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USC Football Behind Enemy Lines - Q&A With Syracuse Writers

Aaron Fischman |
September 16, 2011 | 12:09 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

The Orange head to the Coliseum to try to go 3-0.
The Orange head to the Coliseum to try to go 3-0.

-- For complete coverage of Saturday's USC-Syracuse game, click on our Game Week link or follow us on Twitter. --

The still unbeaten USC Trojans host the Syracuse Orange, who are also 2-0, on Saturday evening at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

As with last week's Utah-USC matchup, both teams come into the game with something to prove. Syracuse narrowly beat the FCS-level Rhode Island Rams, escaping with a seven-point victory.

Although the Trojans faced tougher competition in the form of the Utes, they, too, needed some late-game heroics in order to grab the win.

In 2010, the Orange traveled to Washington to take on the Huskies for their second game of the year. The Orange hung close for the first half, only trailing 13-10, but Jake Locker erupted for three more passing touchdowns after halftime. Syracuse fell to the Huskies, 41-20.

This time, Syracuse will bring a very experienced offense into the Coliseum. Junior quarterback Ryan Nassib is back with a senior running back and a couple upperclassmen filling the starting receiver slots. Their defense, however, has struggled to fill the void left by two standout linebackers, who graduated last spring.

While most of the matchup favors the Trojans (at least on paper), expect the Orange to test the Trojans' young secondary. You can bet Ryan Nassib and company will come in with upset on their mind.

With that said, let's get going! Syracuse writers Brent Axe and Sean Keeley were gracious enough to join me to preview Saturday's contest.

Axe is a sports blogger for Syracuse.com, radio host on The Score 1260 (Syracuse, N.Y.), and member of the Buffalo Bills Radio Network. Keeley is the creator of the Syracuse blog, Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, and author of the book How To Grow An Orange.

1. Syracuse boasts a very experienced offensive unit, especially among the skill positions with starting running back Antwon Bailey and Nassib's primary target, Van Chew, each in their final year of eligibility. Nassib and his second-favorite receiver, Alec Lemon, are juniors. With such a veteran offense, what kind of expectations surround the offense and the team, as a whole?

Brent Axe: You hit on it. Based on experience, no question. The offense is expected to anchor the team this season after the defense did a season ago. So far, Nassib has done his part, but the offensive line has been disappointing. Nassib has been under pressure too much and Bailey has been inconsistent outside of one big 53-yard run vs. Wake Forest.

Sean Keeley: Expectations are fairly high considering this offense is basically the same one that looked very stagnant at times last season. Ryan Nassib is set to go down as the best Syracuse QB since Donovan McNabb. He's got a lot of weapons out of the backfield as you mentioned. However, it's the receivers and tight ends that make this offense more explosive than past ones.

That said, it's not a well-oiled machine. The offensive line is struggling and Macky MacPherson is going to need time to settle in at center, especially when he's
undersized at the position. This is an offense that should continue to get better and better as the season goes on.

(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)
2. Head Coach Doug Marrone said after last Saturday's narrow win over Rhode Island, "We're not good enough not to enjoy a victory." After sorting through the double negatives, do you think Marrone's guys should be satisfied with the quality of their first two performances? Why or why not?

Axe: You would think [they would] considering they are 2-0 for the first time since 1999, but I don't think so. Syracuse caught a big break when Wake Forest's starting quarterback went down that helped them overcome a 29-14 deficit, and there is no way an FCS team should have kept the game so close, especially at the Carrier Dome.

Keeley: I certainly don't think you can feel satisfied after beating an FCS team at home by a touchdown, especially when the game was still up in the air until the very end. Syracuse has established a definitive lack of killer instinct so far and that's the kind of thing that could spell trouble this week.

The Wake Forest game started out about as poorly as SU fans could have imagined. The offense looked dreadful and the defense was bending. However, you have to credit the team for not quitting and battling back to finish the comeback and win the game in overtime. A lot of folks have said they didn't deserve to win the game, but you know what, they won it and that's all that matters.

