The USC Trojans football team will take the first step toward handling its “unfinished business” when it hosts the Hawaii Warriors at home this Saturday to open the 2012 season.
The Trojans, who went 10-2 last season, are 40.5 point favorites over Hawaii, in the school’s first year in the Mountain West Conference. USC has scored at least 49 points in the last five meetings between the teams, including a 49-36 victory in 2010, in Lane Kiffin’s first game as the Trojans’ head coach.
This time, it’s Hawaii debuting a new coach, but he’s a familiar face around Los Angeles. Norm Chow, the Warriors’ head coach, was the offensive coordinator at USC from 2001-2004 under Pete Carroll, when Kiffin was also an assistant. He served in the same capacity at UCLA from 2008-2010.
Chow is the first Asian American head coach at a major Division I college football program, and Hawaii is his first head-coaching job. He recently joked that his wife is concerned about him tripping on the sidelines because as a career coordinator, he’s always been in the press box.
In addition to a new coach and a new conference, the Warriors have a number of new faces on the field. The defensive line has only one returning starter, and Sean Schroeder, a transfer from Duke, took over at quarterback after three-year starter Bryant Moniz graduated.
Schroeder graduated from Duke but did not play. He’s coming into a quarterback-friendly offense and has a talented receiver in Billy Ray Stutzmann, but he still has to throw into the Trojans’ tenacious secondary. Cornerback Nickell Robey, who got his first college start as a true freshman the last time these teams met, is even more dangerous now, and hard-hitting senior T.J. McDonald will start at safety.
The Trojans don’t have as much experience on the defensive line, the unit Kiffin is most concerned about heading into the season. While Hawaii isn’t typically a run-first team, Chow’s offense will open up more opportunities for tailbacks like redshirt sophomore Joey Iosefa and senior Sterling Jackson.
Running the ball will also keep the ball away from USC’s offensive playmakers, which Hawaii will need to do. The Warriors have two juniors returning in the secondary – John Hardy-Tuliau at safety and Mike Edwards at corner, but they’ll have tough assignments covering USC stars Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
Then again, the Warriors won’t exactly have an easy time stopping the Trojans’ 1,000 yard rushers Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd either. The Hawaii defensive line only returns one starter, senior defensive end Paipai Falemalu, and the team has to replace two linebackers who were All-WAC players in 2011.
On the bright side, last year’s team-leading tackler, linebacker Art Laurel, returns to anchor the defense. He had 14.5 tackles for loss and 9 sacks in 2011, and he’ll test the USC O-line, which features inexperienced players of its own, most notably at left tackle.
USC still has the edge; after all, three really good starting linebackers are better than one, and USC returns three sophomores who had standout seasons last year.
Dion Bailey was an All Pac-12 pick, and he and Hayes Pullard tied for most tackles in 2011. There’s some concern about the middle linebacker spot since Lamar Dawson missed nearly all of preseason camp with a torn calf muscle. Dawson said Wednesday he’ll be ready to go against Hawaii, and he’s atop the depth chart in the position, but Kiffin hasn’t confirmed (or denied) Dawson’s availability.
If Dawson can’t play, Pullard will move to middle linebacker and Anthony Sarao will fill in on the weak side. Even with Dawson healthy, expect to see some rotation at linebacker. Kiffin said this week he planned to sub frequently when possible so the second-teamers would get more game experience.
The best case scenario for USC – in fact, the expected scenario – is for the Trojans to come out firing and give the team a big enough lead that the backups will get on the field. For that to happen, the Trojans’ defense will have to be more solid than it was the 2010 game, when it surrendered two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
The defense has continued to improve during Kiffin’s tenure, and even its possible trouble spots should be strong enough to hold up against Hawaii, particularly if the USC offense plays up to its potential.
USC’s biggest foe this weekend might be itself, as the team gets back into game mode in front of a packed house on national television.
“If anything, we need to make sure we’re composed,” Kiffin said. “We’ll have plenty of energy.”