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USC Football Behind Enemy Lines - Q&A With Colorado Writer Jon Woods

Aaron Fischman |
November 3, 2011 | 5:00 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

USC looks for a Friday night victory in Boulder.
USC looks for a Friday night victory in Boulder.
Following an emotional triple-overtime loss at the hands of the Stanford Cardinal, the USC Trojans look to bounce back in a big way, as they head to Boulder, Colorado for a Friday night meeting with the Colorado Buffaloes.

Against Stanford, the Trojans proved that they can compete with one of the nation's very best teams. The contest was so close that if any of a few plays and calls had gone differently, USC would have been victorious.

Although Curtis McNeal's fumble in triple overtime ultimately cost his team the game, the Trojans would not have even made it to triple-OT if not for the 21-year-old running back's two third-quarter touchdown runs.

The team is understandably proud of its effort last Saturday, but the Trojans hope Friday's game does not become one of those infamous trap games.

In looking at USC’s schedule, it just upset the Notre Fighting Irish in South Bend two weeks ago and narrowly lost to the No. 4 Stanford Cardinal last Saturday. Then, next week, the team will host the talented Washington Huskies, who sit at 6-2.

On paper, Friday's game against the struggling Buffaloes (1-8, 0-5) should be easy. The Trojans should not have to put forth much effort.

But things are not always as they seem, and overlooking an opponent can be incredibly costly.

The Buffaloes return two key offensive players, as they prepare to play in front of a large crowd, decked out entirely in black. Weather for the game could consist of sub-40-degree weather with a possibility of rain or snow.

This week, Jon Woods of SB Nation's Ralphie Report has graciously agreed to help us preview Friday’s game.

1. After last week's blowout loss to Arizona State, Colorado coach Jon Embree was very vocal about his frustrations with the Buffaloes, complaining that some of his players are too comfortable with losing. What effect has Embree's words had on the team leading up to Colorado's meeting with USC?

Colorado (Brent Flanders/Creative Commons)
Colorado (Brent Flanders/Creative Commons)
Jon Woods: He has been mentioning this sort of thing throughout the year whether it is comments about the lack of good players on the current CU roster or the overall lack of respect for the program within the team. This is a guy who cut players in the offseason because of these frustrations. Bottom line, words are words and the Buffs don't have the talent on any level to compete with the rest of the Pac-12 especially on the speed side of things. Factoring in that the Buffs have a ton of injuries right now, many are ready to turn the page on this season and hope that Embree can bring in the talent needed to compete.

2. The Buffaloes have allowed 45 points or more in four straight games (and more than 30 points in eight of their nine games this season). The team just went through a murderous four-game stretch (against Stanford, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona State), but there are clearly many deficiencies. What are the three most critical problems plaguing the Buffaloes, defensively?

JW: First of all, Colorado’s best defender in LB Doug Rippy is out with a knee injury. He was the CU's best playmaker on that side of the ball and really, one of the only playmakers. So a big issue is CU is really thin at defenders who just make plays. The whole team is thin at the playmaker position.

Secondly, the linebackers have underperformed especially with Rippy’s injury. Usually a staple of the Buffs defense, they just haven't been that solid. Throw in the fact that the offense has done zero to help this defense play with a lead or play a ton on the opponent's side of the field, it is a recipe for disaster.

Finally, Colorado's secondary has been ravaged by injury and was depleted before the season due to the graduation of NFL draft picks Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown. CU has been starting a true freshman at one corner in Gregory Henderson, and for some of the past few games due to injury and four defensive back suspensions for off the field reasons, have been playing a walk-on wide receiver and a running back at cornerback. The strategy has literally been to throw healthy bodies back there and pray it works.

3. Led by QB Matt Barkley and WR Robert Woods, the Trojans are best known for their abilities through the air, but in recent weeks, RB Curtis McNeal has demanded that opposing defenses respect the running game as well. What’s your indication of how the Buffaloes plan to attack the Trojans' balanced offensive attack?

WR Robert Woods (James Santelli/Neon Tommy)
WR Robert Woods (James Santelli/Neon Tommy)
JW: When you give up 45 points or more in four straight games, I don't think USC is going to have any problem throwing or running the ball Friday night. I expect USC to go to Robert Woods (pictured right) early and often and then McNeal to get a heavy dose shortly thereafter. I don't expect Colorado to just play safe zone defenses to try and slow the passing game, so I would expect a little bit of aggressiveness early to try and get to Barkley but it will end up backfiring.

4. Colorado has also struggled on the other side of the ball, posting just one offensive touchdown in its last two games combined. With the team's top receiver and leading rusher (Paul Richardson and Rodney Stewart, respectively) returning from injury, how critical are these guys to the Buffaloes' success?

JW: Very critical. In fact, I would say they are the only two playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. Since the record breaking Cal performance, Richardson has been a little inconsistent and then missed games due to injury. Getting him back definitely gives Tyler Hansen his best pass-catching receiver back, as well as a guy who can go 80 yards for a touchdown on a five-yard route. Stewart hasn’t had the great rushing year that he had last year but has been great out of the backfield on screen plays. Both are upgrades (big in Richardson's case) over anyone at their respective positions.

5. On an individual level, senior quarterback Tyler Hansen started the season fairly strong, tallying 11 touchdowns to go with just two interceptions. Hansen has not been as impressive as of late and to add insult to injury (rather, injury to insult), the California native suffered a concussion against Oregon a couple of weeks ago. How can he turn things around?  

QB Tyler Hansen (John Martinez Pavliga/Creative Commons)
QB Tyler Hansen (John Martinez Pavliga/Creative Commons)
JW: Getting Richardson and Stewart back is a start. Losing those two players were big losses for this offense. Where this offense can get better as a whole is starting quicker. Colorado falls behind early in almost every game with quick three-and-outs, putting the defense in vulnerable positions. If Colorado behind Hansen (pictured left) can get some first downs and points early in the game, maybe this team can stick with a few opponents down the stretch.

6. How often do you expect to see freshman quarterback Nick Hirschman under center on Friday night? What are your early impressions of the freshman signal caller?   

JW: I don't expect him to play much. He is young and obviously inexperienced. He looked a little shaky last week against ASU, which prompted Embree to put in Hansen.

7. As you mentioned in your Tuesday morning post on The Ralphie Report, Friday night's Boulder weather is expected to be below 40 degrees with chances of rain and snow. What kind of an impact could the weather have on the game? 

JW: A wet sloppy field does nothing but help the Buffs in my mind. Hopefully it will slow down Woods and Barkley and keep the Buffs in the game for the first half. I don’t think Colorado is any more prepared to play in the cold weather than USC is, but I think weather can certainly level the playing field to a point.

8. Colorado comes into the game with a 1-8 record and has lost seven straight games to ranked opponents. What are the keys to beating the 21st-ranked USC Trojans in Friday's nationally televised affair?

JW: 1. Winning the turnover battle.

2. Starting fast and getting some momentum early. If Colorado can score a few points and get the crowd going, CU has a chance to keep the game interesting.

3. CU is one of the most penalized teams in the country. Limiting mental mistakes is a must.

9. What is your prediction?

JW: USC 45, Colorado 13

___________________________

Thanks again to Jon Woods. Follow Ralphie Report on Twitter.

Reach Aaron by email, or follow him on Twitter.

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