3. Like Syracuse, the Trojans have also won two very close games, barely defeating the Minnesota Gophers and Utah Utes. In analyzing USC's two close calls, to what extent do you believe Syracuse perceives 'SC to be vulnerable?

Axe: I can't speak for the coaches, but Syracuse has clamped down and played well in the fourth quarter when it matters. If they are in this game in the fourth, they will only gain confidence and make them feel they can win.

Keeley: There are two things that jump out at me. Number one, the USC pass defense looks vulnerable. The Syracuse offense isn't exactly Oregon but it does have enough weapons to take advantage of that. Van Chew and Alec Lemon can catch the deep ball and SU has a lot of options for short-yardage. If Nassib can get time, look out.

The other thing is that USC seems to like beating itself more than letting the other team beat them. Penalties and turnovers have almost cost the Trojans big-time in both
instances. And if they want to continue coughing up the ball and making mistakes, we're certainly not going to stop them.

Carrier Dome (Wikimedia Commons)
Carrier Dome (Wikimedia Commons)
4. In the season opener against Wake Forest, Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib threw for just 85 yards through the first three quarters. The following game, Nassib was intercepted on his very first pass attempt. Against USC, how important will it be for Nassib and the Orange offense to start strong?

Axe: Very important. They need to be aggressive and get off to a fast start to gain confidence in such a big environment. Doug Marrone has been stressing that all through camp and the first two games. They need to get that monkey off their back.

Keeley: Huge. Going back to last season, the Orange have been unable to do much of anything early on and it's something that seems to keep holding them back. Especially given the talent-level of the USC team and the fact that SU will be so out of its element, it's basically a necessity for Ryan Nassib and the offense to make something happen early and often. This isn't Rhode Island... once you fall behind against USC, you're in trouble.

5. Many Trojans fans have read about the Orange's dramatic comeback win over the Demon Deacons, in which they trailed by 15 points in the fourth quarter, but let's talk specifically about what made the comeback so thrilling. If you can, mention a couple crucial plays that did not directly result in points, but may have swung the momentum.

Axe: Two plays:

1) When DE Chandler Jones knocked starting QB Tanner Price out of the game. It was a play where Jones was held but kept pushing forward. His momentum carried him into the QB and knocked him out of the game. Wake Forest lost a lot of confidence when Price went down. He was having a huge game.

2) The biggest play that swung momentum was a 3rd-and-4 play when DT Deon Goggins stuffed a Wake Forest run. The crowd came alive after that play and RB Antwon
Bailey ran for a 53-yard touchdown the next series.

Keeley: Well, to be fair, the injury that Wake Forest QB Tanner Price suffered did have an effect on the Wake offense. It's not a surprise that they sputtered afterward and gave SU the chance to get back in the game. The play originally brought Wake down to the 2-yard-line and could have led to some backbreaking points. Instead, the play was called back on a penalty, Price went down, and the momentum swung.

Offensively, however, it became the Nassib-to-Chew show as the two hooked up multiple times to open up the field and turn the stagnant SU offense into a powerful one.

USC WR Robert Woods (Sara Ramsey/Neon Tommy)
USC WR Robert Woods (Sara Ramsey/Neon Tommy)
6. The Syracuse defense, which lost two stellar linebackers (Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue) to graduation last year, struggled mightily against Wake Forest, two weeks ago. Specifically, the Orange secondary has not performed as well as it would like. How does Coach Marrone plan to address this issue in preparation for the Trojans' vaunted passing attack?

Axe: That is going to be a challenge. CB Kevyn Scott is a captain and good when healthy, but doesn't have the speed to keep up with USC's speed. Keon Lyn is fast, but still finding his way. The safeties are solid. Phillip Thomas is a smart player and a vocal leader and Shamarko Thomas is one of the fastest players on the team and the hardest hitter. But they haven't seen anything like WR Robert Woods and these USC offensive players.

