Monday, January 26, 2009

Is Oregon the new leader of the Pac?

With a reshuffled coaching staff, an exodus of defensive stars, and an NFL bound quarterback, one person already believes that USC has lost its grip on the Pac 10 conference. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports doesn’t make a definite statement, appearing more as “beating around the bush”, but his early 2009 college football rankings show the Ducks positioned higher than the Trojans. The top of his early pick is similar to the final regular season rankings of 2008, with the exception of Southern Cal taking a plunge.

Dennis Dodd’s Early 2009 Top 25

1. Florida
2. Oklahoma
3. Texas
4. Alabama
5. Virginia Tech
6. Oregon
7. Ohio State
8. USC
9. Oklahoma State
10.Georgia Tech

Oregon finished the season strong, capped with a Holiday Bowl victory over Oklahoma State, but I’m still struggling to find reason for Dodd’s catapult above USC. The Ducks also have questions surrounding their coaching staff, with most speculating that Mike Bellotti is preparing to move into the athletic offices, leaving Chip Kelly to hold the reins. The top defensive playmakers, Jarius Byrd and Patrick Chung, have offered their services to the Sunday league, and joining them is their top runner (Jeremiah Johnson), top receiver (Jaison Williams), and two big bodies from the offensive line (Max Unger and Fenuki Tupou). Changes can easily affect both programs, but perhaps he is eyeing the Oregon schedule and change in venue.

Autzen Stadium will host 7 games in 2009. Inside that roaring sound machine, the home team will face Utah, Purdue, Cal, Arizona State, Oregon State, and USC. If they survive the schedule and list of style point opponents, I can see how they would finish in the top 10. They also have a road date with Boise State. But is that change of scenery enough to change the game result against mighty USC? Pete Carroll’s Trojans have lost only twice to Oregon. The first defeat came in 2001, during the miserable beginning of the coach's first year. The second occurred 2 years ago, with Mark Sanchez rushed into the line up for an injured John David Booty, and the banged up Trojans still came close to recording a win. It was Oregon’s second victory against USC in Autzen Stadium, as Carroll’s teams have overcome the noise and crowd ruckus to split 4 games played in this unfriendly pond.

Oregon at No. 6 and USC appearing 8th can only signify a one game difference between the two, which would be the head-to-head meeting in October. Dodd doesn’t say it, but he obviously has the Ducks defeating the Trojans on that day, and for the first time in 7 years, the Pac 10 crowning a new king in December.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Gophers headed to the left coast woodshed

It's only been 3 weeks since USC notched another Rose Bowl victory, and made Penn State another Big 10 victim. The eyes are now set on Columbus Ohio, where the Trojans meet their next Midwestern opponent. Most are aware of the track record against the boys from the fading BCS group, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers didn't hesitate to accept the challenge. Once the contract is finalized, Tim Brewster's Gophers will travel to the Los Angeles Coliseum in 2010. And in agreement to the home-and-home series, Carroll's troops will invade Minnesota in 2016.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Senior Bowl Notes: Carroll eyes the action

Wednesday’s practices had a sideline visitor. In between travels for recruiting, Coach Pete Carroll made an appearance in Mobile Alabama to watch his Trojans work. In an interview with Lindsey Soto, he explained how the current competition against the nation’s best isn’t anything new to Trojan players, because they face fierce battles each day in practice. He took photos with the 5 USC players on the field, watched some drills, and was off to catch a plane to his next recruiting destination.

Patrick Turner has a lot to prove, if he’s going to shed the image of other big receivers from USC that couldn’t/haven’t adapted to the professional game. What scouts will be looking for most is his ability to separate from corners, something Mike Williams couldn’t accomplish, and Dwayne Jarrett is slowly achieving after two seasons in Carolina. Turner’s size allows him to standout on the field, with only Cal Poly’s 6’6 Ramses Barden being a larger receiver.

Clay Matthews continues to steal the spotlight. Working as a stand up 3-4 rusher, he beat Mississippi’s Michael Oher on consecutive plays, powering him back and into the QB on the first series, and then using a spin technique to get around the massive tackle to reach his target.

