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September 29, 2007

X&O Preview of U-Dub

So this is the weekend that this reporter looks at with a sufficient amount of dread every season: the first conference road game.

In every season under Pete Carroll, this game has been a cause for concern. Whether it was an OT loss to WSU, an egg laid at 2-3 Cal, trailing a horrible Stanford team for three quarters, trying to set a penalty record in the first half against Oregon, or hanging on for dear life at the end of the WSU game, the trend is clear.

This week's opponent isn't exactly rushing into the game with a head of steam though. The Huskies, after starting 2-0, have come back down to earth a little. Still, they are a competent team, and Husky Stadium is a dangerous venue that shakes with sound when the locals get riled up. Can USC finally break the curse of the slow starts?

We'll find out this Saturday.

Washington Offense vs. USC Defense

The Huskies went back to the drawing board this year to tailor a new offense for their young and talented QB Jake Locker. It's a combination of West Virginia's successful shotgun read option offense and the West Coast offense principles that Tyrone Willingham has brought to every team that he has coached. They are a multiple formation team that spends a lot of time in the shotgun.

In a development that is more West Virginia than Florida or Oregon, they will use two back sets with a traditional fullback in the shotgun. They will use a tight end, but they are most often a three wide team. Against UCLA, they mixed more plays under center in, but in my opinion, it only hampered their offense. They are a lot tougher to deal with when Locker is in the shotgun.

There's a reason for that. Locker is the team's most viable weapon. He's a big kid with great speed for his size. People compare him to Tebow, but I see Tebow more as a bull than Locker is. Locker's biggest asset is his speed. He can make second level defenders miss and he has the acceleration to run right past them. He has run for more yards than starting tailback Louis Rankin with less carries, and some of those carries include sacks. As a young guy though, Locker is still working out the kinks of reading the end to see whether he crashes the fake or not.

At times, Locker makes the decision to hand off or keep before the snap, and you can't run the offense like that. Still, the Trojans will have to stay disciplined. I think if given the choice, you want Locker to hand the ball off, as opposed to a team like Oregon, where you would prefer that Dennis Dixon keeps the ball rather than giving it to Jonathan Stewart.

When the Huskies are under center, they will run the regular plays, stressing the outside with sweeps and outside zone stretches. Rankin gets all the carries. Fans before the season were clamoring for sophomore JR Hasty, but an ankle injury slowed him, and now he is buried on the depth chart.

The passing game has experienced the kind of growing pains that you would expect from a starting a redshirt freshman at QB. The scheme is centered around quick passing with slants, curls, outs, etc. There isn't a lot of attempted field stretching. The Huskies were able to get some big plays in the passing game against UCLA though because of some busted assignments, so the Trojans have to stay awake on that front.

Locker has struggles with accuracy so far this season. He has the tendency that many young players have: he at times gets a little too juiced and overthrows players. Since so much of the offense operates in the middle of the field, that has been a problem. Locker has thrown six INTs in four games. Only Oregon State's Sean Canfield has thrown more.

Anthony Russo is the team's go to possession receiver, and Marcel Reece is a big guy who has made a lot of big plays for the Huskies this season. Neither of these guys is the type of player who scares you, but both are more than competent and have a knack for getting open. Corey Williams is the thrid receiver, but he doesn't get the ball thrown his way that much. Robert Lewis is a deceptive threat at tight end, and with SC's style of defense, they are susceptible to being hit over the middle by the TE.

One other thing to notice is that teams have figured out Washington by the half. After scoring three TDs in third quarter against Syracuse, the Huskies have not scored any points in the third quarter in three consecutive games. In their last two game, Washington has been outscored 64-28 in the second half. There is a concern that since the Huskies are not deep, that they are hurting from a conditioning aspect.

Washington Defense vs. USC Offense

The Husky defense plays the same base scheme as WSU does, but they play in a completely different way. They are not afraid to bring linebackers to the line of scrimmage. The strong safety generally stays back, although in the Ohio State game, the SS cheated up a little on downs where Washington strongly suspected that the Buckeyes would run the ball. On the other hand, Washington uses a lot of three man lines on obvious passing down, and they mix up between three man rushes, zone blitzes, and five or six man rushes.

