowd noise and a hostile environment, an environment that ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreet, called the loudest, most hostile environment that he had ever witnessed at the Horseshoe! That includes dozens of Ohio-State-Michigan wars over the years. What fans could not realize is just how loud it was. There were people covering their ears during segments of the game, and you could not hear the guy next to you in the stands. You can only imagine the decibel level on the field. We know Pete Carroll has always been open to playing freshman and has proved that "always compete" is real. This, however, was unprecedented, a newly minted 19-year-old, true freshman quarterback leading the way in his first road game.

We know Coach Carroll's philosophy - every game is a championship game and they are all approached the same way. It is a great way to avoid the highs and lows of a season but not nearly as easy to deliver, which we have seen the last three years. He has also been emphatic about Barkley being different than his predecessors and saying he is at a higher level as freshman than two Heisman winners and two Rose Bowl MVP's. Barkley talked about being excited about the opportunity, and in the end he simply stated "we did what Trojans do"… period. Coach Carroll talked to the team at the start of the last drive about how cool it would be to take it down and score to win the game, and "Cool Hand" Barkley did a lot of smiling throughout the game especially, that last drive. USC started the fateful drive on its own 14, only to take a sack and had a procedure penalty backing them up to their own 5. He stood in there and delivered strikes to Joe McKnight and to Anthony McCoy, and he executed a QB sneak on fourth down as if it was nothing and moved the chains. He continued the march to victory with the clock ticking down. He also converted the two-point conversion to McKnight that put the Trojans up by three. The sounds of silence afterward were so very sweet. The extreme frenzy was reduced to complete dejection on what could have been for the hometown faithful. Although one game does not a season or a career make, it proved his poise, faith, and confidence in the clutch. This was not one free throw or one hit to win the game. It was a 14-play drive with time running out being a leader, managing the clock, recognizing the defense and delivering… with the Buckeye faithful and entire Midwest region against you.

It was a great start for the Trojans out of the gate. After winning the toss and deferring, Chris Galippo intercepted the second pass that Terrelle Pryor threw and lumbered his way 51 yards to set up the first touchdown that the Trojans scored. Coach Carroll set the tone for the game by going for it on fourth-and-goal, and Stafon Johnson plowed through the defense for the score. There is something to be said about having the confidence in your team to go for it on fourth down and knowing that your team will deliver. It sends a message to your team that you have faith in them, and it starts shaping the personality of a team. It promotes faith, toughness and a never-say-die attitude. Coach Carroll has always prided himself on having teams that finish and that find a way to win and the Trojans, under Coach Carroll, have consistently been a very strong second half team. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel is a great coach and class act but did not entrust his team with the same faith, and that does not inspire players or fans.

The game was extremely hard fought and a lot of credit has to be given to the Buckeyes. The game is won and lost in the trenches and Ohio State played the Trojans pretty evenly for the first three-and-a-half quarters. The Buckeyes defense made it challenging for the Trojans to move the ball consistently against them, and their defensive line played well for most of the game. The O- line for the Trojans started to pound the Buckeyes on the last drive and showed them what it means to be a Trojan! With the game plan that was called on offense, there was not a glaring differential in speed like last year, and the offense never really opened it up and stretched the defense. I believe that the Trojans need to continue to get their skill players the ball in space. We know that Ronald Johnson, the deep threat, will be out for another four weeks or so. The Trojans do need to find another option that can help stretch the defense with one of the speed guys- likely Brice Butler or Travon Patterson. I do believe that David Ausberry can become the weapon they need him to be. He is built a lot like Mike Williams, and they need to get him some catches and confidence so he can become the force he should be. They also need to keep getting the ball into Damian Williams' hands and let him get some yards after the catch. His routes will create separation from most of the defensive backs he will play, and he will continue to be the go to guy and playmaker.

The running game was tough to establish consistently with Ohio-State often playing eight in the box. USC, going into this game, knew that Ohio State would be bringing pressure and force Barkley to beat them. McKnight continues to impress with his improved strength and toughness. He also stepped up in the clutch in the fourth quarter on the final drive with a huge third-down catch and some tenacious runs, and he finished with 105 total yards, 60 tough yards rushing and 45 receiving.

With the game as tight as it was, there were very limited opportunities for other backs to carry the ball in this game. It is becoming clearer that the primary tandem will be McKnight starting and Stafon Johnson carrying the ball in the red zone/goal line area. Allen Bradford and C.J. Gable will continue to have opportunities but will vary game by game. Stanley Havili does need to be involved in the offense and creates mismatches that the Trojans need to exploit.