Rey Maualuga is generating more talk, and was interviewed by scouts representing several NFL franchises. Spectators are wowed by his sideline-to-sideline quickness, and there probably isn’t a harder hitter on the field.

There’s still a debate over who is the better linebacker, between Matthews and Brian Cushing. This is great for Clay Matthews, because Cushing’s stock isn’t falling. The debate alone signifies that Matthews has made a climb in draft status.

Fili Moala and Kyle Moore continue to display reasons for the Trojans possessing the nation’s No. 1 defense. From size to technique, they’ve shown everything a scout could ask for. There’s a sense of anticipation whenever USC defenders line up for drills, as they are clearly this year’s Senior Bowl celebrities.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Senior Bowl Notes: Moala and Moore impressive

Senior Bowl week officially began on Monday. Six student-athletes from USC are participating in this year's version, which is 3 less than the year prior, but still the largest representation of any school. It's the NFL's biggest "job fair", with all 32 franchises present to scout future prospects. 5 defensive Trojans took the field on Tuesday morning, and the highest and lowest grades were not as most would expect.

The best Tuesday performances were turned in by Fili Moala and Kyle Moore. Scouts were impressed with Moala's ability to play anywhere along the defensive front. Starting the 2008 season as a possible first overall pick in the 2009 draft, his stock took a severe dive, with other Trojan defensive teammates becoming household names, with Moala quietly, and with little notice, battling in the trenches. Today, he showed the quickness and speed in pursuit that made him a preseason favorite, perhaps leading to a rise in that fallen stock.

Kyle Moore was equally impressive coming off the edge. Moore repeatedly beat his man to get to his target, and is a hybrid that can be used in the down position or standing. He also possesses a frame that can add more weight to increase his effectiveness as a pass rusher.

The stock of Clay Matthews has been soaring. This former walk-on is looking to position himself in the late first round or early second of the upcoming draft, and didn't ease up in his first professional audition. Matthews was agressive in rushing the passer, taking on tight ends, full backs, and defensive linemen, and winning most of those battles. That's no surprise to the Empire, since it's only a repeat of what he's done all year.

Brian Cushing first impressed Senior Bowl scouts with his physique. Walking in with the body of a professional football player, he then made his presence felt everywhere on the field, highlighted by a jarring hit put on a fellow South squad player.

One of the lowest grades of the day went to Rey Maualuga, with the buzz being that he appeared heavier than his playing weight and a bit out of shape. The initial impression led's Tony Pauline to add him to a list of first day sliders. Maualuga also didn't appear dominant in drills coming off the edge, but he was clearly out of position. He's a middle linebacker who is shot out of the cannon and brings the blitz from the center, but struggled to get to the quarterback or cone from the outside angles.

There's still plenty of auditioning to do before the weekend finale. By the time the game is kicking off, the majority of scouts will have already left Alabama. The practices are more important than the main event, so performing well in drills is the top priority.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Jeremy Bates heading to USC?

The National Football Post is reporting that former Denver Broncos assistant Jeremy Bates is heading to Los Angeles to accept a position on Pete Carroll's staff. Bates operated as the quarterbacks and receivers coach under Mike Shanahan, and was integral to the development of Jay Cutler. With the shuffling in the Trojans' coaching staff, I'm assuming he'll accept the same position at USC, where he would then add to the continuing growth of Mitch Mustain and Aaron Corp, while also developing the incoming Matt Barkley. If this proves to be truth, this is a great hire for USC.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bradford staying pushes Sanchez into NFL

After a tremendous Rose Bowl performance, and a moment to shine in the national spotlight, Mark Sanchez had a difficult decision to make. Does he remain in school for his senior season or dive into the riches of the NFL? As a projected first round selection, one thing would make the choice easier, and that was another decision in Norman Oklahoma by Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. As the news began pouring in that Bradford had chosen to stay in school, the thought of USC losing Mark Sanchez appeared a foregone conclusion. And as quickly as ESPN was informing the sports world of the Oklahoma quarterback's choice, is as quickly as they followed with reports of Sanchez foregoing his senior year to enter the NFL draft.

