USC: Vince Young

5 things to watch: Minnesota vs. USC

September, 2, 2011
9/02/11
10:07
AM PT
1. The running back battle: It's unusual, but it just might work. It appears the Trojans are purposely refraining from naming a starter at running back to motivate the three competitors for the position and confuse Minnesota, too. But who's going to get the most carries? At this point, the most astute guess would probably be D.J. Morgan, the redshirt freshman ex-track star. He's the hottest hand of late, running harder than ever and running with good vision. Outside of that, it's hard to predict -- but we do know now that freshman standout Amir Carlisle will likely sit out and thus won't be a part of the race.

2. Step one for the defense: How does that phrase go? The first step is always the hardest? Well, this is step one for the Trojans' defense in attempting to reverse their fortunes from a horrible 2010 season. They've been better in camp this fall, but they've only been tackling themselves. Tackling somebody else is a whole new challenge. It starts on the defensive line, where the fearsome fivesome of Devon Kennard, Wes Horton, Christian Tupou, DaJohn Harris and Nick Perry have the opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the unit, with George Uko helping out too. The linebackers and defensive backs have clear strengths and clear weaknesses, so it'll be interesting to take note of how and what Minnesota chooses to attack.

3. Can the offensive line hold up? In terms of interest, this thing to watch doesn't rank all that high. But in terms of importance, it might deserve to be No. 1. A weak guard tandem of Jeremy Galten and John Martinez could end up the Trojans' downfall this season -- not necessarily on Saturday but at some point in the near future. Quarterback Matt Barkley will never even sniff a Heisman campaign this year if his inexperienced line doesn't at least give him a couple seconds to deliver the ball. Luckily, he has one of the best left tackles in college football in Matt Kalil and one of the smartest players in the nation in Khaled Holmes at center.

4. Willie Mack Garza's absence: Remember how Lane Kiffin had "NO DISTRACTIONS" painted in white just outside Howard Jones Field to remind his players to focus during practice? Maybe he should've done it upstairs in Heritage Hall, too -- because the Thursday resignation of Garza, USC's secondary coach, serves as one sizable distraction heading into kickoff. There will be questions asked about it afterward, but the immediate effects will be on the field, obviously, where Garza's young unit will face its first test without their position coach. (Sammy Knight will probably take over temporarily and potentially long-term). One good part about it: If there was one game this year to be without a secondary coach, this might be the one , because Minnesota's simply not going to throw the ball very much.

5. Stopping MarQueis Gray: USC hasn't been very good against running quarterbacks in the past, and this guy Gray is a legitimate 1,000-rushing-yard candidate as a signal-caller, a rare caliber of athlete for the position. Kiffin compared him to Vince Young earlier this week, and it makes some sense, although Gray has much, much less quarterbacking experience than Young did when the Trojans saw him. This'll be his first collegiate start at quarterback. On the field, it's important that USC's young outside linebackers and extra defensive backs don't overcommit to Gray when he fakes to take off running, because there are plenty of examples of Gophers coach Jerry Kill's last quarterback, Northern Illinois' Chandler Harnish, doing that and then pulling back to deliver an on-target pass.

First look: Minnesota at USC

August, 30, 2011
8/30/11
5:14
PM PT
When USC coach Lane Kiffin was asked who from his coaching past most resembled Gophers' receiver-turned-quarterback MarQueis Gray, Kiffin thought back to New Year's Day 2006.

Former Texas signal-caller/scrambler Vince Young tormented the Trojans in the Rose Bowl that day, to the tune of a 467-yard game.

"I watched one run up and down the field [against] us and cost us our third straight national championship last time we were here, in Vince Young," Kiffin said. "A smooth athlete like this that could really run and make people miss, and even when we were there he was so hard to bring down.

"That was a nightmare for us back then. Preparation for Saturday has been similar to that."

Gray has very little experience at quarterback and even less experience in Gophers' coach Jerry Kill's system, so he's not really a Young clone. Rather, he was a receiver the last two years under former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster, where he hurt USC with 98 yards and a touchdown through the air.

"It’s very scary for us," Kiffin said. "Here’s a guy that people had a hard time handling when he was getting the ball six or seven times a game and now he’s touching the ball on every snap. We’ve got our hands full. This is a big-time challenge for our defense."

Now, the 6-4, 240-pound Gray will lead Kill's fast-tempo, quarterback-friendly offense to Los Angeles and attempt to do what many other running quarterbacks have done to the Trojans over the years.

Monte Kiffin's defense, regardless of how different and simplified this year's version is, isn't meant to stop quick quarterbacks who run the ball. But that's exactly what Gray will be doing this Saturday, especially since his No. 2 receiver will be a new player, juco transfer Malcolm Moulton.

“This is not just a mobile quarterback but a big, physical one," Kiffin said. "They say he’s 240 pounds. We’re going to have our hands full, especially because they know what they’re doing with him.”

For evidence, take a look at Northern Illinois' senior quarterback, Chandler Harnish. Last year, as a junior in his third year in Kill's system, Harnish ran the ball 137 times and accumulated 836 yards. Taking out sacks on pass plays, Harnish gained more than 900 yards on the ground alone, a large amount compared to the 2,530 yards he earned through the air.

Gray's ratio might be even more run-favored Saturday.

Another note on the Gophers, who we looked at in detail here: Kill has his entire starting lineup already made up for Saturday's opener, save for one spot, center, where the presumptive starter has been hurt the past two weeks. USC's depth chart, released Sunday, had 11 of 22 positions still undecided -- half the team.

That almost flips the notion that Minnesota will still be figuring things out under Kill. The Gophers will be incorporating a new coach, sure, but they also have all their assignments already set up and figured out.

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PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler413292350536
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
J. Allen25013375.39
J. Davis1255504.44
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N. Agholor97122312.611
J. Smith5165812.95
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Offense158.2294.6452.8
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