USC: Arizona Wildcats
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillOpponents rolled up an average of 500 yards on Monte Kiffin's defense in USC's five losses this season.
They certainly didn’t work out this season, when defensive breakdowns were the primary reason USC probably is headed for the Sun Bowl when virtually everyone expected them to be vying for a BCS title shot or, if things sputtered, the Rose Bowl.
When the Trojans were playing the spread offenses that are so typical in college football now, things didn’t really work out the previous two seasons for Monte Kiffin defenses either. Sadly, the primary snapshot of Kiffin’s tenure at USC will be a Trojan defender flailing on an open-field tackle.
If you’re a conscientious father seeing your son get pummeled on a daily basis by fans and the media, Thursday’s action was really the only decent move. Monte Kiffin, 72, said he’s stepping aside to “pursue opportunities in the NFL,” but had he not done what he did it was only a matter of time before his son, Lane, also was in pursuit of other "opportunities."
If you root for this team, you’re probably not overly saddened by this development either.
In USC’s five losses this season, opponents gained an average of more than 500 yards. For a team that has fattened the NFL with some of its brightest defensive talent over the decades, that’s embarrassing. Veteran USC observers had never seen a team run up and down the field on USC as Oregon did while running up 62 points at the Coliseum a few weeks ago.
But you also have to pause for a moment and recognize something uncomfortable. USC isn't going to get back to the glory of the Pete Carroll years as swiftly as so many people had hoped. When Mike Garrett hired Lane Kiffin two-and-a-half years ago, fans were probably more excited about the assistants he brought with him than about Lane’s return after a short and uninspiring adventure.
Monte Kiffin carried an aura as the founder -- or, at least, co-founder (along with Tony Dungy) -- of the “Tampa 2” defense that finally started slowing down those nickel-and-dime-to-death offenses that Bill Walsh dreamed up. Kiffin was also Carroll’s mentor, and you don’t have to say much more than that to get people excited around USC.
He's as respected within the profession as any coach in America. He was fun to be around after practices, the way he talked relentlessly about how good the opposing coaches were, how dangerous the opponent was (even when it was Minnesota or Washington State) and said things like, "Gosh darn it! I'm serious now."
Of course, what springs to mind is that, at his age, Kiffin just couldn’t make the necessary changes the job demanded. Twenty-six years in the NFL didn’t prepare him for an Oregon.
Who knows who the next face of the USC defense will be. Does Ed Orgeron deserve to step into the No. 1 chair? Is Gene Chizik the answer? Randy Shannon?
The point is, it was time to bring in a fresh set of eyes, a fresh look at the problem. Considering USC has the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation coming in next season, I’m still not convinced the Kiffin era at USC is over just yet.
We can say for sure that the Kiffin era of USC defense is over, and that's not entirely encouraging.
The Trojans, coming off a blowout home win over Colorado, will face Oregon in a highly anticipated game next week.
Here are 10 things to watch against Arizona:
1. Arizona's explosive offense. Regardless of his quick exit from Michigan and the fallout thereafter, Rich Rodriguez is clearly an elite offensive mind. And his spread schemes have caught on quickly in Tucson. Rodriguez's Arizona team is gaining yards at a prolific pace -- 549 per game, fifth-best in the the nation. His quarterback, the athletic Matt Scott, redshirted last season as a senior under Mike Stoops, a rare move for a player of his caliber. But, man, how lucky has Rodriguez been to have such an experienced, talented quarterback in his arsenal in his first season at a new school? Scott has been the centerpiece of the offense, and everything else has flowed from there. He helps the Wildcats run roughly 85 plays per game, tiring out opposing defenses and forcing teams to make tough substitution decisions.