Scouts have flip-flopped on the placement of Mark Sanchez. Some had him second behind Sam Bradford, while others pegged Georgia's Matthew Stafford as the top choice. With Bradford removed from the equation, Sanchez' decision was obvious. He's now guaranteed a first round selection and could possibly be the first quarterback taken in the 2009 draft. Returning to school couldn't possibly lift his draft stock any higher than it is today, so why not latch on to your NFL dream? Matt Leinart returned to USC after his Heisman winning season, with his NFL stock at its peak, and that stock declined the following year.

Once Sanchez makes his formal announcement, he will become the 5th Trojans quarterback to enter the NFL in the past 7 years, joining Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel, Matt Leinart, and John David Booty. Tailback U? Not anymore.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

3 playmakers returning makes '09 equally bright

Just admit, the thought of numerous player departures from USC was scary. It was even more frightening to look at the defensive side, which had the potential to possibly lose 10 of 11 starters. I'm fully aware that Southern California doesn't "rebuild" but will "reload", as I'm also confident in the talent of those players waiting to fill spots. But nothing replaces gameday experience, and that's where the fear set in. Opening against San Jose State with a depleted roster isn't going to raise the blood pressure. But taking a trip to "The Horshoe" in Columbus, with a revamped coaching staff and an inexperienced defense may bring worry. Though I must say, honestly, I'd still like our chances. But fear quickly subsided, and my mind was more at ease, when this morning a member of the Empire alerted me that the L.A. Daily News was reporting that Taylor Mays has decided to stay in school.

Pete Carroll announced that C.J. Gable and Josh Pinkard would also be attending USC in 2009, allowing 3 major contributors to the Trojans' past success to fight on to continuity and greatness in the future. We're still awaiting an announcement from Mark Sanchez. Let's hope he stays, so we can take this a step farther than we did in 2008.

Fight On!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Coaches vote USC No. 2; AP No. 3

Florida is the unanimous National Champion. Their victory over Oklahoma in the BCS championship game solidified the top spot in the coaches’ poll, and any speculation of a split title ended with the Gators finishing No. 1 in the Associated Press. Texas’ Mack Brown proved to be only a man of words, after announcing from the Fiesta Bowl that he would defy the contractual agreement and vote his Longhorns No. 1. Texas finished third in the coaches poll, behind USC, and received no first place votes. Undefeated Utah had a 4th place finish, with one coach giving the Utes a vote for first.

The Associated Press placed the Trojans third, with one first place vote. That seated them behind Utah (16 votes) and Florida (48). USC occupied the fifth position for several weeks, unable to leap-frog Texas, Alabama, and Oklahoma. They finally make the jump in the final poll, when it no longer matters and there is no prize.

The Pac 10 has 4 teams ending in the coaches’ top 25 (USC, Oregon, Oregon State, Cal), the same as the SEC, and one less than the Big 12, with those conferences hosting 2 more programs than the Pacific 10. Arizona also received votes, giving half the conference recognition among voters. Too little, too late, and it’s time to focus on 2009.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

2009 Trojan recruits will win a National Championship

The recruiting process is far from complete, and rosters remain to be filled. But one man is already making his fearless predictions for incoming classes, and if his vision is correct, a 12th national title for Southern California is on the way. Tom Luginbill is ESPN’s National Recruiting Director for Scouts, Inc, and with only portions of classes assembled, he already has a lot to say.

"Thanks to the recruiting classes landed in 2008 and 2009, USC will win the national championship by 2011. The Pac-10 championship is nearly a foregone conclusion since they play in a down Pac-10. If they don't, either the coaches aren't coaching or the players have dramatically underachieved."

USC is the only Pac 10 team to ever qualify for the BCS championship game, both times needing to finish the regular season undefeated. We’ve learned over the years that a one-loss Trojans team isn’t likely to get in, though they had an opportunity in 2006, before gathering a second loss in the last week of the season. But mostly, the Pac 10 will never overcome the popularity of other BCS conferences that may be hosting programs with an equal amount of losses. So when coupled with his statement of “coaches not coaching” or “players underachieving”, his projection insinuates that the Trojan youth will inevitably complete a perfect season.

