There might not be a bigger point of emphasis for the USC Trojans this week than shoring up the offensive line.
With four of five starters returning along the line this year, there was a lot of thought that the unit would be one of the best in the country, even if the one player who didn't return was Matt Kalil, the No. 4 pick in the 2012 NFL draft. Against Stanford, however, the Trojans found out how much another loss could hurt when center Khaled Holmes was forced to miss the game after suffering an injury the previous week against Syracuse.
With Holmes out of the lineup, the Trojans turned to redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi, a player with a bright future who had seen limited reps in early-season action. As it turned out, the matchup was a tough one for Hobbi. The Cardinal played aggressive defense with a solid group that came into the game ranked among the nation's leaders against the run. The constant defensive pressure helped lead to several missed assignments on the line. USC head coach Lane Kiffin said it was the most missed assignments for a line he had ever seen.
"We're moving on," USC offensive line coach James Cregg said. "We covered our mistakes in meetings after the game and we know what went wrong. As far as Cyrus is concerned, it was a first game experience in a tough environment. We expect him to be better next time."
This is not to lay the blame solely on Hobbi. Yes, he was overwhelmed, but that was a daunting challenge for any player against that particular 3-4 defensive scheme. Hobbi's teammates, including Holmes, have been quick to come to his defense. It's unclear at this point if Holmes will be returning for the upcoming game against Cal, so it's possible that Hobbi will be in the lineup again. The Trojans also might turn to fifth-year senior Abe Markowitz.
Markowitz is a former walk-on who earned a scholarship by being a valuable reserve at both center and guard. He was inactive last week during practice, according to Kiffin, but was available to play in the game. The decision was made to go with Hobbi against Stanford, but if Markowitz hears his number called on Saturday, he will be ready.
"I just want to get on the field," Markowitz said. "It's been a dream of mine since I've been here to get out there and start. I'm healthy and ready for my opportunity if it happens.
"I've been playing guard for a while, so I'm staying after practice this week to work on some snaps. Playing center is a lot more fun than guard, you just get to beat people up."
Cregg is also confident that Markowitz will be ready if called upon.
"Abe has a lot of experience in our system," Cregg said. "He's a stout guy with good leg strength, a solid run blocker."
There also will be an open competition this week in practice for the starting left tackle spot between incumbent Aundrey Walker and true freshman Max Tuerk. Walker was named the left tackle in spring ball after an abbreviated competition with Kevin Graf, but he found out last Saturday that replacing Kalil is not an easy task. Walker struggled, and Kiffin wasted no time in making it clear he wasn't pleased with the effort and was putting the job up for grabs.
For his part, Walker is saying all the right things about getting the message and responding the right way.
"There's nothing else to it but working hard this week and getting better," Walker said. "Just watch on Saturday night. That's all I have to say: Watch on Saturday night."
The Trojans line is sure to be tested by another physical defensive line that might not be as powerful as Stanford's but is one that can present some problems nonetheless. The Bears also mix in different fronts as they look to create space for their linebackers. How the USC offensive line will be able to regroup and respond to this challenge will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the game.