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USC Football: Minnesota Game Preview and Difference Makers

Michael Katz |
September 2, 2011 | 11:53 a.m. PDT

Staff Writer

USC hopes to start 2011 with a solid victory. (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
USC hopes to start 2011 with a solid victory. (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)

The Trojans are a force to be reckoned with on offense. Led by junior quarterback Matt Barkley, the Men of Troy look to build on last season's offensive success. The passing attack looks to be the guiding force for an offense that averaged 432 yards per game in 2010 (26th in the nations), although they will try to strike a balance with the running game. Leading the wide receivers is Robert Woods, who led the Trojans with almost 800 yards receiving last year.

At tailback will be a combination of D.J. Morgan, Curtis McNeal, Dillon Baxter and Marc Tyler (upon his return from suspension). A strong running game is something that the Trojans need; ball control wins games. Against Minnesota, look for the Trojans to try and establish their identity on offense and strike a balanced attack. They will want to get the running game going in order to keep the ball out of the hands of Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray (more on him later). However, head coach Lane Kiffin loves to air it out, so Barkley will certainly get his chances.

The question for USC in 2011 is the defense, which surrendered over 26 points per game last season, their worst total in years. However, under the tutelage of second-year defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the Trojans hope to improve upon last year's statistics.

Returning to the defense are DE Devon Kennard, S T.J. McDonald, and CB Nickell Robey, among several others. Look for the defense to try to contain Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray, who is a converted wide receiver and is very elusive with the ball in his hands. Containing him is the key to containing the Gophers. He has the potential to be an electric player.

(A Syn/Wikimedia Commons)
(A Syn/Wikimedia Commons)

The Gophers' offense is led by Gray, who is a dual-threat quarterback. Joining him is star receiver Da'Jon McKnight, who will be the primary target for Gray. Minnesota averaged only 23 points per game last season, and will look to Gray to pump some life in the offense. He is a great athlete, so there is always the potential for him to have a big game.

However, outside of the two aforementioned players, there are not a lot of home run threats on this team. A major hole for the Gophers is their running game outside of Gray: their leading rushers from last year left the team in the offseason. To compensate, unexperienced ball carriers will have to carry the load. To beat USC, though, they will need the ball to be in their hands; otherwise, Barkley will go wild against a suspect defense.

The Gophers' defense allowed 33 points per game last year, and this year’s unit does not appear to be a whole lot better than last season's edition. Coach Jerry Kill, entering his first season as coach, looks to improve the defense and get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Minnesota's defense totaled only eight sacks in all of 2010, the worst in Division I FBS. If Minnesota's front seven doesn't get pressure on Barkley, it could be a long day for the Gophers.

Difference Makers

(Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
(Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
USC - Robert Woods - In his third collegiate game, Woods (pictured right) returned a kickoff for a touchdown but only had 33 receiving yards. If Woods can make an impact in both departments this year, USC should have no problem moving the ball against the Gophers. A 100-yard receiving game is not out of the question, and if he gets started early, Barkley could look to go to him quite often. His speed makes him very dangerous in the open field, and he is the type of player the Trojans want to get in open spaces. Look for Woods to be a big part of the offense.

Minnesota - MarQueis Gray - As described earlier, Gray is the key to the Gophers' offensive attack. If he is able to run and pass with success, the Trojans might have some trouble getting Minnesota's offense off the field; the Trojans' defense is still a question mark, and if Gray can impact the game early, Minnesota could make some noise. USC tended to struggle against quarterbacks with good running ability last season (especially Oregon's Darron Thomas and Stanford's Andrew Luck). The Trojans hope to end that trend this season.

Prediction: USC 35, Minnesota 14

The Gophers simply do not have enough firepower to keep up with USC. Barkley and the rest of the offense are hungry, as is the defense, and will likely end up overwhelming Minnesota. Minnesota certainly has the potential to cause problems, but in the end, too many things would have to go wrong for the Trojans to lose their opener.

Reach Michael by email, or follow him on Twitter at @MichaelLKatz.

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