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Sunday, December 31, 2006

VEQ returns, querying Brian Grummel of The Fanhouse and CFR about the Trojans. Preview coming up ASAP.

Thank you, Brian, for inviting me to this discussion about the match up in the best bowl tradition in all of college football: the Rose Bowl. Not every word or thought expressed is purely my own as I consulted some USC-savvy friends to get a better answer for some of the questions asked.

Michigan's run defense has been totally dominant except for that one game we won't talk about. Meanwhile, the Trojan running game has been pretty meh in the aftermath of Reggie Bush. Who will get the bulk of the carries and what are their strengths and weaknesses? How do you see the Trojan run game attacking Michigan's defense?

I’m going to deviate slightly and say that C.J. Gable (with Allen Bradford at fullback) should get the bulk of carries on Monday. What will more likely happen is that the perpetually bandaged Chauncey Washington will be USC’s primary back. The coaches are simply most comfortable with him back there because of his bulk, blocking ability and experience. He’s been so-so of late but is healthier than against UCLA and almost by accident will improve his showing. By most accounts he was running well in practice although the flu may have sidelined him for a day.

If Washington’s the choice, USC won’t be “attacking” Michigan’s run defense so much as strenuously trying to get its four yards every first down to set up the rest of the offense. If the coaching staff relaxes from the rigor mortis that was the UCLA experience, we’re likely to see sprinklings of Gable and the shifty Emmanuel Moody (back from a midseason ankle injury) and some Bradford in the passing game.

It seems to me there are two John David Bootys: an accurate nightmare for other teams when given time to throw and a frazzled nightmare for USC fans when forced to move around in the pocket. This may be exagerrated by close viewing of the UCLA game. How has Booty handled pressure in other games this year, and has he gotten much of it?

I think Booty’s been flustered at times. Certainly nothing like the UCLA game, but opponents have occasionally been able to move him around the pocket when his tackles have had bad days. The USC people I consulted were much more optimistic about Booty’s poise, seeing the UCLA game as the only real rough go he had. The USC offensive line has had an up and down year, but that’s relative to how that unit played last year. It’s a fantastic line with serious talent everywhere except right tackle.

Right tackle Kyle Williams had three false starts against UCLA, was run around most of that game, walked out of a Rose Bowl practice, and is scheduled to start. This is a concern, right? What's the situation there, and can USC keep Booty clean? We know Baker's pretty good and Williams pretty iffy, but how's the interior of the line?

Speak of the Devil. It is a concern, although again USC people are a little more relaxed about his ups and downs. He’s a 5th year guy and is unlikely to repeat a career worst performance, or so the thinking goes.

If we step back for a moment from the highly scrutinized UCLA game, and just look at the USC line, it’s really a fine group. Sam Baker is one of the country’s finest left tackles. Ryan Kalil is one of the nation’s best centers. Chilo Rachal has great promise at right guard. Drew Radovich is an elite recruit who has been superb with his pass blocking. Kyle Williams is experienced. They do a good job, but things just haven’t been as smooth this year as the last.

The interior of the line is good. Anytime your center is a great lineman like Kalil things are looking good. Both Rachal and Radovich are first year starters and have been at those spots all year. The real issue with them at this point is consistency.

OSU exploited Michigan's thin secondary with multiple four and five wide receiver sets, forcing Johnny Sears on the field and making backup WLB Chris Graham do things like "cover" Anthony Gonzalez. How is USC's receiver depth? Can they hypothetically replicate that strategy?

USC has great receiver depth. Thing is, USC isn’t doing anything about that depth. Besides Smith and Booty, there is former No. 1 receiver recruit Patrick Turner. He’s a giant with decent speed and a strange sub-10 yards/catch average. Then there’s Chris McFoy who has battled injuries this year and is a reliable veteran target.

And then there’s the pair of burned redshirts with four catches between them: Vidal Hazelton and Travon Patterson. Both players spent the bulk of fall camp putting on a show with Patterson’s zigzagging through the Trojan’s first string defense and Hazelton’s acrobatics and one-handed grabs.