2. Nice kickoff time. USC coach Lane Kiffin has said it before -- 12:30 is his favorite kickoff time, especially on the road. It allows his players to get home at a reasonable hour so the next day's meetings don't feel like a continuation of gameday. Sure, it'll be hotter in Tucson than it would've been with a night kickoff, but there's another added advantage to the early start: Arizona's rowdy (and close-to-the-field) student section, known as the ZonaZoo, may be too warm to get as loud as they do for night games. Considering USC's well-documented struggles with crowd noise on the road this year, that might be big.
3. Barkley's opportunity. It hasn't come totally out of the blue -- there is certainly a precedent for returning quarterbacks' stock to drop a bit -- but Matt Barkley's 2012 season has not been the overwhelming success some expected. He's had good games against Hawaii, Utah and Colorado, but he hasn't played exceptionally against a good opponent yet. Will last Saturday's record-setting day set the tone for a string of good performances from the senior signal-caller? Perhaps. And it's not like the Wildcats' D is going to shut the Trojans out or anything. It's just a matter of truly exploding. Anything less than 275 or so yards and three touchdowns will be a disappointment in this game, and he really could go for a lot more.
4. Protecting him. Of course, a large reason why Barkley hasn't played exceptionally is because of his line. It's hard to throw deep when you can't sit in the pocket for more than three seconds at a time. With Max Tuerk likely to start at left tackle, maybe there will be significant improvement. But Kiffin and Co. have learned how to make use of other ways to give Barkley time to throw, so this isn't as big a problem as it was a month ago.
5. Defensive rotations. This, on the other hand, might be a real problem. Kiffin has never been one to make extensive use of his second- and third-stringers -- he'll tell you he only really trusts his starting 22 -- so the Trojans' backups often don't get as much on-field time as others across the country. That's started to change a bit last year and more this year, as the USC staff realized it needed to develop depth, but it's still not a strong point. Kiffin's idea to rotate defensive guys in last week against Colorado, mimicking what defending Arizona's offense will require, might end up looking like a genius move by early Saturday evening.
6. Underrated running back. Quick -- who do you think has gained more yards for scrimmage this season, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey or USC's Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal, combined? The answer is, surprisingly, the former. Carey, the talented sophomore, is already approaching 1,000 yards on the ground this year for the Wildcats and has also been a legitimate receiving threat . He's gained 1,064 rushing and receiving yards, whereas the Trojans' McNeal and Redd have totaled 957. Obviously that's a product of the opportunities he's been given in Arizona's fast-paced offense, but that might not be as big a reason as you think: Carey's still gaining a respectable 5.4 yards per carry and a very respectable 10.1 yards per catch.
7. Memories of 2009. Remember the moment when Pete Carroll's final season at USC officially went off the rails? It came against this team, in the last game of the regular season. The Trojans came in reeling at 8-3 and ranked No. 18 in the country and produced a pitiful 282-yard offensive output. Barkley was quoted as saying the team's energy level was off from kickoff. "I don't know why we're putting ourselves in bad situations," he said then. Not that anyone's expecting it to, but that obviously can't happen Saturday.
8. Close games since '07. Here's an interesting fact: Every one of the last five games between these two teams has been decided by seven points or less. Arizona won that 2009 game by four, the Trojans won by seven last year, by three in 2010 and then by seven in 2007 and 2008. Does that necessarily mean that USC won't blow Arizona out? No. What the squads did against each other four and five years ago doesn't mean much to this year's teams. But don't be surprised if you see another close game.
9. Oregon. OK, so this isn't exactly about tomorrow's game -- but it's sort of gotten to the point of the college football season that resembles September in the major leagues, in that teams are starting to scoreboard watch. Scoreboard watching could get pretty brutal at Arizona Stadium on Saturday. Oregon kicks off against Colorado 30 minutes before the Trojans and Wildcats, and the Ducks could easily be up by three or four touchdowns in that time. As long as USC tops Arizona, next week's game will be one of the most talked-about matchups of the year.
