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October 10, 2009

Shane's Words: Bears down

The fifth week of the season is in the books. The Pac-10 is starting to take some shape, and we are starting to see who is going to be in the hunt going into the second half of the year.

Stanford is leading the conference race at 3-0 and had another solid performance from their workhorse running back, Toby Gerhart (three touchdowns and 134 yards. rushing), who led them over the Bruins up at the Farm. Stanford is playing with confidence. Oregon, after a disappointing opening game loss, looks like it is starting to hit its stride with dominating wins over Cal and, most recently, Washington State last weekend, 52-6. Oregon State got back on the winning track with a win over Arizona State in Tempe. The much-improved Huskies played Notre Dame down to the wire but lost in overtime, 37-30.

The Trojans came marching into Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, backs against the wall, in a must-win situation in early October. The best marching band in the universe was blasting out Conquest and Fight On, the Song Girls and cheerleaders were turning it up and the Trojan faithful in the Cardinal & Gold end zone were there to see the USC Trojans turn the corner.

It has become a familiar position the last several years post-2005. Those teams fluctuated between one and two losses in the conference. This year, the Pac-10 is looking stronger overall than years past, and the Trojans had to get started on the right foot in October. as they move into the heart of the schedule that includes three of their next four games on the road, including at Notre Dame and at Oregon on Halloween night.

It had been an emotional week with the brutal and freakish accident that Stafon Johnson suffered. It is never an easy week when one of your own has fallen, especially a leader with Stafon's heart and soul. There was an outpouring of love for Stafon with virtually all of his teammates dedicating special messages on their eye black to him and sending them love after scoring.

It was the kind of performance that needed to happen- a convincing win on the road, playing Trojan football and sending a message to the rest conference, and Notre Dame, that the Trojans are coming!

The opening drive by the Bears created some concern early as they moved the ball on the ground and through the air. However, the drive was snuffed out by Taylor Mays coming from the other side of the field to intercept a softly thrown ball in the end zone. USC set the stage for the game with a commanding 80-yard drive capped by an electric 38-yard touchdown run by Joe McKnight, who used the palm drill to propel himself over the goal line to go up 7-0.

There will be a lot less talk going forward about Matt Barkley's age. He is no longer the history making first "true freshman quarterback" ever to start the season opener for the Trojans. He is no longer the "true freshman QB" going on the road to Ohio State and beating the Buckeyes on a game winning, 14-play drive with time running out. He is simply the USC quarterback going into battle week in, week out with his Trojan army climbing the mountain once again. There has been talk about the game slowing down for a quarterback to be able to adjust to the next level. There is an element of truth to this, but I really call it getting "in the zone". It is about getting to a place where you are not thinking about what is going to happen but just reacting to what you get. You have confidence in your ability and the players around you. You know your lineman will take care of you, and you know where your receivers are going to be before they get there. If you see a blitz or a stunt, you react to it, and you know where you are going with the ball immediately. This is called a "hot" read. Barkley has this confidence, the physical tools, mental capacity and the emotional make up that inspires his coaches and the players around him. It is special to see a "young" quarterback not only enjoy the setting he is in but actually thriving in it, constantly with a smile.

There were some big and necessary steps taken in this game that the Trojans can build on the rest of the way. Penalties were reduced to five for 55 yards. This is very manageable, and they avoided many of the first and second-and-long yardage situations that created some challenging situations in past games. Turnovers were under control, and it was very positive to see much better ball security in the running game. USC won the turnover battle with two takeaways and an interception back to them. The third down efficiency improved to 40 percent on 6-15, much better than the 25 percent they have averaged so far this season. But USC can still get better in this category.

The red zone inefficiency has been talked about a lot this week. The good news is the kicker, Jordan Congdon, was perfect on the night with three field goals of 28, 25 and 23 yards. However, it will be imperative to start making drives count inside the 20 going in. We have the horses up front on the offensive line, and we have the weapons to make plays when they are needed. The coaches must do a good job of game planning the tendencies of the defenses and exploit them with the pass and the run. I am a big fan of play action and rolls, flooding zones in these types of situations, and success is dependent on the quarterback making good decisions and taking what the defense gives him.

We witnessed good balance on the offensive side of the ball with 174 yards rushing and 283 yards passing. McKnight finished with 20 carries for 119 yards, and he showed flashes of greatness on several carries including the 38-yard touchdown run on the first drive. As expected, Allen Bradford is starting to get some quality carries, and it is paying off. He finished with 12 carries for 44 tough yards, several of those with extra effort carrying several defenders on his back. On one particular play, he plowed over the first Bear, kept his feet driving, and carried four more for another 5 yards. Believe me, this fires up the whole team, and it is even better in the film room come Sunday!

The tandem effort was a little reminiscent of the "Thunder and Lightning" days with Reggie Bush and LenDale White with the one-two punch. The o-line is big and athletic, and they will continue to improve. They played against a quality front seven against the Bears, and there were times the defense made plays or got under their pads. But overall, they played solid Trojan football. The time of possession was also a dramatic improvement with 36:46 for the Trojans versus 23:14 for Cal.

On the receiving side, it was a great performance by Damian Williams. He showed sure hands and precision routes and he got good separation not to mention his beautiful punt return for a touchdown. This was the first punt return for a touchdown since Reggie Bush against Washington in 2005.

Brice Butler is gaining confidence and doing a good job as the third receiver. We were finally able to see a little bit more of David Ausberry's physical play. I still believe that needs to continue to be utilized. If he can get more comfortable and confident as the season progresses, he will be a weapon for the Trojans, especially in the red zone.