This season we’ve seen none of that. Instead, when USC went to five wide against UCLA, the “receivers” included fullback Thomas Williams and blocking tight end Dale Thompson. UCLA simply laughed that off. The staff doesn’t have faith yet in the kids and thus, you won’t see USC replicate Ohio State’s strategy.

The thing with USC’s offense is that the coaches rarely mimic what other programs do. USC is going to do its thing and nothing on tape is going to change the fundamentals. Thus, no shotgun, very little no huddle, five wide only in desperation, no option, none of that.

Steve Smith evidently thinks he and Jarrett can exploit the Michigan secondary; anyone who saw the Ohio State game agrees. What say you?

Smith has had a great year, so I’m not going to challenge what he feels about the passing matchups. He and Jarrett are a little different from the Ohio State guys in that they’re more physical, a little bigger, and not as fast. They’re professionals and have seen literally everything a defense could throw at them over their careers. They’ll make plays. They did against Texas’ vaunted secondary last year and they’ll do it again if Booty has time to throw.

What would your gameplan be if you were Lane Kiffin?

If I were Lane Kiffin I’d feature a lot of Gable and Bradford in the run offense. Gable’s a little more of a slasher, just something different for Michigan’s defenders to chase around and Bradford is simply one of the best athletes on the USC team who can do some things in the passing offense if given a chance.

USC definitely needs to run the ball to give themselves some breathing room on offense, but if the offense is to have a good day Booty will be the one making most of the plays. Also, I’d challenge Michigan’s linebackers and extra defensive backs to run around a little bit and mix in a lot of slants and crosses. Judging by the press conference quotes this week, USC’s players and coaches view Michigan as a big, physical team and maybe not the most athletic. If true it would be wise to make those defenders play more with their athletic skills than their strength and size.

Nose tackle Sedrick Ellis was a penetrating nightmare against UCLA. Has he maintained that level of performance the whole year? I have visions of him slipping into the backfield on our zone plays with depressing frequency. How are USC's linebackers at picking through the trash and getting to the ball? They were impressive against UCLA. How reliable are they with their assignments?

Ellis was actually knocked out of a few games this year. When he returned it took about two games to really get back into the swing of things. He started the year playing as well as I’ve ever seen him play, which was a carryover from his strong finish at the end of the 2005 season. Michigan might be a good match up for him with its straightforward attack. When he can concentrate on being big strong interior tackle man he’s at his best as he can set his feet and plow into the backfield and then slide towards the quarterback or ball carrier.

USC’s linebackers are fairly good at parsing all the muck up front. Rey Maualuga and Dallas Sartz have taken some heat for their inability to shed blockers, but collectively this group uses its rare combination of size, speed and athleticism to really disrupt things. Pete Carroll trusted Brian Cushing’s ability to engage linemen enough that he spends a fair amount of time at the line of scrimmage as a down lineman. Obviously the guy isn’t a pushover when times call for taking on blockers. Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga are so fast that they really need but an opening to get in there and stop the plays in front of them. There was an adjustment period with the new look defense but everyone’s played really well the last third of the season.

Michigan has an iffy right tackle of its own in the game but limited Rueben Riley, a man who would be playing guard in an ideal world. He's had difficulty with high-level pass rushers like CMU's Dan Bazuin and ND's Victor Abiamiri. Lawrence Jackson would fit into that category, right?

Lawrence Jackson has his moments as a pass rusher, but his real talent is as a combo lineman. There’s never been a time where I’ve looked at an opposing tackle and thought “LJ’s going to simply own this guy today”. He’s a little more sporadic about when he’ll have that big day.

If I can make you worry about him for a moment, I will say he’s played fantastic football the last half of the season. Coach Carroll gave him a book (something about tennis) that helped him change his approach. He’d been trying too hard and had to simply play the game as he knew how. The next week he went out and had three sacks and has teamed will Ellis ever since as this scary, productive, inside-outside combo on the line.

Terrell Thomas apparently intends to play despite dislocating his shoulder in a bowl practice. How healthy is he and how critical is he to the Trojan secondary? Will he match up against Manningham or just stay on the boundary?. You mentioned USC mostly plays zone... which seems dodgy.