10. A prediction. Much like recent history would suggest, this game should be close. USC's offense won't have a ton of trouble putting up points, but the defense could struggle with adjusting to Arizona's attack. There's only so much preparation you can get done against Colorado and your own scout team. Monte Kiffin has proven adept at making defensive adjustments, though, so improvement's not out of the question. And going through some adversity against the spread this week will probably end up helping USC against Oregon. So, the Wildcats could take an early lead, but expect the Trojans to surpass them later in the game -- maybe with a good third quarter, finally -- and win by a small margin. USC 38, Arizona 35.
The Wildcats' blowout wins over Oklahoma State and Washington would seem to indicate so, and even their close losses to top-25 teams Oregon State and Stanford would support that assertion.
But then there's the big, fat, undeniable blemish on their resume so far: that 49-0 road loss to Oregon last month. Good teams don't lose by almost 50 points to other teams, no matter where and when the game takes place.
USC coach Lane Kiffin, who has repeatedly referred to the Wildcats as a good team this week leading up to the Trojans' game against them Saturday, tried to rationalize that Oregon loss after Thursday's practice.
"If you look at the turnover margin, how lopsided it was, it was just one of those games where things just started going ... things just started going that direction," Kiffin said.
"Then they went for it a couple times down there, figuring they needed to score touchdowns instead of getting field goals."
Oregon won the turnover margin, 5-3. The Ducks also scored two of their touchdowns on interception returns and led just 13-0 at halftime. The Wildcats also went 0-for-4 on fourth-down conversion attempts, which helped Oregon run up the score even more.
But still: 49-0?
"Look, that's not the first time that's happened to good teams in Eugene at night," Kiffin said, defending his position. "There's a reason why, outside of us, they haven't lost at home for a couple years.
"There's a reason for that."
Indeed, the Ducks have won their last 27 straight games at home, not counting last November's USC upset victory. So, the reason is not that Arizona is an average or below-average team, according to Kiffin. It's simply that Oregon is just that good.
In other words: Yes, Kiffin thinks that 49-0 outcome should be totally disregarded in evaluating the Trojans' next opponent.
1. USC defense vs. Arizona spread offense: On paper, this will be the toughest offensive opponent the Trojans have faced this year. The Wildcats have taken quickly to new head coach Rich Rodriguez’s hurry-up spread offense and the results have been impressive, with almost 550 total yards of offense per game. It will be up to the Trojans' swarming and attacking defense to pressure the quarterback and look for turnovers or stops.
2. Arizona QB Matt Scott vs. USC cornerbacks: To break down the previous point even further, the key battle within the battle will be Scott throwing the ball against a USC cornerback position that has been in flux. Nickell Robey has been solid on one side, but there has been a rotation opposite him, with either Torin Harris or Josh Shaw appearing to be the primary options. The Trojans will probably need both against the quick pace of the Wildcats offense.
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1. Continued success in red zone: The Trojans rank No. 2 in the Pac-12 in red zone offense and defense, a trend that needs to continue against Arizona. There’s little doubt both teams are going to gain some yardage in this game, so the big key will be limiting the number of opponent drives that end in touchdowns and converting when you have your opportunities.
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For one, Barkley was brilliant and Scott was just very good. Barkley completed 19 of 20 passes for 298 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions against Colorado. It was the most efficient performance in the country this year and the most efficient in the history of the Pac-12. And, oh by the way, he now has 102 career TD passes, a Pac-12 record.
Russ Isabella/US PresswireSenior QB Matt Barkley has the Trojans sitting at 6-1 (4-1 Pac-12) entering Week 9.
Yet it surely felt familiar. USC is always big news, even when it's not winning championships. And Barkley is the most famous college quarterback in the country, even if he's not going to win the Heisman Trophy.
Scott? His outstanding numbers and notably quick adoption of new coach Rich Rodriguez's offense resonates only regionally, if at all. At least that's the case today.
That might change. These two seniors meet for the first time Saturday in Tucson, with Barkley, a four-year starter, trying to lead the Trojans back into the national title picture, which obviously means not overlooking Scott and the Wildcats because of the Nov. 3 date with Oregon.