Stanley Havili also made a great play with a catch on the sideline that he took for a 56-yard gain. I don't believe there is another fullback in the country that can do a better job creating mismatches for a defense.

The tight end play must also be noted. USC has a trio of tight ends that are all contributing and are all big and athletic. Anthony McCoy had a big reception for a 31-yard gain on the first touchdown drive. Rhett Ellison did a great job with a couple of big blocks that sprang big gains. Blake Ayles is back and looked athletic getting in the seam for a big gain. I am also a fan of the tight end screen that the Bears used effectively against us on a play late in the game. We have the perfect personnel to execute this play.

This is Trojan football- being a team, getting it done, not looking for credit but lifting your teammates up and loving it!

Defense wins championships, and USC is getting it done on this side of the ball. The defense is really what will give these Trojans a shot going forward. They are giving up 8.6 points per game, slightly better than the 9 points that last year's defense gave up. I have maintained that this team is quicker than last year's dominating defense, and we are seeing it play out as the season unfolds.

As we know, this years D returned three starters- Mays, Josh Pinkard, and Christian Tupou- but what a great ride this has been with getting to watch these "new guys!" Remember, the Trojans graduated eight players from last year's team to the NFL draft. They also lost projected starter Shareece Wright for the season, and Armond Armstead has been out for the first five games but has received clearance to play against the Irish next week. Also, Shane Horton was the third-team weakside linebacker that stepped up after Malcolm Smith and Jordan Campbell went down.

This is a crucial point regarding the Pete Carroll era at USC. The recruiting and the depth have allowed the team to overcome a lot of injuries and lost players. It is about integrating young players quickly so that they can make the jump from playing at the high school level to playing in a new system and being part of a dominant program, often as true freshmen.

The game starts up front in the trenches and Jurrell Casey continues to dominate the middle. Everson Griffen is continuing to make big plays from the defensive end position. Griffen has learned how to play with intensity on every play and this is making the difference. Nick Perry is relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback. It is a cliché that I often use, that the best pass defense is a great pass rush. Cal had open receivers at different times in the game, but their quarterback felt the heat from many directions. He finished 15-of-40 with one interception.

This disrupts the rhythm and continuity of an offense, and the Trojans will have to do the same in South Bend, Ind.

Jahvid Best, the vaunted Cal running back was stifled, netting only 47 yards on 3.4 yards per rush. Taylor Mays made one of the highlights of the game on a key third-and-1 in the second quarter. Much was made about the speed match up with Best and Mays. On a quick pitch out to Best, who had a step heading for the sideline and the first down marker, Mays turned on the nitrous and hunted him down before he could turn the corner, tossing him out of bounds with one arm.

The coaches are moving Mays around and up near the line of scrimmage to capitalize on his speed, strength and athleticism, and it clearly paid off in helping shut down the Bears offense. Mays led the team in tackles with 10.

The linebacking crew has been doing a tremendous job. Chris Galippo is becoming the heart of the defense. It helps that he has a strong group of guys in front of him but he is a big-time player, and he is making big plays. His tipped ball in the end zone on the first drive saved a touchdown, and his vicious hit in fourth quarter reminded the Golden Bears that the Trojans had been there. Michael Morgan continues to make big plays rushing the quarterback, and his speed and range enable him to run down players for losses every game. Shane Horton stepped in at weak side linebacker and was second in the team in tackles. He started along with his brother, Wes Horton, marking the first time two brothers started for the Trojans since the Gibson brothers, Don and Craig, in 1990.

The special teams are continuing to improve. The kicking game was solid with made field goals and extra points. Jake Harfman averaged 40 yards on 3 punts, down from 46.3 but conditions were much different at Strawberry Hill. As mentioned, Damian Williams had a huge return to the house that put the Trojans in command of the game. He is very sure handed back there, which is crucial, especially in traffic and on the road. The kickoff team did a better job covering, but they still need more consistent depth on the kicks. The kickoff return should be netting more yards, but it's hard to argue with only two opportunities all night.

A big bright spot this week is the return of some injured players that are coming back. Junior Ronald Johnson has been cleared to play although there is no contact in practice until next week. He will have a big impact on the offense and will be key for stretching the defense and for opening up other areas of the offense. RoJo has 40 career catches and had 8 touchdowns last year as a sophomore. Armond Armstead is a 6-foot-5, 295-pound defensive end and will be a force rejoining the defense and bolstering a defensive line that has already been getting it done. Malcolm Smith should be able to go next week as well.

Now it is on to Notre Dame- the best intersectional rivalry in all of college football!

This is a special game with the two oldest and best traditions in college today. We will see which Midwest game we will get. I have been there with an Indian summer afternoon and mild weather, and I have been there as a player with frozen rain, strong winds and tough conditions. Regardless, the Trojans are coming and should expect the best Irish team in Coach Pete Carroll's tenure, with their most prolific offense. Their offensive line is much improved and their quarterback Jimmy Clausen is leading the country in quarterback efficiency rating at 179.25 and has already amassed 1,544 yards passing with 12 touchdowns. He has thrown for over 300 yards in three of five games and he torched the Huskies for 422 last week. These are the same Huskies that held USC to 110 yards passing in week three. Both teams are 4-1 and both teams have a bye to get ready. Notre Dame still leads the overall series 42-33-5m but USC has won the last 7 straight. Coach Carroll has not lost to the Irish since his first year in 2001, and it is still his only double-digit loss in his USC career, 27-16. The Irish have a renewed sense of belief this year, and they should. They are finding ways to win close games, which they have not done the last two years. There will be more on the rivalry to follow… The Trojans are coming!

Fight On and Beat the Irish


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