Your guess is as good as mine in re Terrell Thomas’ health. The coaches are putting on the brave front that he’s had this injury before and simply deals with it and will once again deal with it. He’s practicing, so I guess he’s fine, but we’ll know more on Monday the first time he goes to make a tackle.

He’s the most consistent corner USC has, but I wouldn’t say he’s critical to the secondary. USC has some depth at corner (Mozique McCurtis, Kevin Thomas) if someone goes down, but ideally Terrell should be out there as he’s reliable. Reliability is what makes the USC defense function in the first place, since it’s built around forcing opponents to abandon the big play and patiently work the ball down the field.

Michigan will be trying to get Mario Manningham open deep against OMG shirtless recruit turned freshman starter Taylor Mays; they'll probably hurl a few downfield even if he's covered. How does a mostly cover-two defense deal with an outside deep threat the caliber of MM?

USC will be licking its chops at the prospect of Michigan challenging its defense deep. There’s always someone (or two) back there to discourage any serial efforts at a deep passing game. The last and only time I remember someone running past the USC defense since Carroll arrived was in 2004 when BYU’s Todd Watkins hauled in a 69-yard touchdown. I’m not saying it’s impossible but that was what, once in 2,000 throws since Pete Carroll arrived?

California learned that lesson earlier this year, trying to hit DeSean Jackson deep. Thomas shadowed him to the edge of his zone, and it appeared Jackson was open. Cal’s quarterback Nate Longshore made a nice throw but Taylor Mays effortlessly swooped over from one corner of his zone to where Jackson had gotten past Thomas to get in front of the ball and make the interception. It was beautiful to watch the handoff between the two defensive backs as Cal was suckered into an easy turnover while challenging the USC two deep.

I don’t doubt that Manningham will shake free from USC’s corners a few times, but its one thing to make an intermediate catch against the defense (happens quite a bit) and another thing altogether to make it a long play and/or touchdown. Patience is a virtue, at least when it comes to throwing against Carroll’s defense.

If you were designing an offensive gameplan with Michigan's personnel, how would you attack the Trojan defense?

Hmm… I’d employ a patient, short game passing attack. I’d throw the ball early and often, taking what’s given by USC’s zones, and start running the ball once inside USC’s 30’s to keep them off balance. It’s not difficult to score on USC’s defense (fundamentally it’s a bend don’t break strategy, after all), the difficulty is scoring repeatedly. I’d try to get an early touchdown or 10 points just passing the ball with extreme discipline. That won’t work forever, so I’d eventually get down to your running game and just hammer away with that. Eventually USC will figure that out, their defense is just so fast and talented, but some well timed reverses, misdirection etc. with one of your speedy young backs might put USC on its heels for a few plays and net another score somewhere.

Finally, USC’s special teams are just short of woeful. I’d spent an inordinate amount of practice time with the coverage and returns teams, forcing USC into a field position game. Whatever Steve Breaston ate the night before you played Texas a few years ago, I’d feed him that again and tell him we need another 200+ yards on returns and maybe even a touchdown. The real back-breaker in the Oregon State loss was that punt return touchdown. USC mounted an epic comeback, but that extra score gave the Beavers just enough points and shook USC’s confidence to ensure the narrowest of victories.

Any motivation concerns?

USC won’t have any motivation concerns. They’re embarrassed and proud and they’re playing a team that despite the subtle trash talk from Steve Smith, they deeply respect. USC has played its best against the big names they’ve seen this year like Arkansas, Notre Dame and Nebraska. As you’ve mentioned, anytime the words Rose Bowl and USC are mentioned, people in the Michigan program perk up. The same thing goes with USC.

And a prediction?

I’m generally a bit pessimistic about USC’s performance this year, but they should find a way to come through here. For whatever reason, Michigan tightens up just a little in games like this, which weighs heavily in my assessment of the outcome. Both teams at their core are defensive powers and will bunker down if it doesn’t look like they have a chance to open things up offensively. For all USC’s foibles this last calendar year, they’ve found ways to win when things aren’t always going right and have the droves of skill talent to get just enough scoring to escape with a victory.

USC 17, Michigan 13? Enjoy the Song Girls.