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USC Football Weekly Roundtable: Five Questions For The Cal Game

Scott Enyeart, Mike Piellucci, Omar Shamout |
September 21, 2012 | 12:28 p.m. PDT

Sports Staff

USC will look to close the book on the Stanford loss this weekend. (Jerry Ting/NT)
USC will look to close the book on the Stanford loss this weekend. (Jerry Ting/NT)
Show of hands, who saw last weekend coming?

Yeah, neither did us here at the USC Weekly Roundtable.

Accordingly, this week’s edition starts with a reflection on the loss that changed the course of the Trojans’ season. What did we learn from the Stanford game? How concerned should we be? Does USC get back on track against California, or is there genuine concern that the Trojans go 0-for-2 against their Bay Area brethren?

Let’s dive in.

1. So about last week... typical USC goof-up, or was it a sign that this team might not be as good as we thought?

Scott Enyeart (@ScottEnyeart): Maybe a little of both. USC has been historically bad in conference road openers, but this game seemed to be influenced more by injuries than the Trojans being surprised, like in years past. However, the lack of creativity offensively and an inability to get anything going in the running game would indicate that maybe this team isn't as elite as previously thought. 

Mike Piellucci (@mikelikessports): More the former than the latter. It did, however, demonstrate just how naïve the school of thought was that these sanctions ultimately benefitted USC; even if there is some marginal benefit to making the recruiting class more selective, it nowhere near makes up for how little quality depth is available on the two-deep. In some spots, such as the offensive line and cornerback, there isn’t even a reliable first-string. We knew this before the season, but the implication is clearer than ever now: USC can’t afford to sustain any more serious injuries. If they do, things could go off the rails in a hurry.

Omar Shamout (@omarshamout): It was a combination of bad luck with the Khaled Holmes injury, along with some poor execution and game planning on offense. The offensive line needs to improve if this team expects to be a Rose Bowl contender, let alone be in the hunt for a national championship. The O-line was obviously terrible against Stanford, but it wasn't exactly great against Hawaii, and it struggled in the first half against Syracuse. Coach Lane Kiffin will definitely want the unit to improve on its 121 rushing yards per game average, which includes the 26 total against Stanford and only 71 against Hawaii. And then there are the sacks allowed ...

How much longer will Walker (70) be protecting Barkley's blind side? (Jerry Ting/NT)
How much longer will Walker (70) be protecting Barkley's blind side? (Jerry Ting/NT)
2. Lane Kiffin said that Aundrey Walker's left tackle job is now open. Is that an overreaction, the right call, or too small of a change?

Enyeart: Well, personally, I felt there were more glaring issues on the offensive line -- particularly at center. Kiffin talked this week about needing more effort out of the LT position, and called out Aundrey publicly. There's a difference between an inability to get a job done vs. not putting forth the effort required to do so. If Walker truly did lack the effort to execute, then re-opening the competition at the position with Max Tuerk is the right thing to do. 

Piellucci: The question that still hasn’t been fully answered, as Scott said, is whether Walker just played badly or whether he didn’t put forth a full game’s effort. If it’s the former, then USC’s best option for stability at the position – as frustrating as it may be – is to stay the course and endure Rozay’s growing pains, because inserting a true freshman into the lineup would create its own set of problems. If it’s the latter, then I doubt this is genuine competition so much as an attempt to light a fire under Walker. He’d never say it, but Kiffin wants Walker to be the LT; he proved as much when he never truly opened the job up in preseason despite Walker missing a large chunk of fall camp and Tuerk looking impressive. It’ll take more than one bad game for a change to be made.

Shamout: It's absolutely the right call. With the goals this team has set for itself, performances like the one Walker put in are not acceptable. Max Tuerk should definitely have the opportunity to compete for playing time. Why else would you give him a precious scholarship if you didn't think he could contribute to a team that's going to have depth issues no matter what? The only qualm I have is that Kiffin voiced this type of information to the media. Calling out a young man like that in public might motivate him, but it could also crush him. It's a tough call, so let's hope Kiffin isn't just doing this to take the blame off of his own mistakes.