Check that. These two did meet before, and let's hope this one is as fun as the first time: Oct. 4, 2007.
That's when Barkley, a junior at top-ranked Mater Dei in Santa Anna, Calif., and already highly celebrated, met Scott, a senior at No. 2 Centennial High of Corona, first clashed in front of roughly 10,000 fans in the Santa Ana Bowl.
AP Photo/Wily LowSenior QB Matt Scott and the Wildcats are 4-3 (1-3 Pac-12) entering Week 9.
"The fans definitely got their money's worth," Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson told reporters after the game. "That was some show."
Scott passed for 176 yards and rushed for 178. Barkley was 21 of 31 for 364 yards and two touchdowns. The Centennial defense, by the way, featured Vontaze Burfict, Brandon Magee, Shelly Lyons and Will Sutton, who all signed with Arizona State. In a joint interview in 2011, the Pac-12 blog once asked Burfict, Magee and Lyons about this game, and they all became just a bit grumpy. It's fairly well-known that Barkley and Burfict are not exactly close.
Barkley was a five-star prospect in 2008, the nation's highest-rated quarterback. He signed with USC, which at that point was on a dynastic run atop the then-Pac-10, with a 6-1 record in BCS bowl games over the previous seven years and two national titles.
So, what does Rodriguez think of Barkley?
"He's obviously been one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the Pac-12," he said. "He's likely to be the first pick in the NFL draft. We're facing one of the all-time greats and also a tremendous leader."
Scott, a year ahead of Barkley, was a three-star prospect who picked Arizona over California, Boise State and Utah. The Wildcats went 5-7 in 2007, their ninth consecutive non-winning season. He beat out Nick Foles for the starting job in 2009, but then lost out to Foles three games into the season. When Foles was hurt in 2010, he came off the bench and played well, but he opted to redshirt in 2011 so he could finally inherit the keys to the offense as a fifth-year senior.
When asked about Scott, USC coach Lane Kiffin's first word is, "Wow."
"I think he's a phenomenal player," he said. "I didn't realize he is as fast as he is -- accurate, arm strength. He's playing great, doing an unbelievable job with the system."
So there's plenty of mutual admiration for both QBs.
Scott said he and Barkley know each other from football camps and recruiting and get along well. But, yes, it would be meaningful to best Barkley on Saturday.
"Yeah, they are the No. 9-ranked team, so it's going to mean a lot more," Scott said. "It's a big stage, a great quarterback is coming in here. It would mean a lot to outplay him."
If Take 2 is anything like Take 1 in 2007, this one figures to be pretty interesting.
548.7: Average yards per game compiled by the Arizona offense, No. 5 in the nation
Rich Rodriguez’s spread-option offense has been a hit this season in Tucson, putting up huge numbers week in and week out. Quarterback Matt Scott has already thrown for more than 2,300 yards and 17 touchdowns in seven games, while running back Ka’Deem Carey averages 120.3 yards rushing per game.
AP Photo/Don RyanKa'Deem Carey will be looking to find the end zone early and often against USC on Saturday.
464.7: Average yards per game allowed by the Arizona defense allows, No. 104 in the nation
In direct contrast to the stellar output of the offense, the Wildcats’ defense has struggled, ranking near the bottom of the Pac-12 in just about every major defensive statistical category. Lacking a consistent pass rush, it's ranked 111th nationally against the pass (291.1 yards allowed per game).
4.3: Average number of points Arizona has scored in the first quarter of games in 2012
It’s safe to say that the Wildcats have a knack for getting off to slow starts. The Wildcats have accumulated a total of just 30 first-quarter points through seven games, and they were shut out in the first 15 minutes of regulation in each of the team’s three losses.
3: Times that Arizona has eclipsed the 50-point mark in just seven games this season
Not surprisingly, the Wildcats are a perfect 3-0 in those matchups, and the last time an Arizona team went over the 50-point plateau three times in one season was in 1954.
