From The Sports Network
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: A new era in USC football begins on Thursday as new head coach Lane Kiffin leads his 14th-ranked Trojans into Honolulu to face the Hawaii Warriors in a non-conference showdown.
Kiffin, who was previously an assistant at USC, has taken over for Pete Carroll who once again has jumped to the NFL and will be handling the action with the Seattle Seahawks this year. The Trojans currently own a streak of 16 straight non-conference wins, yet no matter the score of this game or the rest of the outings on the schedule in 2010, there's no reward for success because the team has been banned from postseason play due to NCAA violations.
Leaving Tennessee unceremoniously after just one year, where he had a mere 7-6 record and was 4-4 in SEC play, Kiffin is back in his old stomping grounds with a USC squad that finished 9-4 a year ago, but was a mere 5-4 in the Pac-10 after being such a dominant force in the league for so many years. The team alternated wins and losses for the last seven games and closed with a 24-13 win over Boston College in the Emerald Bowl, the first non-BCS bowl for the program since 2001.
Meanwhile the host Warriors, a team that is 19-15 in home openers at Aloha Stadium, they are kicking off a campaign against the Trojans for the third time since 1999, even though they are just 15-34 all-time against members of the Pac-10 Conference. Head coach Greg McMackin, who is no stranger to controversy himself, is beginning his third year as the lead man in Honolulu with a squad that put up a 6-7 mark last season. Against fellow members of the Western Athletic Conference, the Warriors posted a 3-5 mark a season ago as they went on to score a mere 22.8 ppg to mark their weakest effort in that department in more than a decade.
As far as the all-time series between these two schools is concerned, USC has taken all six previous encounters by outscoring the Warriors by a combined 297-67 dating back to 1930. The most recent battle took place in 2005 when the Trojans posted a 63-17 blowout, the third straight game in which USC logged at least 61 points, but that victory has since been vacated due to NCAA penalty.
On the watch list for the Maxwell, Manning and Davey O'Brien Awards heading into this season, quarterback Matt Barkley is the centerpiece around which the USC offense has been created. Barkley, who became the first true freshman to start a season opener at quarterback for USC, returns after completing close to 60 percent of his passes for 2,735 yards and 15 scores in 2009.
"The way he's moving around in the pocket and the things that he's seeing, obviously it's not a game situation, but we are very excited about what he's done for us over these 14 practices and what he can do for us in the future," is what coach Kiffin said of Barkley's progression during practices earlier this year.
One of Barkley's main outlets will again be Stanley Havli, a three-year starter who to this point already has made more catches (84) than any other fullback in USC history. Joining Havli in the backfield is tailback Allen Bradford who gained 668 yards and scored eight times for the unit a year ago, not to mention C.J. Gable who has also contributed significant numbers during his career.
Starting half the season a year ago, wideout Ronald Johnson is expected to put up strong numbers in 2010 after reeling in 34 balls for three touchdowns in 2009. Also in the mix out on the wings are Brice Butler and Brandon Carswell, who combined for 25 receptions and a pair of scores after starting just four games.
In 2007, the scoring defense for the Trojans ranked second in the nation with just 16.0 ppg allowed and in 2008 the group was even more dominating as it limited foes to a mere nine points per contest to rank first in the country. But last year the group took a few steps back as they surrendered 19.9 ppg, placing them 22nd in the country, even though they were still first in the Pac-10. Part of the problem was giving up 55 points to Stanford, the most points ever scored against the Trojans, and that came during a stretch when the program was allowing an average of nearly 35 ppg and an unsightly 455.6 ypg.
The unit has lost five of its top 10 tacklers from a year ago, but getting things kicked off on the right foot is junior tackle Jurrell Casey who logged 59 stops, nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Even though the group was inexperienced in 2009, the Trojans have to be happy about getting guys like Malcolm Smith and Chris Galippo, the latter being an All-America selection, back at a couple of linebacker positions. Michael Morgan, who led the team with his 13 TFLs, is also back to patrol the middle of the field for the group.
The weakest part of the defense for the Trojans will be the secondary as the squad replaces all four defensive backs from a year ago, something that doesn't exactly bode well as they kick things off against a pass-happy program like Hawaii. Even though he is inexperienced in terms of game action, cornerback Shareece Wright will be expected to provide some level of leadership seeing as how he is the only senior on scholarship in the defensive backfield.
After ranking just 28th in the nation in passing in 2008 with 251.3 ypg, the Hawaii offense went back to the drawing board to get the attack back on track and it appeared to get the job done in 2009 by ranking third in the country with 337.0 ypg through the air. However, unlike previous years when the team had a high profile gunslinger whipping the ball all around the field, the squad had to turn to Bryant Moniz after Greg Alexander was sidelined with a season-ending injury early on.
Moniz, who completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and 10 picks, stepped into the role rather well given the circumstances. The good news is that the junior will have senior slot receiver Greg Salas to lean on yet again. A First Team All-WAC performer as a junior in '09, Salas ranked fourth in the nation in receiving yards per game with 122.3, so he can clearly shoulder any load that the offense puts on him.
Losing Leon Wright-Jackson at the running back spot will be a tough hurdle to clear, but Alex Green should be able to pick up some of the slack after he gained 453 yards and scored twice as the second-best option a year ago coming out of the backfield. However, having Moniz and Alexander listed as the third- and four-best options, respectively, carrying the ball is not a luxury the offense should have in 2010.
In an effort to breath new life into the offense, coach McMackin has brought Mouse Davis back to the sidelines and is expecting the move to pay big dividends.
"We're very fortunate to get the architect of the run-and-shoot to come back to Hawaii and coach our wide receivers. "He taught the run-and-shoot to me, June (Jones), Ron (Lee), and everyone else in the country who runs this offense. He's been the single, most influential person in the passing game from high school to the professional level, in my opinion."
As poor as the rushing attack was for the team a year ago, ranking 109th in the nation with just 100.5 ypg, the run defense was just as shaky with a monstrous 201.9 ypg allowed and that simply cannot be the case in 2010 if this group is going to advance in a positive direction. The pass defense should be a different story, given how well they performed in the final five games of the '09 season. Mana Silva showed a nose for the ball with his six interceptions and will again be one to watch at the safety position, while Lemetrius Davis and Spencer Smith play close to receivers and make their presence felt.
While the defensive line gets some support from a couple of transfers, the area of most concern for the Warriors is at linebacker where the starters have a combined four games of experience. Redshirt freshman George Daily-Lyles, Paipai Falemalu and Corey Paredes will all be thrown into the fire and expected to produce as soon as possible in order to keep this team from being taken advantage of.
The pressure is on Kiffin to get this group of Trojans off to a fast start, even if the team is heading nowhere once the postseason rolls around. Expect the middle of the defense for the Warriors to be exposed and the visitors to take full advantage of that weak link. The score will not be as outrageous as it has been in recent meetings, but it will still favor USC.