Keeley: Right now it seems like Marrone is holding steady with what he's got. Safety Phil Thomas is playing through an injury and starting corner Ri'Shard Anderson is out with an injury. His replacement, Keon Lyn, is holding his own. The depth chart drops off after that, so it's not like Marrone has much choice but to trust in his guys.

As for linebackers, it's the same deal. That trio of starters (Dan Vaughan, Marquis Spruill, Dyshawn Davis) are learning on the job. An inexperienced senior, a sophomore
and a freshman, it's going to take time for them to really lock down.

7. Sean, USC has not formally named a starting running back, but for all intents and purposes, it's Marc Tyler. In his return from suspension, Tyler rushed for 109 yards against Utah. Syracuse's run defense has been stout. 

With that said, how much attention do you expect the Orange to pay to Tyler, especially considering the damage that Barkley and Robert Woods can cause through the air?

Keeley: I'm guessing the Orange will need to play very close attention because I'm sure USC is paying attention to the fact that DE Chandler Jones is out of the game. Jones is arguably our best defensive player and we've got a patchwork of guys filling in for him, but our line isn't what it could be. I would imagine USC will try to pound Tyler to try and figure out our weaknesses before going for the jugular through the air. If our line isn't up to the task, they might not even have to.

(McKenzie Carlile/Wikimedia Commons)
(McKenzie Carlile/Wikimedia Commons)
8. After playing the FCS-level Rhode Island Rams last week, how must Syracuse adjust to the speed and size of their opponents this upcoming Saturday?

Axe: I'm curious how they will do that myself, especially without Chandler Jones who is far and away the team's best defensive player and an NFL-level talent. I think keeping USC off the field and creating turnovers is their best shot.

Keeley: I'm sure it's night and day. I know this USC team might not be on par with the ones from the National Title years, but it's still a USC team full of elite athletes and blue-chippers. To go from playing Rhode Island and even Wake Forest to this is going to be a serious shock. We're going to learn a lot about many of these inexperienced Orange in this game.

9. Considering that USC's weak point, last season, was their abysmal secondary, do you expect the Orange to test that segment of the Trojan defense early and often?

Axe: I do. The number one reason this team is 2-0 is Ryan Nassib's ability to throw on the run, either by design or in broken plays. Van Chew can fly and is catching everything. Lemon is a solid possession receiver, and keep an eye on Syracuse using more of Dorian Graham, who is the fastest player on the team, for some deep shots.

Keeley: I absolutely expect Syracuse to test the secondary. It's likely their best chance at winning the game. Antwon Bailey and the running backs have been hit-and-miss while Ryan Nassib is about the closest thing we have to a dependable player. We need him firing on all cylinders and we need our receivers to hold on the ball (something that has been an issue). I think we play best when we let things fly so I'm excited to see what happens.

10. Brent, from Syracuse's perspective, what do they have to do in order to defeat the Trojans and improve their record to 3-0?

Axe: Be aggressive. Empty the playbook. Get the offense going early. Use Antwon Bailey in the passing game. Somehow slow down Robert Woods to a manageable game. Have the secondary wake up and play consistent, and the offensive line needs to shake off two bad games.

11. What's your prediction for Saturday's game (please include a score)?

Axe: USC 27 - Syracuse 17

Keeley: It would probably be crazy of me to predict a Syracuse victory, so I won't do that. However, I do think the Orange will play up to the Trojans (as they've been playing down to opponents so far). I expect to see the Orange put some points on the board and keep pace for at least a while. I know a lot of SU fans will be there to watch (a lot by our standards - two or three thousand) and Doug Marrone doesn't like to disappoint.

I'm going with USC 34 - Syracuse 24 and hoping for the reverse. G'Orange!


Reach Aaron by email, or follow him on Twitter at @aaronhartf.

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