1-3: Arizona’s record against nationally ranked opponents
The Wildcats are battle-tested to say the least, having already faced four ranked opponents. And while Arizona’s 59-38 win over Oklahoma State stands as the team’s only victory in those matchups, with the exception of the Oregon game, the Wildcats were only a play or two away from coming out on top in those other contests.
The Mountaineers have been lit up to the tune of 40 points per game this season, making them the sixth-worst scoring defense in the NCAA. (They gave up 26.7 points per game under Casteel last year.) In 2012, West Virginia has the worst pass defense in the country, with opponents gaining nearly 15 yards per completion and more than 10 yards every attempt.
Casteel's new unit with the Wildcats hasn't exactly been elite, either. Arizona's pass defense is 10th-worst in the country in terms of yards per game, and 37th-worst (83 out of 120) in terms of overall scoring defense.
But it's definitely different than any other defense the USC Trojans are going to face this season. Arizona's 3-3-5 alignment -- commonly known as an odd stack or multiple spread defense, with three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs -- is known for three big things:
- 1. It enables teams to more easily use smaller, faster players across their defense than a normal 3-4 or 4-3 would require.
- 2. It a defense easier for players to understand, relatively speaking, because they're typically assigned a single gap on a given play and told to attack that gap.
- 3. It can be difficult for opposing offensive linemen to understand pre-snap who they're going to have to block on a particular play.
Generally speaking, the 3-3-5 relies on big plays more than it does stopping teams straight away. It also generally works better against a spread than against a pro-style offense. And, as with any incorporation of any new scheme at any level, it takes time to stick.
USC coach Lane Kiffin said this week that the sticking process has been evident in recent weeks.
Date: Saturday, October 27
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireDual-threat QB Matt Scott leads a potent Arizona offense.
Location: Wildcat Stadium (Tucson, Ariz.)
TV: ABC or ESPN2
Radio: ESPNLA 710 (pre-game show begins at 7 a.m. PT)
Scouting Arizona: Arizona, under new coach Rich Rodriguez, snapped a three-game losing streak (all to ranked teams) with a convincing 52-17 win against Washington on Saturday.
The Wildcats sport a potent offense that is fifth nationally in total offense (548.7 yards per game, first in Pac-12) and passing offense (352.3 ypg, first in Pac-12) and 20th in scoring offense (39.1, second in Pac-12). Senior QB Matt Scott (200 of 311, 64.3 percent, 2,355 yards, 17 TD, eight INT in 2012, plus 65 carries, 265 yards, 4.1 avg, three TD) is fourth nationally in total offense (374.3, first in Pac-12). Sophomore RB Ka’Deem Carey (155 carries, 842 yards, 5.4 avg, 11 TD, plus 22 receptions, 222 yards, 10.1 avg, one TD) is 14th nationally in rushing (120.3, fourth in Pac-12), 16th in all-purpose running (154.3, third in Pac-12) and tied for 18th in scoring (10.3, second in Pac-12). Sophomore WR Austin Hill (44 receptions, 678 yards, 15.4 avg, seven TD in 2012), who is 14th nationally in receiving yards (96.9, fourth in Pac-12) and senior Dan Buckner (44 rec, 599 yds, 13.6 avg, 2 TD in 2012) are the top pass catchers.
On the other hand, UA’s defense is in the bottom 20 nationally in total defense (464.7 yards per game, 11th in Pac-12). Junior MLB Jake Fischer (67 tackles, 4.5 for loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries) is the Pac-12’s top tackler (9.6), while sophomore safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant (43 tackles, 10.5 for loss, one INT, 4 deflections, 1 forced fumble) and sophomore CB Jonathan McKnight (29 tackles, three INT, 3 deflections) lead the secondary. -- courtesy USC sports information
The major midseason stories are a little different.