They are tough to get a handle on at times because they mix it up so much. They are far more likely to blitz than Washington State was. I'm not sure that they trust their secondary any more than the Cougs do, but they feel that predictability will get them hammered.

Unpredictability hasn't helped them much in the past two contests when they have faced talented offensive lines. They have given up almost 600 rushing yards in the last two weeks. Their inability to stop the run even when they know it is coming has been a huge disadvantage. UCLA lost Pat Cowan at the end of the third quarter, and the game was still up for grabs. Despite the fact that the Bruins had to go with walk-on McLeod Bethel-Thompson, the Bruins ran at will, and Bethel-Thompson did not attempt a single pass. Only Stanford is worse against the run. USC will obviously attack here.

Linebacker EJ Savannah has been the team's leading tackler, and he had a nice game against UCLA. Dan Howell is the guy that you'll see on the strong side right on top of the tight end, and he is a good player. The Huskies have also received some good pass rush from ends Greyson Gunheim and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. Still, seven of the team's ten sacks came against Syracuse, so they aren't exactly lighting the world on fire in that regard. It will be hard for them to get much pressure on John David Booty.

Their corners will play off as WSU's did. Redshirt freshman Matt Mosley and true freshman Vonzell McDowell are not the kind of guys that you leave alone, and teams often just stay away from Roy Lewis because of the inexperience of the other guys. Byron Davenport, a former UCLA signee, could be in the starting line-up at CB this week. The Huskies have played decent pass defense so far this season, but they have given up some big plays.

Two things to watch for: Washington used an alignment last season against SC where they brought both outside linebackers up on the line. It basically ends up looking like a 6-1. We will likely see it again this year. Second, Washington's defense has not played well in the second half at all, and appears to be work down late.

Final Analysis

Last year's game was a very bizarre game. An onside kick at the outset of the second half meant that the Huskies had two more possessions than SC. The Trojans actually scored on four consecutive drives to start the game, but the reason that the game was close was because SC struggled in the red zone, scoring only two TDs in six trips. I really don't think Washington will be able to stop SC between the 20s because they can't stop the run and have not rushed the passer in the past three weeks, so red zone offense is the key in this game. SC has been awesome in the red zone this season, scoring 18 TDs in 23 trips.

The Huskies are really going to have to sell out to stop the run, and they know too much about SC's skill position players to try that. So I expect the Trojans to go with the running game early in this game, just as they did on the road in Lincoln. Expect the short passing game with Stanley Havili and Fred Davis to continue to be stressed, with a lot of play action and rolls the other way. If the Trojans execute as they have in the first three games, they will have their way with the Husky defense.

The concern, just as it was last week, is offense. Locker is not the passer or decision maker that Alex Brink, but he can hurt you with his legs, and the Trojans did a poor job defending the limited read option stuff that UW did last season. The way that the Trojan defense defends the run will determine whether this a tight game or not. If Washington can succeed on the ground, they can keep their young QB from putting the ball up for grabs as he has done in recent weeks, and they can do the best the can to keep the ball away from Booty and the potent SC offense.

Will the Trojan team that has reared its ugly head in many a Pac-10 road contest rear its ugly head again? Sure. Four turnovers and a punt return TD sunk the team in Corvallis last year. 23 penalties combined in the Oregon and ASU games of 2005 to limit offensive production in the first half. Hot QBs who got into a rhythm with short passing have challenged SC before.

I have a good feeling about this game though. Washington's defense has been inept the last two weeks, even making UCLA look good offensively. A running quarterback is always dangerous, but not as dangerous as one who can complete 60% of his passes, and Locker is not that kind of passer yet.

Mistakes on SC's side are the only things that can keep this game close. Eventually, this team will have a game where a few mistakes will give a team life. But this isn't it. The Huskies do not have the overall team explosiveness to make the plays necessary on offense, and the front seven just isn't good enough. Add the fact that the Trojans have outscored UW 94-47 in their last two trips to Seattle, and I think this smells like another blowout, which will spurred by mistakes from the young Jake Locker.

Trojans-52, Huskies-21

Questions, comments, or info? Contact me at tvenegas@comcast.net


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