3. What do you make of USC's new spot in the AP poll (No. 13)? Too high, too low, or just right?

Enyeart: Probably right where they should be. Most importantly, the voters got it right in terms of vaulting Stanford ahead of the Trojans. Too often we see a team remain behind a school it just beat, and the poll avoided that in this case. USC is in a good position to climb back into the national picture as things in front of them play out, assuming it can get back its winning ways. 

Piellucci: I'd say that’s where they should be, give or take a spot. There’s more than enough time and quality opponents left for USC to move back up provided they take care of business, because plenty of teams ahead of them will stumble at one point or another.

Shamout: It's about right. Stanford was a little underrated in the last poll, and the game was competitive until the final drive. It was also USC's second straight road game, and a few top 10 schools haven't even left campus yet. With the Holmes injury taken into account, there's no reason USC should have dropped below the top 15.

4. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being high, 1 being low), how concerned are you about this Cal team? Has that number changed after USC's loss and Cal's competitive game at Ohio State?

Jeff Tedford and his Golden Bears nearly upset Ohio State. (bipolarbear/Creative Commons)
Jeff Tedford and his Golden Bears nearly upset Ohio State. (bipolarbear/Creative Commons)
Enyeart: 5. -- USC seemed to still be feeling the sting of the Stanford loss this week, and I'm not sure it'll be completely over it by Saturday's showdown with Cal. Also, Cal seemed to find some success in the running game against OSU, and that has to give the Golden Bears a little confidence after seeing how well Stanford was able to run on the Trojans.

Piellucci: 2 -- And here's why: over the past six seasons, USC is 5-1 in the game following its first loss of the season, with an average margin of victory of 17.3 points. We just saw a USC team that we thought was different from what we’ve seen over the past half-dozen years do exactly what those teams did, so I’m expecting them to remain true to form. And that’s before going into the specifics such as Jeff Tedford’s long descent into mediocrity, Cal’s abysmal pass defense, my personal belief that Cal used up their big-game mojo last week in the Horseshoe, and Zach Maynard being good for a couple dumb turnovers over the course of the game.

Shamout: 5 -- Whereas Stanford's biggest strength played against USC's biggest weakness, it's the opposite for Cal. The Golden Bears' secondary is terrible, so the arsenal of receivers at Matt Barkley's disposal should be able to roam free. But Cal's defensive linemen and linebackers have shown an ability to penetrate into the backfield with 24 tackles for loss already this season, so if the USC O-line struggles again, that could be an issue. I would put the concern level at a 5, especially since Cal's confidence should be bolstered by the fact it played so well at Ohio State last week. No one should ever be taken too lightly.

5. Are you expecting Lane and Monte Kiffin to make any tactical adjustments for this weekend, or will they focus more on better execution with the elements we've seen so far?

Enyeart: I don't think Monte and the defense need to change much. They held Stanford to 21 points, and probably could have been more dominant had they not had to be on the field so much. Now, as far as Lane goes, I don't know what he will do. I gave up a long time ago on trying to figure him out. All jokes aside, whatever he does, I think there's a consensus that the offense needs to get the running game going. Whether or not that happens against Cal, we'll have to wait and see. 

Piellucci: On the defensive side, I’m not expecting much nor should there be; USC’s issues on that side of the ball had far more to do with exhaustion and poor execution than anything strategic. As for the offense, I know what I’d like to see – namely, more of the creative deployment sets that Lane used last season to maneuver Robert Woods all over the field instead of using him and Marqise Lee in the same relatively static positions on the outside. That, along with a return to the rollout and bootleg plays that Barkley executed so well last year. Will those happen? Depends on the line and the running game; if either one can’t execute their assignments, there’s only so much coaching one can do to compensate.

Shamout: If the offensive line struggles early, I would want to see Barkley operate more out of the shotgun and look for quick completions that allow Woods, Lee et al to rack up their yards-after-catch numbers. It will be interesting to observe whether or not Kiffin shies away from the run knowing it's been a weakness and Cal's pass defense is suspect, or if he tries to establish it early in order to build confidence among the offensive line and backs. On the defensive side, the unit's energy level in the fourth quarter was a big concern last week, as scholarship reductions have severely impacted the team's depth and forced the starters to log big minutes. If the game is tight, Monte might want to rotate players sooner so the starters are fresher in the fourth.



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