Other predictions include Miami winning the ACC in ’09, and Texas quarterback recruit Garrett Gilbert winning the Heisman Trophy.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

NFL, Trojans, and the quest for the Lombardi Trophy

More Trojans have participated in the NFL's Superbowl than any other college program in America. Of the 42 Superbowl’s played, only twice did a Trojan not appear on the roster of either team contending. Last year, the Giants’ Steve Smith was fitted for the championship ring, claiming his first, while denying Junior Seau and the Patriots a perfect season. Seau, Cassel, and the 11-5 Patriots will sit out this postseason, not qualifying for the championship chase, but a plethora of Trojans still remain in the hunt.

The Chargers, Colts, Ravens, and Dolphins have no Trojans on the roster, and the Vikings (though employing Booty, Radovich, and Udeze) have none active in game time participation. But these players and their teams will begin their march towards championship glory:

Arizona Cardinals-G Deuce Lutui, QB Matt Leinart

Philadelphia Eagles-T Winston Justice, DT Mike Patterson

Atlanta Falcons-T Sam Baker

New York Giants-WR Steve Smith, CB Terrell Thomas

Carolina Panthers-WR Dwayne Jarrett, C Ryan Kalil

Pittsburgh Steelers-S Troy Polamalu

Tennessee Titans-RB Lendale White

All players listed played under Pete Carroll, with Troy Polamalu being the only Trojan not to win a national Championship at USC. The playoff list is also fielding 4 of 5 starting offensive linemen from the championships of 2003 and 2004.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Trojans silence critics with 38-24 Rose Bowl paddling of Penn State

Let’s just rename the event and call it “The woodshed” powered by Citi. For the third consecutive year, the Trojans have dragged their Big 10 Rose Bowl opponents behind that Pasadena shed, where they were paddled into submission. A new program, new coaching staff, new theories, and a fresh batch of criticism, yet we have the same results. Though the 38-24 final score may appear respectable and hint of a 4 quarter war on the football field, this was total domination by USC, in a game that was basically over at the half.

All the Penn State offerings that were supposed to make this game different than others were wrong. Daryll Clark was hardly a weapon, same goes for Royster, Norwood, Maybin, and any others you’d like to include. The underdog factor was insignificant, and Joe Paterno’s month of preparation was irrelevant. But of all the criticism, the one furthest from truth, and most likely to make “experts” embarrassed of their own words, was the so called “struggles and inconsistency” of the Southern Cal offense.

After 2 quarters, USC already had 31 points on the board, with Penn State stuck on 7. Mark Sanchez orchestrated a merciless passing attack that made the Nittany Lions secondary appear as one of the softest the Trojans had faced all season. Of the 33 Rose Bowl games played by USC, the 31 points scored represent the most ever by a Southern California team in the first half. Sanchez finished the day with 413 yards, completing 28 of 35 passes. He threw for 4 touchdowns, and added another on the ground. Damian Williams had his way with the Lions secondary, concluding his day with 10 receptions for 162 yards and a score.

The well publicized Trojans defense lived up to the billing in the first half, clamping down and restricting any Penn State movement. After scoring early in the first quarter, the Lions were shutout in the 2nd and third quarters, before accumulating meaningless scores and yards in the fourth, with the Trojans clearly in command and anticipating the final ticks of the clock. Even after the Lions went 80 yards on 10 plays for a 4th quarter touchdown, against a defense that surrenders few scores in the second half of football games, the Trojans quickly answered with a 3 play 85 yard drive that was capped by a 45 yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Ronald Johnson. If the Lions questioned the Trojans ability to resurrect the offense, they shouted an affirmative answer on that drive.

The often scrutinized Pac 10 finishes 5-0 in the postseason, defeating 4 ranked opponents in the 5 games played. If you include Notre Dame’s victory in the Hawaii bowl, 5 of USC’s regular season opponents were triumphant in Bowl games, with Ohio State still waiting to play. The Trojans became the first program to win 3 consecutive Rose Bowls, and Pete Carroll becoming the first coach to do so. The Trojans have now won 9 straight over Big 10 opponents, with all games decided by double digits. The victory also gives USC a 6-1 record in BCS Bowl games, and their 31st bowl victory to tie Alabama for the most all time.