USC and Oregon could still be an epic clash, just not as epic because USC already has lost. Also, Barkley's middling numbers for an offense that hasn't been consistently in sync have diminished the national perception of the Trojans. The Ducks are now the Pac-12 team at the center of the national discussion.
As for the four new coaches, three have gotten off to great-to-solid starts in year one. But how will they finish? And will Mike Leach get Washington State on track?
Will Arizona State maintain its fast start, or are the Sun Devils headed for a tough dose of reality as the schedule firms up, starting with Oregon on Thursday?
Speaking of fast starts: Oregon State. The Beavers have surged, and coach Mike Riley has moved from the hot seat to the throne of a national-coach-of-the-year candidate. Oregon and Oregon State are the only two unbeaten teams in the conference, so it's not inconceivable that the Civil War could be for the North Division crown, a spot in the Pac-12 title game and, perhaps, a chance to play for the national title.
It could become the season's true epic clash.
As for hot-seat talk, as distasteful as it is, nearly all of such focus will be on California coach Jeff Tedford. The Bears have won two in a row after a 1-4 start, but it remains in the air whether this team can be consistent enough to earn a bowl berth. A losing record wouldn't be good for Tedford.
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireTaylor Kelly (10) and Arizona State could make a loud statement with Oregon coming to town.
Ultimately, midseason reviews don't mean much. Teams and players can reverse course -- positively or negatively -- at any moment.
But what it is fair to say is there are plenty of rich plot lines heading into the season's second half, even if those were not the stories that advanced the season.
Bold prediction: The conference will fill all seven of its bowl obligations, plus one. Oregon is already in; Oregon State, Arizona State, USC and UCLA are all one win from being bowl-eligible. If you follow the Sunday zaniness that is our weekly bowl projections, you know your bloggers project Oregon to the national championship, which opens up one more spot. We see Stanford and Washington bowling. That's seven right there. The eighth spot is up for grabs, with Arizona and Cal the likely candidates. Cal could get to .500 this week, then would need two more wins with Utah, Washington, Oregon and Oregon State remaining. If Arizona takes care of Colorado and Utah in the second half, that leaves it looking for one more win over from among Washington, USC, UCLA and Arizona State.
Looking forward to: The race in the Pac-12 South. Once thought to be gift-wrapped for the Trojans, the recent inconsistent play of USC opens up the possibility of someone else as the South's representative in the title game. The Trojans are still the favorite, but Arizona State and UCLA aren't going to make it easy. Both of UCLA's losses have come to North Division teams, USC's loss was to Stanford and ASU's was out of conference. It's more wide-open than we ever could have imagined in August.
Top five games (by date, not importance):
Oct. 18, Oregon at Arizona State: Time to find out if the Sun Devils are for real. They have the conference's No. 1 scoring defense facing Oregon's top-ranked scoring offense. The Sun Devils rank second in scoring. Both teams are getting phenomenal quarterback play and both like to work fast.
Oct. 27, UCLA at Arizona State: This is a pivotal game in the aforementioned race for the South Division title. It features two explosive offenses and two of the league's brightest young quarterbacks. Some pretty good players from both defenses as well.
Nov. 3, Oregon at USC: This is still the big one. An Oregon win gives the Ducks some much-needed national credibility, while a USC victory puts the Trojans back in the BCS championship hunt. Might be a last-gasp Heisman run for Thomas and/or Barkley.
Nov. 17, USC at UCLA: A new chapter in this historic rivalry begins with Jim Mora at the helm for the Bruins. He has made them a player in the Pac-12 South, and lest we forget, coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense put up 43 points on USC last year when he was with ASU. This one could decide the South champion.
Nov. 24, Oregon at Oregon State: The stakes could be stratospheric -- as in national championship implications for both schools. If the Ducks take care of business Nov. 3 and Oregon State can navigate a second-half schedule that includes Stanford and ASU, then all of Oregon will show up for what could conceivably be the Pac-12 game of the year.