The defense was huge, and they played an integral part in the hard fought victory. The second series on defense was forgettable with huge-hitting safety Taylor Mays misreading a play and being out of position following a swing route by the running back. This was very uncharacteristic, and Pryor and the Buckeyes capitalized, setting up their only touchdown that the defense gave up all game.

Overall, the defense played the run extremely effectively by securing gaps and stringing them out, especially Pryor, primarily keeping him lateral or "East-West" as we say. The Trojans held them to 88 net yards rushing on less than 3 yards per carry. This productivity will work against strong opponents. The speed on defense was apparent and helped in neutralizing Pryor.

The Trojans were playing a lot of the second half on their heels and were constantly on the losing side of the field position battle. USC was hampered by two holding penalties early in the second half, which created first-and-20 situations that were very challenging to overcome, especially in the frenzied environment. USC converted six-of-16 on third downs but made up for it by picking up all three fourth-down conversions in this game (other than the punt that got away). It was a great job by the interior line, especially Kristofer O'Dowd, on the three fourth down sneaks. The team will need to continue to improve on the third down as the season progresses. After turnover margin, this is the key statistic. The Trojans were forced to punt five times in the game, four of them on three-and-outs, and one safety on a high snap deep in their own end zone. I cannot remember the last time we had that happen during Coach Carroll's era.

The field position given to Ohio State was on the 50-yard line or better four times in the second half and they could only muster three points. That is solid defense! Everson Griffen is starting to come into his own and looks hungrier on every play, and Jurrell Casey continues to impress on both the run and his bull rush. Galippo had the huge pick and also had 5 tackles, and our outside speed backers, Michael Morgan, with seven tackles, and Malcolm Smith continue to step up and are running down the ball. Mays came back, and with a twisted knee that came from his own guy inadvertently, he led the team in tackles with eight, and steady Josh Pinkard had five as well.

The kicking game needs to improve, and I know they are working on stepping it up going into the first conference game. I am a big believer in Coach Brian Schneider, and they will continue to improve. They will create more competition by seeing if J.C.-transfer Jake Harfman can challenge for the spot. Billy O'Malley will have to improve on his distance and hang-time. The Trojans were also very fortuitous not to have their punt blocked in the 2nd half. It was shocking that Ohio State missed. They also need to tighten up kickoff coverage and work on deeper kickoffs. The punt coverage was strong, and Rhett Ellison had two key tackles. We do miss David Buehler right now.

Depth is what Coach Carroll has built at USC. I remember hearing him on a radio interview in his second year after the Orange Bowl pounding of Iowa and an 11-2 finish that started the current run we are still on.

The media asked him back then about returning to the NFL and I remember his response… if he could build it the way he knew that he could, he could capitalize on two distinct opportunities. One, players at the college level choose you verse you choosing them, and two, if you build it right, you can potentially have 10-plus No. 1 draft choices per year verse one at the NFL level. USC has been knocking on that door! If we take quick inventory of the last year, we lost our offensive coordinator/QB coach, defensive coordinator, defensive line coach, our Rose Bowl winning QB, all of our starting defensive lineman and linebackers. Our starting split end is injured, our starting center was down in week one, and we reload and have guys step up like champions.

We are in a great position to have a great season, one game at a time. Play as humble Trojans, doing your talking with your actions and not with your mouth.

This depth will likely come into play going up to Washington this Saturday. Credit also needs to be given to Barkley for playing the fourth quarter and leading the touchdown drive with a sprained shoulder (the same injury that is sidelining Sam Bradford for 3-6 weeks). As I have said, there is a lot that can happen in the course of a season, and Aaron Corp will likely get his shot this Saturday. I expect him to have a great game if he is the guy. Mays is day-to-day, but I will be surprised if he is not ready to go. The Huskies are rejuvenated under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian, and they are fired up after ending the nation's longest losing streak at 15 games. They played LSU tough in the first game and whacked Idaho last week. There is a three-touchdown spread, but I expect this game to be closer.

The two teams will be very familiar with each other's systems. Jake Locker is a rugged, athletic QB that plays with a lot of heart. Husky Stadium is among the loudest in the country and in the top two in the Pac along with Oregon's Autzen Stadium. It is the loudest stadium I played in. The Trojans have bull's-eyes on their back every week, and you have a fired up team, a proud program and fan base that would love nothing more than to upset the Trojans.

They will play their game, the way that they were born to do, what they were trained to do - the way that Trojans do…Fight On!

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.


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