ED: Don't miss GN's interview with a USC Song Girl. Click here.
Remember when this game was announced about a year and a half / two years ago? Pete Carroll was still the king of Los Angeles. Tim Brewster was, well, here. You had no idea who Sean Henderson was (and if you did, he probably hit you up for an interview). Lane Kiffin was irritating every SEC coach, Pahokee office administrator, and Gamecock recruit he could find. MarQueis Gray was still a QB, and none of you had been inside TCF Bank Stadium yet.
It seems the only things remaining the same between then and now is that there will be a USC mascot with a sword in the stadium, and the Song Girls will be on the visitors' sideline (and some of you scorn tradition).
Obviously, things have changed not only from when the game was scheduled (Reggie Bush, Jedd Fisch, Adam Horton, Seantrel Henderson), but also since the season started. We know how the Gophers have fared. USC had a sieve for an defense against Hawai'i, allowing 588 total yards (while gaining 524 themselves) in a 49-36 victory on the road/boat. The Trojans subsequently tightened up the ship while losing grips on their offense, gaining 329 yards (while giving up 340) in a 17-14 victory over the similarly-motifed Virginia Cavaliers. It must be noted that the Cavs scored their last TD with :04 remaining in the fourth quarter, and USC had 13 penalties, which removed a TD from the board and thwarted other dangerous attacks. Regardless, Lane Kiffin hasn't yet melded an explosive offense, a potentially sound defense, and crisp, clean football.
That makes Saturday's game ultimately terrifying. We all know on this e-blog how the Gophers completely melted down against South Dakota (giving up 444 total yards against USD, on 7.5 yards per play). What makes tomorrow such a difficult prospect to gauge is that while the Trojans seemed to improve defensively against a conventional offense (after failing so spectacularly on defense against the wide-open Rainbows), the Gophers horribly regressed during the time when teams are supposed to improve the most, between their first and second games. As Buck detailed yesterday, the supposed talent levels of the two teams are incredibly wide. So, what matchups should Gopher fans point to that can swing the game tomorrow? Onwards folks:
(1) That mammoth Gopher offensive line v. USC's pretty darn good defensive line - The Gophers have been racking up impressive rushing totals behind the work of Coach Davis and the big lugs up front (it's worth noting that for as good as Minny's been so far, they only have 30 more rushing yards than Denard Robinson after 2 games). However, they've made those numbers against MTSU and USD's severely under-sized and non-guru approved defensive fronts. The challenge comes tomorrow - USC's starting D-linemen run 295-305-305-260, with backups in the two-deep that are similarly sized. And as Buck showed you, they're all guru-approved goliaths. Minnesota won't be able to push these guys around as easily as they did the first two opponents, and if they can't run the ball, the game-plan might be out the window.
That might not be the key to the game, however, because even if the Gophers control the ball for 45 minutes tomorrow, it still means this matchup will have 15 minutes to play out:
(2) QB Matt Barkley v. the Gophers' Secondary - Sid Hartman and other local media will try to make you believe that the return of safety Kyle Theret will make a significant difference as to Saturday's game. Notice the word "try." While I think Theret will have a positive impact on OTHER games on the schedule (namely, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois), the Gophers could bring in Ed Reed for one game against USC and I'm not sure how much it would matter, given what else comprises the Gopher secondary.
Gopher CBs Collado and Carter were pushed around, picked on, beaten deep, and blocked into the end zone by the Coyotes last week. We all know the story on Collado by now and I have no interest in re-plowing ground - seeing Carter abused last week, however, was thoroughly shocking. Also, true freshman safety James Manuel bickered on the field with teammates and was abused all day long. Barkley is an efficient, confident 5-star recruit who is effective in the short to medium-passing game, knows how to pass on the roll-out, and has tons of weapons at his disposal. Against Hawai'i - 18 for 23 with 5 TD passes. Against Virginia, he went 20 for 35 for 202 yards and 1 TD. He spreads the ball out between his considerable stable of running backs (Tyler, Bradford and freshman phenom Dillon Baxter), wideouts (Ausberry, Johnson, Woods) and TE Jordan Cameron (boy-band potential?). The defensive backfield is in for a tough afternoon, and that's without even mentioning FB Stanley Havili out of the backfield.
(3) USC RB Orenthal Simpson v. ...... - Oh wait, that was the last time the Trojans played the Gophers. The Trojans do bring a talented stable of running backs to Minneapolis, however - Tyler, Bradford, Havili and Baxter are all top-level players, and the Gopher linebackers will do well to keep them below a combined 150 rushing yards.
(4) Special teams? Yeah, let's have a look - Gophers are 2/5 on field goals, and 8/8 on extra points. USC is 1/2 on field goals, and 5/5 on extra points (they had a weird run on 2-point attempts versus Hawai'i). Punting? Meh. USC ranks 53rd, Minnesota ranks (um) 115th, with a net of 29 yards per kick. As for returns, the Gophers are always solid in the kick return game, but I would say 2 games of statistics do not provide us with any meaningful trends for these teams.
(5) Random celebrities v. TCF - I think TCF's gonna win this one. While last year's Cal game brought Adam Duritz round here to the "Bank," who knows if Will Ferrell or Snoop Dogg will make the trip? If they do, pics will be here Monday morning.
What's the weather gonna be like? Partly cloudy, a high around 60. Maybe sprinkles in the morning. Maybe USC won't be ready for Big Ten weather!!
So, what do we think? The tendency of football fans is to think, well, situation "A" happened last week, and that stunk, and OMG situation "B" of death is waiting on the horizon so this week is gonna be worse. Those fans might be right on occasion (see: some Michigan fans after App. State but before Oregon), but I don't think they will be this week.
The ultimate key for the Trojans is to eliminate their mistakes. 13 penalties will leave them in a close game again tomorrow. The ultimate key for the Gophers? They undoubtedly worked hard this week to eliminate the bad tackling and coverage play that burned them so badly last week on defense. USC knows this. Minnesota has to beware of the possibility that USC counters Minnesota's counters in scheme (meaning, for example, Minnesota overplays slant passes and sends players on fake slant routes turned into go routes). USC has the bodies to attack Minnesota anywhere on the field in the best of times. While I think the Gophers will put up a significantly better effort than last week, I don't think this game will be much different than the 2009 Cal game. The Trojans will establish their dominance, the Gophers will fight back, and then USC will pull away in the fourth quarter for a solid 14-point victory.
Southern California 35 - Minnesota 21.